The President Is Missing Again? Seriously?
At the tail end of its 2003 review of Jimmy Carter’s novel “The Hornet’s Nest,” a family saga set against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War, Publishers Weekly appended a prescient note: “Carter’s status as the only president to publish a novel may not last long, as it is rumored that Bill Clinton may be working on one as well.”
Took awhile but the prediction is finally coming true. If all goes according to plan, June 2018 will see the publication of “The President Is Missing,” a thriller to be co-authored by Clinton and the novelist James Patterson. 1 The collaboration is a natural. Clinton’s memoir “My Life” sold more than a million copies in its first week of release, and Patterson’s volumes typically arrive several to the year, with each spending many weeks on the bestseller lists. It’s easy to make the next prediction, to wit, that “The President Is Missing” will sell gazillions of copies and presumably launch a series as well. Of course Patterson is quite capable of selling gazillions of copies on his own, but the participation of the former president will presumably lend a nice verisimilitude to their story.
Sounds like fun. I enjoy a good page-turner -- yes, I will admit that I have been multiple times through the entire Ludlum oeuvre -- and I have no doubt that I will be reading “The President Is Missing” as soon as review copies are available. Still, the project does raise an intriguing question: Why does the president keep disappearing?
In fiction, the president of the United States disappears all the time. On the big screen and the small, and on the printed page, the commander in chief is constantly vanishing. The bad guys take him hostage, or at least make a spirited effort to do so, usually thwarted by a hero working alone. Or the president vanishes for no apparent reason, and the “why” provides the entire mystery. So ubiquitous is the plot line that the first hurdle Clinton and Patterson must overcome is finding a new and interesting way to stage the disappearance.
The challenge facing every writer for screen or page who wants the president to vanish is that he is protected by the Secret Service, whose agents are quite good at their jobs. But on the screen the Secret Service is constantly shredded by clever terrorists who want the president in their grip. The apotheosis of this model was Wolfgang Petersen’s brilliant film “Air Force One” (1997), starring Harrison Ford as the commander in chief who must fight the baddies who have commandeered his plane. 2
The film has spawned any number of down-market imitators (“Olympus Has Fallen,” “White House Down,” and the like). Another president was (more or less) taken hostage in the post-apocalyptic TV drama “The Last Ship.” For that matter, Jack Bauer abducted a corrupt chief executive in the fifth season of “24,” and Ben Gates sort of did the same to a more upright chief executive in the movie “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” But Hollywood has been kidnapping presidents for, literally, a half century. Or doesn’t anybody remember the creepy misogyny of 1967's “In Like Flint”?
On the published page, the trope is more common still. The working title of the Clinton-Patterson collaboration, “The President Is Missing,” is immediately reminiscent of Robert Serling’s 1967 classic “The President’s Plane is Missing,” in which Air Force One crashes with the loss of all on board, but the body of the commander in chief is not found. More recently, Chapter 1 of Joel Rosenberg’s 2015 thriller “The First Hostage” actually begins “The president of the United States ... is missing.” 3
Then there’s Charles Templeton’s 1975 potboiler “The Kidnapping of the President,” where a terrorist reaches out from a crowd and handcuffs himself to the chief executive, then threatens to blow them both up unless the Secret Service backs off. Bad guy and president wind up in Times Square, sitting in the back of an armored car wired with explosives while a ransom is negotiated. 4 And I vaguely remember two more minor thrillers from the same era: One posited a chief executive who disappears and turns out to have been hiding in various nooks and crannies of the White House while tripping on psychedelic drugs; the other concerned a president who is kidnapped while visiting a girlfriend and replaced by a double. 5
The progenitor of the genre is probably “The President Vanishes,” Rex Stout’s anonymously published 1934 yarn. 6 A chief executive determined to keep the nation at the peace in the face of the gathering European storm struggles to face down a warmongering coalition that includes wicked armament manufacturers, propagandistic journalists, greedy bankers and fascist street brawlers. Suddenly he disappears, cause unknown, and a furious American public turns against the wealthy bad guys. (For once, the Secret Service comes off rather well.)
Why does this premise keep coming back? What national neurosis drives our fascination at the idea that the most tightly protected man in the world might be taken hostage, or even vanish into thin air? Pick a reason: We like to see the mighty fall. We’re seeking catharsis for our fears that our government can’t protect us. We’re transfixed by the intricate details of getting past the Secret Service. Or it’s patriotism: We want to believe that even after taking a hard shot to the chin, the U.S. will come roaring swiftly back. Whatever the reason for our interest, publishers and producers return to the theme again and again.
Still, I have some advice for Clinton and Patterson, as their unique collaboration moves forward. Don’t rest on the magic of your names. Give us something new. Let your fictional president go missing in a way that those of us who consume this stuff haven’t seen before.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Disclosure: Alfred A. Knopf, which will co-publish the book with Little, Brown and Company, has published six of my novels.
Speaking of verisimilitude, we are told (I cannot say whether this is true) that much of the interior of Air Force One as seen in the movie is authentic, because Clinton, at the time still president, allowed the film crew to have an unprecedented tour of the plane in order to get a firmer purchase on the details. The presidential escape pod, however, is evidently an invention of the screenwriter.
The ellipsis is Rosenberg’s.
I was living in Washington when I read this novel. A well-connected friend told me it could never happen because the Secret Service is aware of the possibility, and at least one of the agents guarding the president as he works a crowd carries a machete under his coat and would have hacked the terrorist’s arm off at once. But perhaps my friend was romancing.
I confess that I can remember the title or author of neither. If you happen to recall either of these perhaps forgettable tomes, do post the information in the comments.
Guy Newell Boothby’s 1902 thriller “The Kidnapped President” is about a different president.
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