In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

The Most Eligible Bachelor on the PlanetThomas Jones

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Vol. 40 No. 13 · 5 July 2018

The Most Eligible Bachelor on the Planet

Thomas Jones

The President Is Missing 
by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.
Century, 513 pp., £20, June 2018, 978 1 78089 839 1
Show More
Show More

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?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.