In Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s second novel, an ex-president goes rogue

Bill Clinton  author James Patterson
Former president Bill Clinton, seated next to the author James Patterson at a TimesTalk event in New York, June 5, 2018. The two have a new, entertaining if slightly outlandish, political thriller out. (Photo: NYTimes)
It is relatively easy to understand why a former president whose daughter is kidnapped by terrorists might want to organize his own unauthorized paramilitary force to rescue her. But try explaining it to the current president.اضافة اعلان

“Director Blair, he can’t be conducting military operations on his own,” President Pamela Barnes whines ineffectually to her FBI director in “The President’s Daughter,” the second swaggering political thriller produced by the unlikely writing team of James Patterson and Bill Clinton. “You’ve got to send agents there and stop him.”

But “Director Blair” can no more stop the inexorable force that is former president Matthew Keating — a hard-living, no-guffex-Navy SEAL — than Keating’s friends can resist his entreaties for help in his foolhardy plan.

“You got it,” responds Trask Floyd, an old military friend turned “wealthy actor and movie director,” when Keating asks for his support. “If I’m not going to be riding shotgun with you on wherever you’re going, I’ll still be behind you.”

Patterson is the author who has launched a thousand bestsellers, with an army of co-writers. Clinton is the ex-president whose other works include the memoir “My Life.” Their first co-written novel, “The President Is Missing,” envisioned a scenario in which the American president, facing a deadly cyberterrorist attack that threatens to disconnect the entire United States from the internet, slips incognito into a baseball stadium and tries to solve the problem by himself.

What to do for an encore?

Fans of the first book will be disappointed that its main character, President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, doesn’t exist in this follow-up’s universe. Unlike, say, the cinematic “Taken” trilogy, in which a raddled ex-green beret and CIA officer played by Liam Neeson is continually called on to re-rescue his serially kidnapped daughter, “The President’s Daughter” has nothing to do with “The President Is Missing.” It has a new president, who has a new daughter and a new problem.

But like its predecessor, this novel offers tantalizing clues into the unconscious of Clinton, now 74. As before, the hero of this book becomes president not via Yale Law School and Oxford University, but through the messy man-of-the-people crucible of military service. As before, there is a disagreeable female politician — in this case, President Barnes, Keating’s erstwhile vice president, who treacherously ran against him.

“How do you feel about being the only president in American history to lose reelection to his vice president?” a reporter asks Keating. It’s a rude question, but then again, as one character observes, “most DC journalists are 27 years old, no real experience except for reporting on political campaigns, and they literally know nothing.”

Written in the breathless present tense, with typical Pattersonian staccato exposition expressed in short paragraph bursts (“I checked my watch. It was time”), the book opens when Keating is still president, presiding over a botched assassination attempt on the terrorist Asim Al-Asheed. Cut to several years later: Barnes is president, sniping and scheming in Washington, while Keating is irascibly adjusting to civilian life in rural New Hampshire.

Everything is thrown into disarray when Keating’s daughter, Mel, is seized by terrorists while on a hike with Tim, her blameless boyfriend. Poor Tim. No sooner has he pumped himself up to fight off the kidnappers — “OK, let’s do this thing,” he thinks to himself — than he dies.

The perpetrator is Asheed, who is a scary guy, but an important feature of this sort of book is a hostage who refuses to show fear.

Let us stipulate that we are not reading this book to gain valuable insights into the inner workings of US foreign policy. No, we are reading for as many references to military hardware as possible, a formidable alphanumeric arsenal: the UH-60s, the AK-47s, the 7.62 mm Russian-made Tokarevs, the Chinese-made QSZ-92 9 mm’s, the M4 assault rifles with TAWS thermal sights. You get the picture.

The terrorists seem hired from central casting, as does Jiang Lijun, a Chinese spy whose job is to represent Bond-movie stereotypes about inscrutability and arrogance. “These peasants didn’t get the message that it was time to wander back to their flea-infested hovels,” he thinks at a party in Tripoli, smiling politely at his Libyan guests. There’s also Keating’s force, comprising the requisite array of deadly commandos from various elite agencies who treat the ex-president as one of their own.

It goes without saying that nothing in this silly but highly entertaining book will end well for the terrorists, or the Chinese, or Pamela Barnes and her creepy husband, Richard. It’s unclear whether, the rescue mission notwithstanding, it will even end well for America. The novel sends up a flare of distress.

“The real people are still there, with their problems and potential, hopes and dreams,” says Keating’s wife, a brilliant archaeologist and astute political blackmailer whose “tanned skin is flawless.”

“It’s just hard for them to make good decisions when their brains are filled, and their spirits broken, with so much crap.”

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