The President Is Golfing

Jack McCallum spends a day on the golf course with Bill Clinton and James Paterson, who co-wrote the espionage thriller The President is Missing.
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James Patterson, who is jousting with J.K. Rowling for the title of Richest Author in the World, twirls a golf ball between his thumb and forefinger and says in a faux conspiratorial whisper, "He's better at picking up three- and four-foot putts, and I'm better at getting a second ball down quickly."

"He," Patterson's playing partner, is sticking his peg into the ground on the 1st tee at the Golf Course at the Biltmore Hotel, in Coral Gables, Fla. He rolls his neck and shoulders and takes a few casual warmup swings. One could hardly imagine a more nerve-racking scenario for a double-digit handicapper—a rushed, late-afternoon outing without a pre-round bucket of balls and a group of reverential onlookers waiting in hushed silence, praying a drive doesn't go Gerald-Ford awry. But Patterson's partner seems oblivious to it all.

Why, it's almost as if Bill Clinton is used to performing before a crowd.

"Could've been better," says Clinton, after delivering a slight draw down the center of the fairway, "but I'll take it."

Patterson, more of a let's-get-the-hell-off-the-1st-tee type, lashes his drive to the right and, true to his word, gets a second ball down quickly. Their round goes like that—picked-up putts, a roll-in-in-the-rough here, a winter-rules adjustment there. But let's be clear: No one is cheating. No one is writing down 5 when he had 7. These are the unspoken rules of engagement between a pair of worldwide celebrities, now collaborators, trying to find a few hours of relaxation at a game designed to elicit precisely the opposite.

Clinton and Patterson are here not just to golf but also to talk about The President Is Missing, their jointly written page-turner that is already disappearing from bookstores. They chose the course because POTUS 42 had a Clinton Foundation event at the University of Miami the next day, and Patterson lives part of the year in Palm Beach, a 90-minute drive away. Plus, the grand old Biltmore, hotel and layout, is their kind of place.

As a golfer Clinton is a searcher, an analyst, almost every shot followed by a mini-disquisition. "My iron game's gone to hell in a handbasket...This Bermuda grass? You really gotta hit down on it...Now, didn't that look like it was breaking the other way?"

"My best year as a golfer," says Clinton, whose Secret Service name of Eagle had nothing to do with his game, "was the first year I got out of the White House. I got down to a 10 handicap. But I'm not close to that now. I just don't play enough." Unending global travel does tend to wreak havoc on a player's index.

On the 1st hole, a gone-to-hell-in-a-handbasket iron plops down in the second cut.

"Pick that up, will you?" Clinton hollers to a tailing reporter.

"Yeah, make yourself useful," says Patterson, a low-handicap needler.

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Clinton's choice (such as it is) of ball speaks volumes. It bears not a presidential seal, the stamp of potus alumnus or even a WJC monogram but rather the logo of the Miami Dolphins. "I always toss Mr. Clinton a few balls before he goes out," says Harvey Greene, the Dolphins' vice president of historical affairs, who helps out with publicity and logistics on Clinton's forays to Florida and is part of the entourage traveling in a small caravan of carts. "He just uses what he uses."

It is hard to imagine our current chief executive striking anything that isn't MAGA-logo'ed and gold-filigreed. So, while on the subject, yes, both men have played with the current president, though not since November 2016. But over the course of three hours the name Trump was not mentioned. When the conversation turned to politics, however, it did hover, storm-cloud-like, at least when Clinton was speaking.

The golfers are not too far into their round when a father-and-son twosome on an adjoining fairway spots the distinctive Clinton white mane and begins a headlong gallop toward the group, only to be intercepted by a Secret Service agent. But Clinton beckons them on, and photos ensue. Angel Ureña, his press secretary, just shrugs. It happens, he says. Like every day.

Though Patterson is serious about golf—he is a 12 handicap; appeared on an episode of Feherty Live with Greg Norman and Mike Eruzione; wrote, with collaborator Peter de Jonge, Miracle at Augusta and Miracle on the 17th Green; and can be seen on a YouTube video talking about his "golf addiction"—he seems a little less able than Clinton to give himself wholly to the round. Perhaps that's because the tyranny of the blank page (and it is a page; he and Clinton both compose in longhand with pencil) is never far from the mind of a man who has written or co-written 246 books.

"Here's a golf story from my youth," says Patterson, walking down the 3rd fairway. "I'm a teenager growing up in Newburgh [N.Y.], Tommy Bolt comes in for an exhibition at the Powelton Club, and my friend and I caddie for him. On the 10th hole Bolt pushes one into the weeds. I see where it went, but when we get up there, we can't find it. And Tommy Bolt, who is known for getting pissed, is really pissed. Later, when we're walking home, my friend takes something out of his pocket and says, "Well, I got Tommy Bolt's ball."

Patterson smiles. "Nothing much happened in Newburgh. But besides Tommy Bolt, what I really remember was the day that President Eisenhower came through. I never got that out of my head. The presidency always meant something to me."

Clearly, he has met the ideal collaborator.

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It’s an hour before what turned out to be a nine-hole outing, the day having gotten off to an extremely late start due to Clinton's travel problems. The conversation takes place more than eight weeks before the Clinton-Patterson book tour that, at a Today Show stop, went off the rails for the ex-president when he got angry and defensive when asked whether he still owes Monica Lewinsky an apology. This conversation consists mostly of sports talk, golf talk, and book talk and, despite the delay, moves at a relatively unhurried pace, primarily because of that Clintonian I-only-have-eyes-for-you magic. He wants to get out to the course, but it's against his nature to leave any conversational stones unturned. His writing apparently reflects a certain deliberative style too. "We had to wrest the manuscript from the president's hands," says Patterson wryly.

The collaborators—Clinterson, if you will—are sitting in a well-heeled, well-secured Biltmore suite, Clinton's advance team having chosen the temperature (warm) and the fare (fruit and crackers befitting a vegan). There is speculation about the health of Clinton—who, like Patterson, is 71—but in person he seems hale, if about 25 pounds lighter than he was when he presented as barbecue-eating Bubba.

The collaborators' love of sports is evident throughout The President Is Missing. President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan is a former governor of a Southern state and an old ballplayer who once had a "live fastball." His Secret Service detail is compared to a left tackle protecting the president's blind side; his chief of staff is described as "a five-tool player"; political challengers are referred to as backup quarterbacks (loved until they actually get the starting job); and an assassination attempt takes place during a major league game at Nationals Park. Plus, the head of the German nation is a former West German Olympic hoopster. Do come in, Chancellor Schrempf.

The NCAA final was taking place on the night of this interview, and Patterson had followed it closely. "The big kid from Villanova, Omari Spellman, will really make a difference," he says, accurately as it turns out. (Among Patterson's legion of devoted fans are Dwyane Wade, Diana Taurasi and UConn coach Geno Auriemma.)

"I grew up in Arkansas," says Clinton, providing, unnecessarily, a little biographical detail, "and our state was big on sports. Football primarily, but we followed the St. Louis Cardinals, too. We didn't have a TV, so we got everything from radio. Harry Caray was doing the Cardinals at the time.

"So it was baseball and football for me for a long time. But then Eddie Sutton came along to coach Arkansas basketball and Nolan Richardson followed, and I became a big fan. Both of them are still friends of mine after all these years."

Clinton and Patterson had met casually before they starting writing together, but the matchmaker in this literary marriage was Robert B. Barnett, whose Washington-based law firm, Williams & Connolly, represents both men. "I like to do new things," Clinton says. "A couple of years ago I read a scientific survey that said people could form new neuro networks in their brain until very late in life, but only if they try new things. So this is a new thing for me. I'm an old dog, and this is a new trick."

Hearing that an ex-POTUS would like to collaborate would induce an automatic yes from most writers. But Patterson, whose very name transports you to a bookshop in Terminal C, is not most writers. He has sold 375 million books and been an internationally known writer for as long as Clinton has been an internationally known politician. He is also a philanthropist deeply involved in literacy projects. Throw in some golf, and, yes, the man is a tad busy.

Yet even if Patterson didn't bite at first, he couldn't pass on the chance to write an authentically inside book about the presidency. "Could I have done this without the president?" asks Patterson rhetorically. "Absolutely not. Normally what you do is make stuff up, right? But he"—Patterson points to his collaborator—"would not let me."

Clinterson has certainly constructed the ultimate modern presidential thriller: the world imperiled by global cyberterrorism. Patterson always aims high on the plot front, but Clinterson insists that every one of the dizzying twists and turns is reality-based. Well, there is a pregnant vegan assassin who plays Bach in her head while she lines up a target. "I had nothing to do with that," says Clinton, smiling.

One can clearly see the Clinton contributions, though. The unavoidable tension between president and vice president. Riffs about the wallpaper in a White House dining room. (Jackie Kennedy liked it, Betty Ford hated it, Rosalynn Carter liked it.) The description of a tunnel that leads the president out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The techniques a Secret Service driver employs to steer the car in such a manner to keep the pressure off the Chief Executive in the backseat.

The exact division of labor, however, is impossible to untangle. As their book tour rolls along and a Showtime series based on TPIM begins airing (no date yet), you will hear lots of mutual admiration and precious little about their process. Patterson likes it that way. Someone once said that two people trying to write a book is like three people trying to have a baby, but that has never bothered Patterson. On co-written books Patterson's name has always gone first, but in this case it will appear second. Cue "Hail to the Chief" in the background.

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Back on the course, Clinterson and followers have reached the 5th green. Sunset is not far off, and the twosome wants to play the rest of the round without company. But Clinton is game to answer a couple short follow-ups ("When I played golf, I gave the launch codes to my military aide, who was always with me") and wax more seriously about the state of our political discourse.

The President Is Missing ends with an idealistic, can't-we-all-just-get-along speech by Duncan, and one wonders if, given a national audience, that would be the speech Clinton would give now. "I'd say it would be very close," Clinton answers. "All this division and personal animosity, character assassination and loss of trust is bad for the country. I think, fundamentally, even the people who currently benefit from the state of affairs can't possibly be happy with it. I just don't think it's consistent with human nature to wake up every morning and say, 'Gosh, who can I hurt today?' Because we're all just passing through."

Patterson adds this: "The book is partly about compromise. We compromise all the time in our lives, with our spouses, with our kids, with our employees. But all of a sudden it's become no compromise about anything."

Clinton mentions an obituary he read that morning about Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013. "I kept thinking, I wonder what he'd like to take back. Was it worth it to him for all the pain he inflicted?" says Clinton. "People might think they want to do something because of their momentary road rage. But would they really feel that way if they knew they had a day to live?"

With that, Clinton turns back to face his putt, a sign that the summit is over. He lines it up with his handsome TaylorMade Spider Tour Red, a gift from a friend in England. He leans close. "I really like it," he says, "but you gotta be careful. It's not a putter you want to use from off the green."