Review

Is the Israeli PM in Love With the U.S. President? Sure Looks Like It in Bill Clinton’s New Thriller

Co-written with James Patterson, ‘The President is Missing’ is certainly not missing sycophantic praise of Israel and awkward sexual tension between a widowed U.S. leader and a made over version of Golda Meir

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaking during an interview about the novel he wrote with James Patterson, "The President is Missing," in New York, May 21, 2018.
Bebeto Matthews/AP

There are two heroes in former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s debut novel, “The President is Missing” – co-written with one of the world’s best-selling authors, James Patterson, and just published this week.

You may not be surprised to learn that one is 50-year-old U.S. President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, a “war hero with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humor.” But when America faces a cyberattack that could take it back to the Dark Ages, the U.S. president turns for help to none other than an equally fictitious Israeli prime minister, Noya Baram – who sounds like Golda Meir after a Hollywood makeover.

The book, narrated by Duncan, introduces us to the Israeli premier thus: “Noya emerges from the SUV wearing sunglasses, a jacket, and slacks. She looks up at the sky for a moment, as if to confirm that it’s still there. It’s one of those days.

“Noya is sixty-four, with gray dominating her shoulder-length hair and dark eyes that can be both fierce and engaging. She is one of the most fearless people I’ve ever known.”

The Israeli PM’s grand entrance takes place in chapter 51. But if you think that’s late in the book, think again – there are nearly 130 chapters in total here.

The book may have been able to trim down its 500-plus pages if it had edited out just some of the praise the fictional president lavishes upon the Jewish state. “They have the finest cybersecurity experts in the world,” Duncan tells us at one point, adding that “they play defense better than anybody,” clearly having never seen the Israeli soccer or basketball teams.

And the compliments don’t stop there. When Duncan is briefing the German chancellor on the threatened cyberattack by a non-Muslim Turkish jihadist, no less, he explains that “there are some people at the very top of the pyramid who are simply more skilled than everyone else. Israel has many of them on the defense side. Israel has the best cyberdefense systems in the world.”

Duncan then nods to Noya, “who accepts the compliment without objection; it is a source of pride for the Israelis.”

The love-in continues when Noya assures the U.S. president, “You know that Israel will never leave your side” and he responds: “I do know that. And my gratitude knows no bounds, Noya.”

I think it’s safe to assume that they won’t need to bother with Arabic or Farsi translations of the book, especially as Duncan is also effusive in his praise of the Mossad – which he trusts far more than his own intelligence agencies.

At some stage, you start to think the Mossad may well have hacked into Clinton’s account and swapped his actual text for this Israeli propaganda (or hasbara). The only thing that ultimately convinced me that this hadn't happened is that, while the main villain is Turkish, he’s isn’t a BDS activist as well.

Even the current real-life Israeli prime minister and American president might find this level of sycophancy too much (but then again, maybe not). Still, we can probably assume they haven’t started giving each other nicknames yet, like Noya does to Duncan in "The President is Missing": “She called me the night I was elected president,” Duncan tells us. “She asked if she could call me Jonny, which nobody in my life had ever done. Surprised, off balance, giddy from the win, I said, ‘Sure you can!’ She’s called me that ever since.”

James Patterson and Bill Clinton at a book promotion of "The President is Missing" in New York, June 5, 2018.
Mary Altaffer/AP

Later on, there is even the briefest hint that Noya is about to put the sex into sexagenarian as she takes her leave of the president:

“’Noya.’ I give her a long hug, enjoying the comfort of her warm embrace.“’I could stay, Jonny,’” she whispers in my ear.“I pull back. ‘No. It’s already past seven. I’ve already kept you longer than I planned.’”

This is about as close as the book gets to inflamed passions, but if Clinton was trying to stop us thinking of his own sexual shenanigans by keeping things chaste – well, close, but no cigar. 

Perhaps the book’s biggest mystery – other than who is behind the cyberattack – is trying to figure out which author penned which particular sentence. After all, Clinton’s books normally have titles like “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World” and “Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy,” while Patterson’s are called things like, well, “The President is Missing.”

So, while it’s natural to presume that Clinton provided all of the minutiae about the White House bowling alley and of appearing in front of a House committee, should we also assume the following passage comes from him?

“Noya and I have had disagreements over the two-state solution and settlements on the West Bank, but when it comes to the things that bring us together today, there is no daylight between our positions,” Duncan declares, adding, “A safe and stable United States means a safe and stable Israel. They have every reason to help us and no reason not to.”

Whatever you do, do not buy Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this book as a present; it may well tip him over the edge when it comes to biased American presidents.

As you may be able to tell from the quoted excerpts, “The President is Missing” is not going to be in contention for any literary awards; it’s more leaden and lengthy than it is Le Carré. Patterson is the quintessential “airport novelist,” bashing out books the way Trump dashes off tweets, and although a match-up between a best-selling writer and Clinton sounded intriguing in theory, it’s less exciting on paper.

The critical response has been mixed (although The New York Times called it “ambitious and wildly readable”). Nevertheless, the thriller is already being turned into a miniseries by Showtime – so you can start speculating on who will play Noya Baram on screen. It will be no surprise if they make the character younger and cast someone like Ayelet Zurer. Or Culture Minister Miri Regev, since she may need a new job soon.

Still, if the TV show stays true to the book, the producers will need an actor who’s expert at blowing smoke up someone’s ass. As personified by the parting scene between the two lov, er, world leaders.

Duncan tells us that Noya “takes my hand in hers, wrapping her delicate, wrinkled hands around mine. ‘Israel has no greater friend,’ she says. ‘And I have no greater friend.’” To which the U.S. president coos to readers, “The best decision I made was bringing Noya here today. Without my aides here with me, I felt her presence and guidance to be a comfort beyond description.” 

With such gushing praise in prose, it looks as if we’ll have to wait until another former president, Barack Obama, decides to pen a White House thriller before Israel gets to be the villain of the piece.