James Patterson says pushing a narrative of stolen election results is "the game that Trump plays"

The author spoke to Salon about politics and working with Bill Clinton on their new book "The President's Daughter"

By Matthew Rozsa
Published June 7, 2021 7:02PM (EDT)
The President's Daughter by Bill Clinton and James Patterson (Photo illustration by Salon/David Burnett/Little, Brown and Company/Knopf)
The President's Daughter by Bill Clinton and James Patterson (Photo illustration by Salon/David Burnett/Little, Brown and Company/Knopf)

Best-selling novelist James Patterson is not an expert on presidents, but he has unique insights into them. Not only has he written books featuring presidents as the main characters, but he's also co-authored two books with our 42nd president, Bill Clinton.

Their latest collaboration is "The President's Daughter" (Little, Brown and Company, June 7). A brisk and engaging read despite being longer than 600 pages, it tells the story of a former president whose daughter is kidnapped, forcing him to navigate a delicate political environment while using skills from his own military past. This is the kind of story that one could easily have imagined being a movie blockbuster back when Clinton was president, although Patterson has astutely pointed out that its premise may be less preposterous than many events in the Trump era.

Of our erstwhile 45th president, Patterson had quite a few things to say. While the hero of "The President's Daughter" was a one-term president who — like every defeated president before Trump and the 2020 election — accepted the will of the people, Trump has not, to which Patterson observed, "The thing of it is, that's the game. That's what makes it even more tragic. It's the game that President Trump plays. He puts out something that is outrageous, and a certain number of people are going to go along with it."

Patterson also pointed to an earlier interaction, long before the 2016 election, that indicates Trump himself was also surprised that anyone would deem him presdential material.

"They had done polls, and he was at the top of the poll in terms of who people would like to see as a Republican candidate," Patterson recalled. "Nobody knew anything about what he believed in, what he stood for, et cetera, et cetera. And he came up to me and he said, 'Did you see the polls?' And I said, 'Yeah, I did actually.' He said, 'What do you think?' And I said something polite. And he looked at me, he said, 'Crazy world, huh?' So he knew how nuts that was, that people were interested in him being the president, even though they had no idea where he stood on any of the issues."

Patterson is not someone normally associated with politics. His most famous books, which have sold more than 300 million copies, include crime and mystery thrillers like the "Alex Cross" series and the "Women's Murder Club" series, as well as his many standalone books that span multiple genres. Yet as someone who interviewed one of Bill Clinton's advisers about how the 42nd president responded to a situation somewhat similar to one in this novel, I could not help but be intrigued by "The President's Daughter." It is a political thriller in the truest sense of that term, as written by two authors uniquely qualified to tell this kind of story.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

As I was reading the book, I kept thinking about how two of the most popular action movies released during Bill Clinton's presidency had the president himself as an action hero, "Independence Day" and "Air Force One." Did you ever think, as you were writing this, that it's wish fulfillment for former presidents?

[Laughing] I don't know. You'll have to talk to the president about that one. He is a big reader. He reads everything. He does read a lot of mysteries and likes them. I think that's part of it.

I think the difference between what we try to do — and to some extent succeed, some extent not — is try to make the president a flesh and blood human. A lot of times in TV shows and movies, "Independence Day" being one of them, the president doesn't feel like a human being, doesn't feel very real. And they are, obviously. I know President Clinton very well now, and I know President [George W.] Bush a bit, and I even know President [Donald] Trump a little bit. Two of the three are quite human. I won't say which two they are.

I can figure it out.

No, not necessarily. You never know. I'm not saying that. At any rate, so that's a piece of it, to have the humanity. And the other thing about it is, versus somebody trying to do "Independence Day" or "Air Force One"  if this happened — even though it is a little far fetched, a lot of it is far-fetched — but if it happened, this is how it would happen. 

I will say I noticed earlier when you were listing low quality action stories with the president as a protagonist, you didn't mention "Air Force One," you only mentioned "Independence Day." Was that on purpose?

I thought "Air Force One" was better done. I though it was a pretty decent movie.

I do have more questions about Bill Clinton, but before we get into that, I want to talk about James Patterson for a bit, because you are extremely prolific. I have seen your novels everywhere.

And I'm good too.

Of course, of course. 

No, I'm kidding. I am. Prolific is always, yeah. Yes I am. Yes, yes I am. 

When people think of James Patterson, they think of a brand, a type of story that they want to be told.

When you say "people," who are you talking about? Like people who read my books or your friends? I don't think most people think of me as a brand, but you know, maybe your friends do, but most people don't.

Fair enough. I suppose I was presumptively tapping into the zeitgeist.

Are you sure you can do that?

Either way, I was not trying to insult you.

No, it's good. I'm not insulted, I'm used to it.

Well, my full question was, who is James Patterson the man?

I actually just finished my autobiography, which is just stories. We've had about a dozen people read it, including the president and Hillary, and people — and I think this is even true of MasterClass, I just did an interview with The New Yorker about MasterClass and I actually did the first one — and I think people who spend time with me, their response is, "This guy's extremely down to earth, not impressed with himself." Not just like, "It's okay, I write books." We have a son, and he's 23. I think we always brought him up to be like, "Don't be ashamed of it. It's fine, but it's no big deal."

I feel very lucky. When I published the first book, I was turned down by 31 publishers, then won an Edgar for Best First Mystery of the year. I don't know what that means, except that one of the things that means is that I was very lucky that the 32nd publisher decided to publish it. And I'm not insulted by the prolific thing. It's all fine and good.

Good. It was sincerely not intended as an insult.

It's okay. Almost everybody who interviews me, that's the first word that comes out of their mouth, or "brand" or whatever. I certainly don't think of myself as a brand. 

It's inspiring. Hundreds of millions of people have read your words. Things that you have put to paper have directly impacted hundreds of millions of lives. That is something that the vast majority of people cannot say. I sincerely respect and admire that.

Yeah. Well, I'm not all that respectful of myself and whatever, but at any rate, I do a lot of stuff and it's kind of all over the lot. I like new challenges. I've just done a couple of podcasts with Audible. The thing is that, what I want to do — and then when I say this in Hollywood, they kind of laugh at me — when the project is done. I want to say that I'm really happy that I did the project. It's not about money. That's what drives me. So whether it's a podcast — and we have one that is coming out in September — that I think is really, really, really good. Dwayne, a friend of mine, we did it together.

You said that you want to be able to work on projects that you find fulfilling, that you enjoy. What is it that you find fulfilling specifically about working with Bill Clinton? 

I think there are a lot of things. One, he's very bright. I think that what separates "The President's Daughter" and "The President Is Missing" from a lot of thriller fiction is something I mentioned before: he brings authenticity to whatever the scene is. If that particular thing happened, here's what the Secret Service would do. If a president was out of office, here's where he could reach out for help, whether the help would happen or not.

And we're friends at this point. We send birthday presents, presents for Christmas. He gave me Monopoly for Socialists for Christmas. Last year for my birthday he gave me a humidor. He knows I don't smoke. So I called them up and said, "Well, you're the expert in cigars, should I put bubble gum or chocolate cigars in here?" And he said, "Oh, definitely bubble gum. Because at our age, we've got to exercise our gums."

I grew up in New Britain, New York, small town, blah, blah, blah. I still look at the world through the lens of this guy from Newburgh and, wow, I'm doing a book with Bill Clinton! I have another celebrity, which in a lot of ways is bigger than Clinton. I cannot reveal at this time, but it's a cool one. I've worked with the Einstein Foundation, worked with Muhammad Ali's foundation, and it's cool stuff. It's like, wow. When I tell this kind of thing, I'm not like bragging. It's just like, I'm kinda like that.

You mention Clinton brings authenticity to this as a president. What did he bring to this as a writer?

He's a good writer and he does a fair amount of it. I love it when certain people . . . We know exactly what Patterson and what Clinton wrote, and this is one of the English papers, and they were wrong on all accounts about who did what. He really does know a lot. It's interesting. I had dinner with Brian Mulroney who would have been the, uh . . .

The Canadian Prime Minister.

Yeah, for 12 years. And he said Clinton is the most impressive world leader he ever met. And he used the one example that when [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin first got into office, they wanted to meet, but Clinton said, "I can't come to Russia." And Yeltsin said, "I can't come to the United States." And so Clinton contacted Mulroney and he said, "Would you host this up in Canada?" And he said, "Absolutely." And he said that they let him sit in on the first part of the session, and that listening to Clinton was like listening to a professor of history at Harvard. He said he knew so much about Russia and it blew Yeltsin's mind too. He's a very, very bright guy and very interesting. We've become pretty good friends. I mean, we talk at least once a week.

This brings me back to James Patterson, the man. Obviously James Patterson the man, is very good friends with Bill Clinton, the man. But what are James Patterson the man's thoughts on Bill Clinton, the president from 1993 to 2001?

I think he was a very good president. One of the things, when he left office, he had a 65% approval rating, and people kind of forget that now. That's kind of a big deal. That meant that, even given the Monica Lewinsky situation, 65% of the people said that he was a good president. Like anybody, he's not perfect and he'll admit that. And then after that, he and Bush did a really nice job in Africa in terms of helping with the AIDS epidemic there. I think he's done nice things for education with his foundation. I think he tries to do the right thing. I think Hillary does too.

Do people make mistakes? Sure, absolutely. I make them, you make them, you know, whatever. People don't seem to be very tolerant of other people's mistakes. And unfortunately the culture now is, "My view of the world is right, and your view is stupid." I think Bill and I both look at the world as a little more grey. It's not black and white like that.

That's interesting. The other person — the Clinton that hasn't been mentioned, but I'm really curious for her thoughts — is Chelsea, because obviously the title of the book is "The President's Daughter" and Bill Clinton is one of the authors. Did you discuss this with her at all?

I have not discussed it with her other than at one point. Her husband said, 'You guys got to write another book," and then I left it up to the president to in terms of whether there were any issues there, and I don't believe there are any, but that's something for Bill to talk about.

Now it is possible that I missed something, but I have to bring this up because like Clinton, I am a history buff. On pages 58 and 63, you write that the protagonist, Keating, was the first president to be defeated by his own vice president. Unless I missed something or misconstrued that, this would be incorrect, because Thomas Jefferson was John Adams' vice president when he defeated him in the 1800 election. 

Okay. Well, we'll have to try to fix that quickly. I don't think we can, actually. You've got us. We'll do it in the paperback.

I'm not trying to pull a gotcha.

It happens. Hopefully those things get picked up by a copy editor, but it didn't this time.

The fact that Bill Clinton is so knowledgeable about history, I kept thinking, "I couldn't be wrong about this, but it's Bill Clinton. He must know what he's talking about." So if I am wrong, please let me know.

No. He missed it. He missed it, and you got it.

I guess my next question involves your activism in encouraging children's literacy. It's intriguing to me because, while this is not a children's book, it is the type of book that I would have devoured when I was a young adult. I was obsessed with politics. I loved political thrillers. There is no way that a book written by a former president and James Patterson would not have been written read by my 13-year-old counterpart. Did you have that in mind when you were writing this? And if so, how did it affect the way you constructed the story? 

Not for kids. I write a lot of kids' books.

I know that. That's why I asked.

It started actually when our son — he's now 23, but when he was younger and he's a bright kid — but he wasn't a big reader. I just thought that I could write stories that kids would gobble up and there'd be something for them to chew. One of my favorites is a book called "Pottymouth and Stoopid," and it's about word bullying, which to me is more destructive in this age than physical bullying. And it's two kids who get those nicknames when they're like three and four years old, and when they're 12 they still have those nicknames, and that's how cruel word bullying is. It's a pretty funny book.

I do Ali Cross, who is Alex's son, so I've done two books for kids with Ali Cross. The Einstein estate came to me at one point. They said, "We'd like kids around the world to be aware of Albert Einstein and his science," and I said that's a tough task. And he said, but of course, you have to make it entertaining. And I'm like, oh, okay, well, I just have to make Einstein's science entertaining for kids.

But you're saying this one is not meant for children, even young adults. Like the example I started with me being 13.

Yeah, you never know. Listen, I can remember — and I couldn't believe this — it stuck out. A woman brought her young daughter up, like 10 or 11 years old, and she she'd read all the Alex Cross books. I'm like, I don't know that I'd be encouraging my 10-year-old to be reading the Alex Cross books, but you know, people do it. I think I tended at 12 or 13 too . . . and I wasn't a big reader at that point, but I would read adult books rather than the books for kids. The kids' books didn't do much for me.

A few years ago, you told CBS that you worked out of a home office in Palm Beach, Florida, and showed that you were working on dozens of projects that were in various stages at that time. Has the pandemic changed any of your work routines? 

No. The only thing is I did sit down and write the autobiography. I was stuck here and, I don't know, for whatever reason once I got into it, I was enjoying it, to sort of tell stories about who I am and how I got there and whatever. I think they're all pretty cool stories. I think actually being stuck in the house, especially for three or four months there, it refocused me on the writing. I got a little sharper if I might have gotten a little sloppy.

I also agreed to do the podcasts, which are a different and new challenge. I like challenges. I mean, it was a challenge to try to write kids books. I did one with Kwame Alexander on Cassius Clay when he was a kid in Louisville. It goes back and forth between poetry and prose. And so that was kind of an interesting challenge and I liked the podcasts because they are challenging too, because they're like the old-time radio dramas, only they're like five hours long. So that was kind of cool.

My closing question then: In a recent interview you mentioned the January 6th insurrection attempt and cited it as an example of how reality can be stranger than fiction. Obviously this book was written well before that happened, but Trump for years had been saying that if he wasn't reelected, the only possible explanation would be that the election had been rigged.

In your book, the protagonist — who is an archetypal American war hero — graciously accepts his defeat. I was wondering as I read this characterization of patriotism and masculinity being manifested in accepting loss with dignity if this was, on some level, a commentary on what even at that time was being discussed.

I don't think it's a comment on Trump as much, and we try to stay away from that honestly, Bill and I both. But we both think that it's useful, and it would be useful, to have a president where people in general are going, "Okay, we believe in this person up to a point," and we hope that somebody like that will surface. I will say with Joe Biden, where the left and the right up to a point . . . It's not going to happen in Congress, but it can happen if people put pressure and they go like, "No, we like with this man or woman is doing, and it's the right direction for us." And so, you know, we're hopeful about that.

One of the things that made President Clinton successful is he knows how to compromise. In our lives, we all understand the importance of compromise. We compromise with our spouses, we compromise with our kids, we compromise with whatever. Life is about that. Then all of a sudden we have a government where people don't want to compromise. And I think for Clinton always it was like, "Look, I understand where you're coming from. Here's where I'm coming from. Okay. How do we move this forward?" And he would do that as a president. Like with Bosnia, he just approached the Republicans and said, "Look, we have to do something. We must do something." And he told me, he said, he thought that that [former President Barack] Obama and [former House Speaker John] Boehner would have worked out some stuff together. He said they're both reasonable enough, but he said the parties wouldn't let them.

What could be more uncompromising than refusing to accept that you've lost an election?

The thing of it is, that's a game. That's what makes it even more tragic.

How is it a game?

It's the game that President Trump plays. He puts out something that is outrageous, and a certain number of people are gonna go along with it. I mean, look, every presidential election there's been some fraud. Probably one of the worst was at the [John F.] Kennedy election in terms of what happened in Illinois, and I love Kennedy, but you know. I think that Trump knows that, but that bonds him to these people. What I don't understand is those people, they're going to vote for him or they're going to vote for Republicans, I don't know why he feels it's so important to curry favor with that group. I don't understand that part.

I can give you an example of Trump [that] I think says a lot about where he comes from. So this is years ago. I know him a bit, and I ran into him and this was — I don't remember exactly what the timeframe was — but it was before he was elected, or even before that election, I think it was a previous election, and they had done polls, and he was at the top of the poll in terms of who people would like to see as a Republican candidate. Nobody knew anything about what he believed in what he stood for, et cetera, et cetera. And he came up to me and he said, "Did you see the polls?" And I said, "Yeah, I did actually." He said, 'What do you think?' And I said something polite. And he looked at me, he said, "Crazy world, huh?" So he knew how nuts that was, that people were interested in him being the president, even though they had no idea where he stood on any of the issues.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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