An Unusual Presidential Meditation
“‘I wanted to give my country a new spirit,’ I say. ‘I wanted to make us closer. I wanted us to feel like we were all in this together. Or at least get us moving in that direction. I thought I could. I really thought I could do that.’
“‘You still can,’ she says.”
These words are from the quite gripping and surprisingly good novel that President Bill Clinton recently published with James Patterson, “The President is Missing.” (Warning: this essay may contain some minor spoilers.) In this passage, the fictional president of the novel, Jonathan Duncan, seeks the friendship and support of his closest ally, an elderly woman named Noya Baram, who is the prime minister of Israel. He sets this scene, writing how “Noya Baram walks beside me, takes my hand, wraps her bony, delicate fingers in mine” (p. 380). Later in the novel, as President Duncan says goodbye to his Israeli friend, who had joined him at a secret emergency “off-the-grid” summit dealing with a credible terrorist threat facing the United States, he muses that “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. But in the end, no number of aides or advice can change the fact that this all comes down to me. This is happening on my watch. This is my responsibility” (p 396).
Through the medium of an espionage thriller, Bill Clinton has found an engrossingly creative way to give expression to the emotional and intellectual nature of the presidency, with all its extraordinary responsibilities. That he makes the Israeli prime minister one of the president’s closest confidants in the book speaks much about his feelings about Israel and the nature of American-Israeli relations. As he writes tellingly in the novel, through the first-person narrative of President Duncan: “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. A safe and stable United States means a safe and stable Israel. They have every reason to help us and no reason not to. And…they play defense better than anybody” (p. 243).
Rephrasing here a policy approach that resembles more the Obama administration’s (that is, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s) relationship with Israel, Bill Clinton here makes the argument that the U.S.-Israeli friendship is an essential strategic alliance that cannot be shaken by political disagreements. What is brilliant about President Clinton’s argument here is that he shows not how much Israel needs the United States but how much the United States needs Israel.
Clinton also makes a case for the importance of strong alliances supported by personal friendships between world leaders, clearly taking aim at the Trump administration’s more isolationist approach.
When President Duncan calls his secret summit at an undisclosed location, he invites the Russian president, whom he suspects of supporting the terrorist plot. The two other invited guests, the close allies and friends who Duncan brings to his side, are the Israeli prime minister and the German chancellor. Besides Israel, the United States leans on Germany as the leader of the European Union. In a portrait that combines elements of Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel, the novel’s depiction of the character of Juergen Richter as the stalwart ally provides a telling insight of President Clinton’s, that in a post-Brexit scenario the U.K. has ceded its importance and “special relationship” with the United States.
We also are treated to fascinating commentary about how close the relationship is (or can be) between the United States, Germany, and Israel. That Bill Clinton could paint such a picture without any explanations or qualifications speaks volumes about how far all three countries have come since the days of the Holocaust and the Second World War.
There are places in the novel where Clinton allows his own voice to come out a little too clearly. He closes the book with a nine-page transcript of an address that President Duncan delivers to Congress, including a list of policies and agenda items for today. That’s quite an unusual element in a James Patterson page-turner, which rarely has a chapter longer than three or four pages and rarely is without some dialogue or action on every page. Clinton has Duncan cleverly apologize for Clinton’s excess, writing how “I got some criticism for using the speech to advance my agenda, but I wanted Americans to know what I wanted to do for them and still leave plenty of opportunities for working with the other side” (p. 511). And in a scene where President Duncan is dressing down the Russian ambassador in the White House, Clinton has his fictional avatar say, in a line that has nothing to do with the book but everything to do with Bill Clinton, his family, and his party: “Oh, and stay out of our elections” (p. 495).
These literary licenses, along with the supporting story line about President Duncan besting a speaker of the House from the opposing party who is trying to impeach him, are welcomed by the reader who understands that we are reading a book that is as much about (one of) its author’s political testimony as it is about the story it purports to tell.
Returning to the character of Noya Baram, we can read into Clinton’s portrayal of the close relationship between an American president and an Israeli prime minister a meditation on what Yitzhak Rabin meant to him. As he first introduces the character: “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 fearsome people I’ve ever known. She called me the night I was elected president. She asked if she could call me Johnny, 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” (p. 242).
Throughout the book, we are made quite aware of the rare times when a president is called by name, always against protocol. This description of affection that surpassed the formalities of office between a younger American president looking up to an older Israeli leader is the relationship that Clinton remembers with Rabin. In Clinton’s account of his learning about Rabin’s assassination, as he wrote in his memoir, “My Life,” he movingly tells us that “Yitzhak had been rushed to the hospital, and for a good while we didn’t know how badly he’d been wounded. I called Hillary, who was upstairs working on her book, and told her what happened. She came down and held me for a while as we talked about how Yitzhak and I had been together just ten days before when he had come to the United States to present me with the United Jewish Appeal’s Isaiah Award. It was a happy night. Yitzhak, who hated to dress up, showed up for the black-tie event in a dark suit with a regular tie. He borrowed a bow tie from my presidential aide, Steve Goodin, and I straightened it for him just before we walked out. When Yitzhak presented the award to me, he insisted that, as the honoree, I stand on his right, even though protocol dictated that foreign leaders stand on the President’s right. ‘Tonight we reverse the order,’ he said. I replied that he was probably right to do so before the United Jewish Appeal because, ‘after all, they may be more your crowd than mine.’ Now I hoped against hope that we would laugh like that together again” (My Life, p. 678).
That particular memory of surpassing protocol marked a very special relationship. “In the two and a half years we had worked together,” Clinton wrote in “My Life,” “Rabin and I had developed an unusually close relationship, marked by candor, trust and thought processes. We had become friends in that unique way people do when they are in a struggle that they believe is great and good. With every encounter, I came to respect and care for him more. By the time he was killed, I had come to love him as I had rarely loved another man” (My Life, p. 679). In “The President is Missing,” Bill Clinton brings us back into his relationship with Rabin. While he changed the gender of the Israeli leader, perhaps to make the closeness of the relationship more believable, the reader cannot help but recognize that Bill Clinton is imagining Yitzhak Rabin by his side.
Memories can give rise to fiction and fantasy. But dreams can become real through commitment and hard work. The picture painted in this quick read of a novel, of an America and Israel and Europe that work past challenges through collaboration and friendship to achieve security and peace, is a fiction worth realizing.