All the presidents’ authors: how politicians have helped thriller … – The Guardian

The Starr report, the 1998 inquiry into Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, contains a slight but striking detail about life as US president. Secret service agents at one point became alarmed when Clinton failed to respond to knocks on the door of a room in which a security-tracking device in his shoe had located him. It turned out that the president, exasperated by surveillance, had left his moccasin behind and gone hot-sock elsewhere.

That’s just the kind of insider detail that super-selling author James Patterson presumably wanted when he approached Clinton to collaborate on a White House thriller, which was announced this week for publication next summer. Indeed, although the plot of The President Is Missing is not yet known, the title suggests that it could even have been inspired by Bill’s Cinderella moment.

Patterson says that he chose Clinton as co-author because he has access to “details only a president can know”, a sentiment reflecting the extent to which thrillers are sold on authenticity. If a character goes down a secret tunnel at the White House or receives a special CIA handshake, we like to think such things really exist. The best thriller writers tend either to be in the know – Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, John le Carré and Charles McCarry were all spies – or know how to find out: Frederick Forsyth, Gerald Seymour and Robert Harris started as reporters.

Margaret Truman with William Churchill in 1952



Margaret Truman with William Churchill in 1952. Her experience as daughter of President Harry Truman informed her novel Murder in the White House. Photograph: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

However, in a form that prizes believable detail so highly, the American presidency is tough to research. Numerous people can tell you what it’s like to be a senator, submarine commander or secret service agent, but only six living men have sat behind the Oval Office desk.

Insiders, though, have been strikingly keen to help writers get it right. Margaret Truman used what she learned as daughter of former president Harry Truman to inform Murder in the White House (1980). Ronald Reagan was a fan of Tom Clancy’s techno-thrillers; Clancy drew on visits to the White House and Reagan administration sources to elevate his series hero, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, to the presidency. President George HW Bush became a friend of the writers David Baldacci and Richard North Patterson, whose novels are full of confident Washington detail. North Patterson, author of a trilogy about the fictional President Kilcannon, has also acknowledged advice and insights from Clinton, who would regularly be pictured walking to a plane or helicopter holding a Washington mystery for in-flight reading.

Such special relationships between politicians and political novelists have also been common in Britain. Margaret Thatcher once told an interviewer that she was “re-reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Devil’s Alternative”, an enthusiasm that gave the writer useful access to the prime ministerial scene, which he repaid by making Thatcher a character, staunchly saving the west from the Soviets, in The Fourth Protocol. Thatcher also contributed more inadvertently to the genre by sacking Michael Dobbs as an aide in 1987, giving him the ire and time to write House of Cards, the basis for hit UK and US TV series.

Tony Blair continued the link between politicians and political writers by admitting Robert Harris to his inner circle early on. Relations had cooled by the time Harris wrote assassination thriller The Ghost, which, like House of Cards, can be seen as a sudden outsider’s therapeutic act of revenge – although both books hugely benefit from their authors’ having seen the inside.

Margaret Thatcher



Frederick Forsyth used insights from Margaret Thatcher, while her sacking of adviser Michael Dobbs inspired him to write House of Cards. Photograph: PA

So Clinton, in co-authoring fiction, is making official a long informal arrangement. Politicians co-operate partly because they tend to be keen thriller-readers – perhaps an adrenaline-raising genre suits the temperament of those who seek power – but also because they can reveal details and incidents in the knowledge that they will be untraceably disguised, and which could not be confided to journalists or the ghost-writers of their memoirs.

In this respect, Clinton might run the risk that every scene in The President Is Missing will be assumed to have happened to him. And another complication in having a former president as either adviser or co-writer is that some of the details that only they could know are ones that the US security services would prefer to remain unknown. There are reports of thriller writers being forcefully asked to remove details that would make it easier to kill a politician or start a nuclear war. So some of Clinton’s confidences may be tantalisingly redacted from the manuscript.

The novelist hotline to politics may now be dead. Theresa May seems more likely to read Jane Austen than Karin Slaughter, although May’s tenure as home secretary seemed to inform a recent thriller about that job: Richard T Kelly’s The Knives. Writers of White House fiction, though, should probably not bother contacting President Trump, who, having admitted to having no interest in reading novels, seems unlikely to co-operate or collaborate with a writer of one.

The Five Best White House Thrillers

Balance of Power by Richard North Patterson (2003)
President Kilcannon tries to enact gun control in an incredibly informative story about US politics.

The Better Angels by Charles McCarry (1979)
A story about a tight election featuring terrorists who turn planes into flying bombs and computer hackers who steal votes – decades before such twists became real headlines.

Absolute Power by David Baldacci (1996)
Published on the eve of Clinton’s re-election, a story about a sex criminal in the White House that previewed the Lewinsky scandal.

The Company by John Ehrlichman (1976)
Written by a former aide to Richard Nixon, a roman à clef about the downfall of a corrupt president that is a key text for students of the Watergate crisis.

Executive Orders by Tom Clancy (1996)
After a nuclear attack wipes out the US government, agent Jack Ryan becomes emergency president and reconstructs the country in a book reflecting start-from-scratch fantasies of the Republican right.

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