Dear Partners in thought,
I was hesitant to comment on “The President is Missing” from James Patterson and Bill Clinton as I did not want to stray from my core initiative, not to say mission. However I thought that when a former American President and a leading thriller writer band together, there might be a message or two to be found, especially in our troubled times. The book is clearly a novel but the subject matter, the co-authorship and even the title led me to do a review of sorts, especially at the start of the summer in Prague when a dose of lightness (of being and this time very bearable) is always nice, whatever the prevailing times.
JP and Bill are both displayed as fully-fledged authors on the same cover type font (and unsurprisingly not this time with JP before his “co-author”). I will admit that, yes, I have liked JP’s books ever since “Jack and Jill”, especially those written in the late nineties-early noughts. And even if Anne-Sophie (my very educated and wise wife) takes JP’s books as not real literature as three page chapters in big print don’t pass the test, I always liked JP’s knack for good stories, including his choice of characters, like the famed Alex Cross, even if I tend to agree that he has found a peculiar way to bring the old industrial revolution to penmanship through the use of an ever larger team of writing partners, potentially dampening something on the way. What decided me was the title – “The President is Missing” – that could be taken literally (and indeed one should, while I will respect the plot’s fine prints for better beach times) – but that could also be a tongue in cheek one, probably never admitted (or admissible, though that sounds so much Mueller investigation-like) as it could be argued that the actual President is indeed missing, this in more ways than one. Or maybe is he too much around these days and we would like him to be missing? (but always in good health, in sunny Florida, that is, so there is no unfortunate confusion).
Bill seems to have had a good time working with JP, if we except the book tour when “Monicagate” was brought back unexpectedly to the fore in a TV interview (and JP was on-his-feet swift in his defence or that of the book focus which showed, regardless of any view on the 20 year old matter, some nice and true grit). As an aside, it is an interesting point that we call Bill Clinton Bill while we never call George W Bush (whom we miss too, especially now) George, though I digress. Bill brought in the experience, the kind of which you only get by walking the corridors of the West Wing and projecting that unique track record of having run the greatest show on earth. The book is definitely on top of JP’s writing quality, mixing a great plot with a level of authenticity that can only come from an insider like Bill. Chapters are no longer three pages and while the type font is the same, wording density and quality is way above the usual JP fare. The book at 500+ pages is also much longer than the usual JP productions. It would be interesting to know whether Bill actually did some of the writing though probably not, focusing on contents veracity (in chapter 4, there is an episode mentioning the political demise as a congresswoman of his chief of staff that will make readers knowingly smile at the likely self-deprecating wink).
The President is Jonathan Lincoln Duncan (note Dun-can rings like Clin-ton and the reference to Lincoln, Professor Gaddis’s hedgehog-fox supremo), a former Governor of North Carolina (and not Arkansas) and speaks in the first person, making us feel somehow that he will make it to page 513. The atmosphere feels real which is the least to expect but is especially well rendered in the painting of each scene and the delivery of the characters. There is an effort to depict those senior civil servants with humanity so we know where they come from, how they got there and what makes them tick. The President is very human, a recent widower with a relapsing illness fighting impeachment in his first term. Run of the mill stuff. There is a Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett’s “West Wing” feel to JLD up to the depiction of his personal assistant. We go from crisis to crisis to ceremonial events that shows us the daily life of Presidents with uprisings in Central America, followed by assassination attempts in the Gulf and memorials to fallen soldiers, going back to the Sit Room to oversee a drone strike against a terrorist cell in Yemen and finally night walks without Secret Service detail running into fellow Irak 1 war vets and ex-members of the Big Red One. (note that Hillary was quite supportive of the book as stated in the “thanks” and that JLD met also his wife at law school – UNC at Chapel Hill not Yale – though similarly in the library).
The President is taking the lead to thwart a massive viral cyber attack after his daughter, a grad student at La Sorbonne (excellent choice), is approached with information about the mother of all terrorist plots against the U.S. and a plan to meet her father in DC to tell more. A Turkish cyberterrorist boy wonder looks to be behind the threat though is saved by the President when a Ukrainian hit team targets him in Algeria for elimination, making us and a select congressional committee wonder. An attractive professional Serbian lady sniper in an early stage of pregnancy (very differentiated foe indeed) and her merc team get involved. Ensues a number of intense developments like a shooting at a baseball stadium, car chases along the Capitol area and more shooting, without us and the President still knowing what the threat really is. Then there is a Benedict Arnold in our midst, one of six tested senior officials in the know of the threat, who might have arranged the earlier hits, in cahoots with the terrorists. A foreign power is behind all this, which the ever friendly Mossad tells JLD could be Russia, which does not raise eyebrows. I will not spoil the story anymore, knowing you want me to stop.
The story is well crafted, if only a little bit convoluted. In any case the plot, which is very enjoyable, does not really matter. What does are the messages conveyed by JP & Bill as they are the reason why they banded together so they could stress a few key themes along the way and make them more easily absorbed in the novel format by the widest possible audience.
The main message is raising the awareness of the risk of cyberthreats to our way of life and the need for state of the art cybersecurity (I have to disclose my wife and I are lead investors in a great UK cybersecurity start-up before I go any further (*)). The book provides a crash course on what cyberthreats, phishing and other cyber warfare weapons, tactics and targets are and the nation states and their patriotic proxies that have used that new war tool (some far more than others offensively as is well known – my intent is not to conduct a seminar on cyber warfare – but basically all the leading powers). It is clear that recent years and all the hackings that took place during the last U.S. presidential campaign, posing a risk to the very democratic process, that have been attributed directly and indirectly to Russia, have led JP and Bill to stress the point, all the more as it was close to home for the latter. Richard C. Clarke, the cyber warfare Czar under four Presidents was consulted for insider accuracy (read his 2010 Cyber War, which is non-fiction but reads like a novel). The timing of the book ahead of critical November mid-term elections at a challenging time for America is no coincidence. Cyber warfare is a major and exponential threat to our societies as we rely increasingly on technology and thus make ourselves, our key infrastructures and our very democratic process unwittingly weaker and asymmetrical targets in the process.
The book has also other messages which are peppered along with quite a few depictions of emblematic scenes of daily American life (e.g. on one of his “nights out” in the Capitol area, JLD witnesses an African American teenager being forcibly arrested by two police officers and has a very balanced thought he shares with us) and sayings that warn of newer risks and stress these old Western liberal values:
- “What happened to factual down-the-middle reporting?”
- “We can’t survive without a free press.”
- “We’re using modern technology to revert to primitive kinds of human relations. The media knows what sells – conflict and divisions. It’s all quick and easy. All too often anger works better than answers; resentment better than reason; emotion trumps (hm, hm – me here) evidence.”
There is a beautiful address to the joint session of Congress from JLD that encapsulates what America is and its values as we grew up to know them, that could have been given by Bill or by Ronald Reagan for that matter as it transcends partisanship and is the best summary of why Bill and JP became a band of brothers on this one occasion.
Going back to Western values, one of the common mistakes voters make when tempted by the sirens of populism is to forget the things that actually work in their lives. It is a case of taking things for granted and gradually forgetting about them, if only to regret them when the consequences of their action or inaction leads to the disappearance of key things and rights that seemed inalienable. What is key in a book like JP’s & Bill’s is also as much its messages as its sheer existence and the fact that we came to a point in our Western world when we can freely read a novel very close to the topic and actors of national leadership without suffering censorship. We actually do not think about it but that right was made possible because others fought for it, hence our duty to defend the values upon which that right was built. Nothing lasts forever if not protected and challenging times, like ours, should show that these rights and values are indeed eminently fragile.
One of the memorable quotes in the book, on its last page, comes from Ben Franklin when asked after the Constitutional Convention what kind of government the founders had given to the nascent America. His reply: “A republic, if you can keep it”.
(*): Just for fun, information and to inject some personal angle on the core topic of the novel: http://www.cyberessentialsdirect.com
Serge Desprat- 15th June, 2018 (Boston)