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.
“Director Blair, he can’t be conducting military operations on his own,” President Pamela Barnes whines ineffectually to her F.B.I. 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-guff ex-Navy SEAL who, as president, once motivated a naval commander during a kill operation by barking: “Now you squids body-bag that son of a bitch” — 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 best sellers, with an army of co-writers. Clinton is the ex-president whose other works include the memoir “My Life.” (At 1,056 pages, it is nearly 500 pages longer than this still-hefty new thriller.) 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 C.I.A. 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 re-election to his vice president?” a reporter asks Keating. It’s a rude question, but then again, as one character observes, “most D.C. 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. (It disastrously kills Al-Asheed’s wife and three daughters instead.) 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.
Keating is putting off writing his memoirs. His retirement activities include canoe races against the head of his Secret Service detail. 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 “in a spray of blood.”
The perpetrator is Al-Asheed. Unlike, say, Osama bin Laden, who preferred to orchestrate atrocities from the shadows, Al-Asheed fancies himself a terrorism influencer, posting videos on social media in which he is in the center of the chaos he creates — casually beheading U.N. aid workers in Sudan, for instance. The SEALs harbor an extra hate for him because he killed one of their own, Boyd Tanner, in an especially gruesome fashion.
Al-Asheed is a scary guy, but an important feature of this sort of book is a hostage who refuses to show fear. Mel’s response to her predicament is to “humiliate her kidnappers” by, among other things, flinging a foul concoction consisting of her own urine and the chemicals in her cell’s toilet bowl into one of their faces while yelling, “I’m not a little girl!”
Nor has Al-Asheed reckoned with the devastating single-mindedness of former President Keating, whose talents include throwing on “ratty clothes, sunglasses, beard stubble and a baseball cap” in order to elude notice. He also has a band of loyal friends he can call on for help. Along with Trask Floyd, they include the former head of the Mossad; an ex-Saudi intelligence official; and the U.S. Air Force secretary, who owes him a favor.
“I’m on it,” she says, agreeing to order a military transport plane to give him and his small handpicked hostage-extraction team a ride to Tunisia. “Go with God, Mr. President.”
Let us stipulate that we are not reading this book to gain valuable insights into the inner workings of United States 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.
“Get your butt over here,” Claire Boone, a member of the National Security Agency’s “clandestine service,” snaps at the former president.
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.”