The president in question is Jonathan Lincoln Duncan. He’s a Gulf veteran and former prisoner of war, an Army Ranger who was tortured in Iraq but didn’t betray his comrades or his country. He’s also a former governor of North Carolina, the state he was born in and where he was brought up by his single mother. He married his law school sweetheart (called, bizarrely, Rachel Carson), and they had one child, a daughter. So he’s a curious – you could almost say implausible – mix of John McCain and Bill Clinton, though a few decades younger than either of them. According to the conventions of stories about fictional presidents, the novel strives to maintain the appearance of bipartisanship; Duncan never tells us which party he belongs to, but it’s pretty obvious (and unsurprising) that he’s a Democrat. The ‘other side’ controls the House of Representatives in part thanks to the gerrymandering of congressional districts, and the Speaker of the House, a member of the opposing party and unredeemably political in the worst sense, at one point tells the president that a woman’s right to abortion (though he doesn’t put in those terms) seems to be the only thing his (Duncan’s) lot care about.
Duncan describes himself, with characteristic humility, as ‘a war hero with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humour’. He’s ventriloquising his vice president here, admittedly, imagining what it must have felt like for her to have come ‘within a breath of winning the nomination only to see [her] dreams upended’ by such a man. And he does his best to outsource most of his praise of himself to other characters, who take every opportunity to remind him how brave he was in the Gulf, what a loving husband he was to his late wife, what a terrific president he’s been for most of his first 16 months in office. Modesty may not be among his many virtues, but then ‘no one in this town is modest,’ and he is, as he constantly reminds people, the president of the United States of America.
As the novel opens, he’s really up against it. The time is more or less now – or, to be precise, five days this spring. The action begins on Thursday, 10 May. The president is testifying before a congressional select committee whose members demand to know why he’s been making clandestine phone calls to the world’s most wanted terrorist. Suliman Cindoruk is the leader of a group called Sons of Jihad. ‘He’s Turkish born, but he’s not Muslim,’ the president explains to the select committee, ‘a secular extreme nationalist who opposes the influence of the West in Central and South-Eastern Europe. The “jihad” he’s waging has nothing to do with religion.’ The explanation is both geopolitically and linguistically confusing. It isn’t clear why a Turkish secular nationalist, however extreme, would be concerned about Central Europe, or why he would choose a mixture of English and Arabic to name his organisation. Perhaps it’s a muddled translation from Cindoruk’s Turkish, but then why not ‘Sons of Struggle’? I would also have thought that a Turkish nationalist would be more likely to spell his name ‘Süleyman’, though I could well be wrong about that. And perhaps this isn’t the sort of thing it’s worth worrying about in a thriller; I once read a novel by Robert Ludlum in which the hero gives his London cab driver a £100 note.
Anyway, ‘a group of pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia separatists assaulted a ranch in northern Algeria where Suliman Cindoruk was believed to be hiding’ – huh? just roll with it – but they were ‘thwarted … by a team of Special Forces and CIA operatives from the United States’ (as opposed to CIA operatives from some other country) who allowed Cindoruk to escape. One of the Americans was killed, which is how news of the skirmish got out. And now the select committee, along with plenty of other people, is asking, not unreasonably: ‘Why would an American president dispatch US forces to save the life of a terrorist?’
Well, he has his reasons, and the committee just has to take it on trust that they’re good ones, because ‘much of what we do in the interest of national security cannot be discussed publicly.’ As Duncan’s thoughts begin to wander, he’s caught out by a trick question: having refused to say whether or not he’d spoken to Cindoruk on the phone, he flat out denies having spoken to Isis. Busted! If he hadn’t spoken to Cindoruk, he’d have denied that too! But then – phew! misdirection! – it turns out to be only a mock committee hearing, a rehearsal for the main event in four days’ time. But Duncan has more important things on his mind than being accountable to legislative oversight. ‘I’m not thinking about the hearing on Monday. I’m thinking about whether we’ll still have a country on Monday.’ Yikes.
‘Sooner or later,’ Duncan intones to himself, ‘every president faces decisions in which the right choice is bad politics, at least in the short term. If the stakes are high, you have to do what you think is right and hope the political tide will turn. It’s the job you promised to do.’ There’s a lot of this kind of bullshit in the novel. We know it’s bullshit, and Clinton and Patterson surely know it’s bullshit, and surely Duncan knows it’s bullshit – doesn’t he? So why is he pretending otherwise? Whom is he hoping to deceive? This is his interior monologue, not a speech to Congress. But it’s almost indistinguishable from the voice in which he addresses Congress at the end of the novel, after – spoiler alert – saving the free world from the diabolical schemes of the terrorists and their nefarious backers in Saudi Arabia and Russia, all in the name of truth, justice and the American way. Duncan’s narrative voice, describing a crucial episode in his presidency barely a month after the event, isn’t his private, inner voice; it’s a public, self-justifying voice, which is perhaps all we can expect from a novel written by a former US president and his collaborators, but anyone hoping for a flash of insight, however brief, into what it’s like to be both an ordinary, fallible human being and the most powerful person on earth is going to be sorely disappointed.
The story then moves away from the White House to Reagan National Airport, where a woman has just arrived and ‘is enjoying the open-air space after the flight’. I found myself wondering whose point of view we’re supposed to be seeing her from. So far, the president has been telling the story in the first person. In which case, who is the mysterious omniscient third-person narrator who has suddenly appeared at the arrivals gate along with the mysterious woman sucking on ginger candy and listening to Bach – ‘the whimsical first movement of Violin Concerto No. 1’ – through her headphones? It sounds more like a man’s voice than a woman’s, even (or especially) when channelling her thoughts. She’s been told that ‘happiness … is the optimal emotion to project when under surveillance,’ but ‘she prefers sexy.’ I’m not sure that counts as an emotion, exactly, but hey:
it’s always seemed to work for her – the lopsided smile, the strut in her walk as she pulls her Bottega Veneta trolley behind her down the terminal. It’s a role like any other, a coat she puts on when necessary and sheds as soon as she’s done, but she can see it’s working: the men trying for eye contact, checking the cleavage she’s made sure to reveal, allowing just enough bounce in her girls to make it memorable.
Her ‘girls’? Seriously? If I didn’t know better, I’d be tempted to call that ‘locker room talk’. In any case, it may give us a better clue than all the cant about ‘the job you promised to do’ as to the sorts of thought a certain kind of US president might have when he thinks nobody is listening.
And perhaps Duncan is no less susceptible to the temptations of the flesh than some of his real-life counterparts: ‘I head across the hall into my bedroom, where Deborah Lane is already opening her bag of goodies.’ She says good morning, he takes off his shirt. And then – surprise! misdirection! – ‘she puts her stethoscope on my bare chest.’ One ticking time bomb just isn’t enough these days. Not only is the United States at imminent risk of a devastating terrorist attack – its nature still unclear to us; this is a ‘need to know’ situation, and readers, like Duncan’s other confidants, are kept in the dark about it for as long as possible – but the president too is in imminent danger of physical collapse. He suffers from immune thrombocytopenia, ‘which basically means a low platelet count’, and just now it’s very low indeed. ‘You don’t have a couple of days, Mr President,’ the doctor says. ‘You might not even have one.’
The novel tries its luck, and its readers’ patience, when it pulls the same trick again soon afterwards. Duncan has snuck out of the White House, entirely alone (a bit like the Duke in Measure for Measure?), for a very, very secret meeting with … we still don’t know who. All we know is, he has to do it: national security, the fate of the free world, demands it. He appears to reach his destination, at the penthouse apartment of a beautiful, glamorous, talented movie actress, Amanda Braidwood, who also happens to be his late wife’s best friend. But then – surprise! etc – he doesn’t have sexual relations with that woman, either, though seeing her provides an opportunity for some emotional reflections on his widowhood: ‘I still miss Rachel all the time, in every way a man can miss his wife.’
It’s quite handy for the novel that the first lady is dead, since it makes it marginally easier for the president to go missing (it might have been difficult to give his wife the slip), and emphasises his heroism; it’s also convenient for his executive grip on the narrative that she isn’t around to contradict, or complicate, his sentimental and idealised version of their relationship. It’s even possible that his grieving is meant to make him a more sympathetic character, a way of revealing the man rather than the president, but giving him a few foibles might have been a better way of doing that. As it is, he tells us that ‘the day we buried her, as I stood at her grave, holding hands with my daughter, our embassy in Venezuela was attacked by a suicide bomber.’ I think we’re supposed to feel a twinge of pity for him here, as well as a frisson of excitement, but the only effect it had on me was to get me wondering if there had ever been a suicide bombing in Venezuela (there hasn’t, so far as I can tell).
Rachel didn’t want him to be alone after she died; ‘she used to joke that I’d be the most eligible bachelor on the planet.’ But the closest he comes to physical intimacy with a woman is towards the end of the novel, when it seems all hope is lost, and he gives the Israeli prime minister – she’s been invited to his temporary base of operations in the Virginia woods, along with the German chancellor; anyone still clinging to the tattered remnants of the special relationship between the US and the UK, look away now – ‘a long hug, enjoying the comfort of her warm embrace. “I could stay, Jonny,” she whispers in my ear. I pull back.’ Yes, really.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in the penthouse apartment in DC, the actress helps Duncan disguise himself with a bit of eyebrow make-up, a baseball cap and a carefully chosen pair of glasses, so that no one will recognise him as he makes his solitary way to his clandestine meeting, which turns out to be in the crowd at a baseball game. He is approached in the bleachers by a young man, calling himself Augie, who knows one half of the secret that could save the United States from the otherwise unstoppable attack that’s coming on Saturday. The other half is known only by a young woman called Nina, who’s waiting for them in a van outside the stadium. (Are Nina and Augie, with their different skills and separate knowledge, meant to remind us of Patterson and Clinton?) But the woman who flew into Reagan National is also waiting on a nearby rooftop, with the rifle she likes to call ‘Anna Magdalena’. The bullets fly; Nina is killed; the president – his old Ranger training coming in useful here, as we knew it would – saves Augie; and the vacuous pleasures of any half-decent fast-paced thriller are underway, though the pace slackens a bit two-thirds of the way through, and the book could happily have been a hundred pages or so shorter.
Some of the slack comes from the inevitable sermonising. I can see why Clinton might have thought it a neat idea to use a thriller as a pulpit, but a thriller isn’t the ideal place – as if there were an ideal place – to read Clinton’s thoughts on the perniciousness of social media (‘using modern technology to revert to primitive kinds of human relations’), the press (‘trying to bend every story to fit this narrative’), the erosion of trust in public life etc. And, more than that, the main thrust of the book’s rhetorical intent backfires. One implication of the title is that the United States is currently missing a president in an all too real sense: Donald Trump is an impostor, an aberration, unfit for office. ‘If I have to lose this office to protect this country,’ Duncan says at one point, ‘I will do it.’ The difference between him and Trump couldn’t be made more glaring. (Duncan also does a lot of bravely facing down those dastardly Russians.) Duncan is an idealised president, intended to remind Americans of the kind of person who ought to inhabit the White House, so very unlike its current occupant – and, let’s be honest, a fair few of his predecessors.
Not all readers, however, will agree with his creators that Duncan is a perfect president. There’s a fairly repellent scene near the beginning of the novel in which he learns that ‘al-Shabaab’s head of military operations’ and ‘the military commander of AQAP’ are meeting at an elementary school in Yemen. There aren’t any schoolchildren there at the moment, but the al-Qaida man has brought his family, ‘five boys, two girls. Ages two to 16.’ The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the defence secretary, the national security adviser and the vice president all ‘recommend we strike’. But Duncan has doubts: ‘Aren’t we different? Don’t we draw the line at conducting a military strike that we know will kill innocent children?’ His train of thought doesn’t stop there, however:
Why are those high-value terrorists meeting in person? … They must be planning something big. Something that will result in the deaths of more than seven children. Stop this now, you might stop an attack. A net saving of lives … I know the answer. I always knew the answer. I haven’t been searching for the answer. I’ve been searching for a justification. I take one more moment and whisper a prayer. I pray for those children. I pray that one day no president will have to make a decision like this. ‘God help us,’ I say. ‘You have my authorisation to strike.’
God help them. Would he also be capable of concocting a justification for snatching children from their parents and locking them up in cages?