Updated August 28
The crowds came out in droves to see former President Bill Clinton speak about his new novel, “The President Is Missing,” which he co-wrote with author James Patterson, and national politics at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center (PAC) Wednesday night.
Seated on a leather armchair onstage, he was asked questions by his literary agent, Bob Barnett, who moderated the talk. Barnett has worked with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many others. The talk was the final event of the 2018 Martha’s Vineyard Author Author Series.
Clinton spoke about the craft of writing fiction and what the process was like working on his first novel in tandem with Patterson.
The novel came about when Barnett pushed for Clinton, who called himself “an obsessive reader of thrillers,” to write a book.
In 2016, Barnett approached Clinton and asked if he would write a book with Patterson. “Why in the living hell would he do that?” Clinton said, but added he would do it “in a heartbeat” if Patterson agreed.
With Patterson on board, the two began to brainstorm ideas. Clinton said he was excited to work with the acclaimed writer, but wanted it to be “a real book about a real issue … to be a thriller about something that can really happen.”
When Clinton asked Patterson what he wanted, Patterson replied, “I want the president to go missing; can he?” It was met with lots of laughter from the audience.
There are two instances in which the president can go missing, Clinton said. One instance is the press and the public not knowing where the president went, but that would only last for three days, Clinton said. The other would be if the president was out alone without any Secret Service protection, which could happen, but would be very rare if, for example, there was a cyberterror attack.
Clinton and Patterson then began drafting outlines for the story, with plenty of twists and turns. Patterson drafted the first two chapters of the book, and then asked Clinton to answer 20 questions like, “If you wanted to sneak out of the White House, how would you do it?” The two went back and forth with drafts and notes before completing the end product.
The book has spent the past 11 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, sitting at No. 2, behind Patterson’s own novel, “Texas Ranger.” The main character in the thriller novel is Johnathan Lincoln Duncan, a president, former Army Ranger, and Gulf War veteran who disappears during a cybercrime attack on the U.S.
Clinton used the idea of a cyberterror attack because it is one that he believes could very well happen.
Clinton said the fictional Duncan is like him in some ways, but different in many others. “He thinks like I do,” Clinton said.
Many of the characters in the book are women, which Clinton said happened without being expressly discussed. “You’ve got a talent pool in America and largely across the world which is largely underutilized … We need to equalize the opportunities,” he said of the need for more women leaders, which would lead to “better decisionmaking across the board.”
Clinton added that the whole process of writing with Patterson has been rewarding. “The whole thing has really been a great friendship,” he said.
Clinton said one reason he and Patterson got along so well was because of their philanthropic ventures. Clinton has the Clinton Foundation, which works in global healthcare, infrastructure projects, and leadership, while Patterson donates portions of his book sales to independent bookstores. Clinton cited Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, which was selling books at the event, as a bookstore he admires.
Clinton said the whole process of writing fiction was like painting. “It’s like having a painting on an easel that you just keep going back to. You can make it deeper and more textured,” he said.
One of the many topics of national concern Clinton touched on, including national allies, infrastructure, and voting, was impeachment — a topic the book begins with. Clinton said it had nothing to do with himself or President Donald Trump.
“Impeachment is the price democracy pays … when the well of trust runs dry,” he said, “for extreme polarization and demonization.”
Being a former president writing about a fictional president, Clinton wanted Duncan to grapple with some of the same issues he had to in real life. Clinton shared real-life examples of using long-range missiles to kill terrorists in foreign countries, only to learn that innocent civilians were killed as well.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I going to save more lives than I’m going to take? What are the consequences?’” he said.
Clinton also touched on national politics, telling an eager crowd that Democrats need to “show up” in the upcoming elections if they want to make a difference. Of international politics and allies, Clinton said, “We need more friends and fewer enemies.”
Clinton concluded with what makes him hopeful for America, citing young people running for office and the humanitarian work of nongovernmental foundations as examples.
“We need to just settle down, count our blessings, deal with climate change … deal with all these issues about women and men in the workplace, use it as a way to democratize our society and our politics and get our heads up,” Clinton said. “Only the politics are getting in our way.”
Missing from Clinton’s talk was any mention of Tuesday’s news — the conviction of President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, or the guilty plea of Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen.
While Clinton was the focus of the night, his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stole the show. Hillary, who was the first female candidate to earn her party’s nomination for president, was introduced by Book Festival and Author Series founder Suellen Lazarus, who mentioned Hillary was here as a special guest. The audience erupted into a wave of thunderous applause. When the two Clintons walked out on stage, Hillary waved to the audience as they screamed and cheered.
“That’s the president we’re missing,” Clinton said gesturing toward his wife.
Notable Island residents and visitors turned up for the talk, including actors Ted Danson, his wife Mary Steenburgen, and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz. Island leaders such as Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman and Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden were also spotted in the throng.
Clinton spoke for about an hour, but didn’t take any questions from the audience. Tickets ranged in price from $150 for two VIP-access seats and a signed copy of his book to $60 for a balcony seat and a signed copy of the book. Clinton did not hold a book signing at the end of the talk, and instead presigned books plates for a select number of books. School business administrator Amy Tierney told The Times the PAC was rented out to the event for $1,100, the standard rate for non-profits.
While only a select few VIP ticket holders were ushered by Secret Service to meet Clinton backstage before the talk, children’s author Amelie Loyot, who wrote “Vanessa the Sea Serpent of Martha’s Vineyard,” ran to the stage at the end as Clinton shook audience members’ hands and handed him copies of her book, which he took with a smile. Loyot’s husband, Robert, played with the band Entrain for President Clinton several years ago.
Updated with more details from Clinton’s talk. – Ed.