Negative attention has plagued Bill Clinton this month, from the launch of A&E’s scathing new six-part documentary “The Clinton Affair” to a scolding new interview with one of the key players in that series and that scandal — former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
And so the thunderous ovation he received from a friendly crowd as he walked onstage at Knight Theater was surely a welcome respite for the former president, who sat down with bestselling novelist James Patterson on Thursday night to celebrate the presidential potboiler they penned together. (Or perhaps we should say penciled; more on that later.)
Guided by moderator Roy Neel — who was Chief of Staff for Al Gore when Gore was a Senator and later became Clinton’s Deputy Chief of Staff — Clinton and Patterson talked in detail about the book’s development, its characters and its plot; periodically, though, the ex-Commander in Chief also offered his unique worldview on hot-button issues and reflected on decisions he made while in office.
During the latter part of the 66-minute conversation, Clinton did mention the word “Scandal” .... but he was talking about the juicy ABC political drama that had its series finale this past April. (More on that in just a minute, too.)
By the way, if you’re not familiar with it: Clinton and Patterson’s book, “The President Is Missing” (out since June), is a techno-thriller that centers around a maverick of a U.S. president named Jonathan Duncan who takes defending the country against the threat of a cyber-terror attack into his own hands.
The hook is that Clinton brings authenticity to the proceedings (I mean, he was actually the president of the United States), while Patterson brings the ability to get people turning pages (he’s among the most successful — if not the most successful — suspense novelists of all-time).
On how the project initially came together: “Bob Barnett ... is our lawyer, agent, friend — both of ours. So one day, Barnett calls me and he says, ‘I’ve been trying —’ and I love thrillers, I devour dozens every year — and he said, ‘I’ve been trying to get you to write one of these ever since you left the White House. ... So if Jim Patterson would do one with you, would you do it?’ I said, ‘In a heartbeat, but why in the world would he ever do that?’” (Patterson jumps in with a quip: “That’s exactly what I said when he asked me.”) “I said, you know, ‘First, there go all of his sales to Trump voters.’ And I said, ‘Besides, he’s a great storyteller, and why would he do this?’ But Barnett is indefatigable. ... And next thing I know, he says, ‘Jim’s open to it, we should meet.’”
On the next step: “When we met, he said, ‘Well, if we did this, what would you like out of it?’ And I said, ‘I would like to write a book first that is factually accurate about how the White House looks and how the executive offices look, how it works — or, at least, how it did work (note: yes, that’s a swipe at President Trump) — and I want it to be about something that’s real. I want to see if we can write a summer beach read, if you will, that’d actually be about a real problem. That would increase public awareness and concern about (the problem, which in this case is cyberterrorism).’ I said, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘I’m a storyteller. I want the president to go missing.’”
On whether the president could actually go missing: “We talked about the answer to that question, which is — if you mean the press and the public doesn’t know where he is — yes, for a little bit. Maybe three days max. If you’re talking about, Can he go missing off by himself? The answer to that is, in theory, for a little bit. But it’s harder than you’d think, and the Secret Service would be really angry. And we went from there. But I told him the only responsible way ... would be if we had a cyberterrorism threat. Because the barriers to entry in cyberterror are very low. As President Trump once famously said, It could be some 400-pound guy on a bed in Norway. ... There are a lot of idiosyncratic people who are deeply distrustful of all government. So it is conceivable a person could say, ‘I’ve been part of a plan to blow your country to smithereens economically, shut everything down, and I can help you avoid it, but I don’t trust anybody in government, and I will meet with nobody but you — and I do mean nobody.’ That is the only responsible circumstance that I could come up with, frankly, where a president could literally go off the grid. To go missing.”
On the book’s plentiful — and strong — female characters: “I did think it was important. And there’s a lot of other diversity in the book, too. ... I wanted these women to have agency, to be taking responsibility, good or bad — I didn’t want it to be all sweetness and light. ... And I know of a strong woman or two.”
On making presidential decisions: “(While writing the book) we tried to pick some points where there were decisions that had to be made only by the president. Then there are decisions that the president gets informed about, and has to approve ... then there are decisions that the president in advance authorizes a person (to make, by saying), ‘Go do this however you think is best.’ But one of the most important things about being president is understanding clearly, and then communicating clearly what decisions you either have to make, or you want to make because you think you can make them better. And which decisions you are prepared to leave your trusted aides, you’re prepared to live with the consequences of whether they work out or not. I think that’s one of the most challenging things about being president.”
On the most challenging thing about writing a thriller: “I knew that in a deal like this, you want to drive the action. So what you have to worry about is, you get to the end of the book, and you got all the action, but you’re not really sure you knew the people who were doing it. So you want to fill the character out. But if you overdo that, then you lose the rhythm of the book. And I needed lots of help ... figuring out what to do.”
On writing drafts in pencil: “I know it sounds troglodyte ... but I find it’s actually faster by slowing down a little bit at first — ‘cause if you’re handwriting it, you actually have time to imagine how it’s sounding and how people are receiving it, and you’re more likely to catch an absence of clarity earlier.”
On fictional TV shows about the presidency: “I remember the first woman president on television was played by Geena Davis (on ABC’s “Commander in Chief” from 2005-06). ... I thought she was quite good. ... But after I watched about three episodes, I realized that it was gonna be very difficult for the series to work. Not because she wasn’t an incredible president ... but because you can’t make some wildly exciting, entertaining thing happen once a week. ... And by the third or fourth week, crazy things were happening. “The West Wing” worked because it was an ensemble. There is something really worth telling that happens to somebody in the White House in the West Wing every day, don’t you think? Something. So I really thought about this a lot when we were writing this book. ... Look, I enjoyed the first season or so of ‘House of Cards,’ and am a big fan of Robin Wright, so I’m glad she got to be president. Kerry Washington I like very much, and her husband Nnamdi Asomugha is a friend of mine and a wonderful man, so I love ‘Scandal.’ But I hated what it made people think about politics. By far, the most realistic political show on television is ‘Madam Secretary’ (starring Téa Leoni, on CBS). It’s the one that’s most like the way it works, and I find it interesting. But it’s not one of the top shows or anything, because they don’t kill somebody every time you turn around. And so I think that it’s a challenge.”
On war: “You remember when Saddam Hussein tried to kill the first President Bush early in 1993, when he was visiting in Kuwait? And I — following Colin Powell’s advice — decided an appropriate response was to try to destroy his interior ministry building, ‘cause they had built the bomb and everything. But I didn’t want to kill a lot of people, because nobody was hurt with the Bush bomb; they did a lousy job with the bomb. And I remember I was worrying about, at the time — as a young president — whether people would think I had not shown enough respect for my office or my predecessor by only taking this building out. Then I sent these smart bombs into the interior ministry building, and we had the best technology ... and two of them still overran their target and landed in ... a Baghdad suburb, and killed eight completely innocent people. For all I know, all eight of them hated Saddam Hussein. And it had a very salutary effect on me. Which is, it’s all very well for other people to talk about how, well, you have to do this, you have to do that, or you have to worry about what this or that looks like — and quite another thing to do.”
On killing: “What I tried always to remember is to use enough force when it was justified — largely by knowing you were gonna save more lives than you were gonna take, accidental or intentional — but not to overdo all that macho stuff. I remember one time somebody told me, ‘If you don’t do this, if you don’t bomb Iraq today — today — you will look weak. You have to do this.’ And I looked at this totally well-meaning young staffperson, and I said, ‘Let me ask you one question: Can I kill ‘em tomorrow? ‘Cause if I can kill ‘em tomorrow, America’s not weak. I don’t care what some columnist said. ... But if they die, I know one thing: It doesn’t matter how much power I have, I can’t bring ‘em back to life. So let’s try to find a way to keep the peace, and be prepared to do what we have to do to save lives.’”
On climate change: “Whether we can avoid a calamitous consequence, no one really knows. But there are lots of moving parts, and we know if we do 10 or 12 things, we can drastically minimize the damage — the likelihood of a calamity — and manage the calamity better if it comes. ... Denial is not a particularly good strategy for this problem.”
On the importance of reading: “If you could get reading capacity up to 90 percent of the people reading (at the level) they ought to be, it would drastically improve the ability of people to concentrate. And if they can concentrate, they can listen as well as read. ... It would reduce frustration levels, and it might enable us to slowly build back a more civilized civic dialogue among people across party lines and other lines, and we could get a lot more done as well as learn more. I mean, I think the potential political, social and psychological benefits of increasing reading capacity are staggering.”