Tom Clancy: Master of War

In 1994, Rich Cohen visited the 'Patriot Games' author to learn why, despite his successes, he kept making new enemies

December 1, 1994
Tom Clancy
Tom Clancy
Joe McNally/Getty Images

In the last decade of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan read a book. The book, The Hunt for Red October, was written by an unknown insurance agent, a Baltimore native named Tom Clancy who dreamed up the intricate plot while sitting in his office. The book was about many things. It was about the East and the West, good and evil, nuclear weapons, submarines, war. It was also about 400 pages, and Reagan read them all, enjoying the book enough to call it "the perfect yarn," a dream blurb that sent sales through the roof. Subsequently, Clancy wrote seven more novels, which have sold more than 30 million copies, gave up selling insurance, built a house, sold it, built another and visited the White House. Three of his books have been made into movies, and his protagonist and alter ego, Jack Ryan, a role fleshed out by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, has become an American icon.

Read Peter Travers' 1990 Review of The Hunt for Red October

Since 1984, when Reagan picked up that first Clancy book, however, the world has changed – and changed drastically. Ronald Reagan is no more than a distant memory, and even George Bush seems relegated to a bomb-fearing, Red-baiting past. So Clancy is alone, left to find his way in a wilderness of mirrors where the enemies are not clear and danger lurks in small packages. "Ten years ago the world was a very different place," says the author, who is 47. "And it's changed – in historical terms – virtually overnight." These days, in fact, Tom Clancy is in roughly the same bind as the boys at the Pentagon: Like a fight promoter when the heavyweight champ has defeated all contenders, he must find some new foe he can sell to the public.

Tom Clancy lives with his family on 400 wooded acres in Maryland that sprawl along the curving shore of Chesapeake Bay. Clancy's own private Camp David, the property is studded with two tennis courts, two basketball courts and a full-length football field complete with goal posts. Along the main road (the small suburban word driveway doesn't do it justice) there is a sign that warns of a tank crossing, and then there is the tank, a hulking green M4A1 that sits on the front lawn like a forgotten Big Wheel. The horizon is lost in a blanket of birch and cedar, a forest in which Clancy routinely spots wildlife and always resists the temptation to shoot it dead; he has a gun range in his basement. "For pure fun," he says, "my favorite is the Smith & Wesson .45-caliber revolver." The entrance is blocked by an automated security gate, and the forest is sometimes walked by Freddie, the family dog. If an intruder were to clear the gate and then get by Freddie and the tank, he or she would still be faced with the last line of defense: Clancy with a shotgun. Though it's not as fun as the revolver, Clancy believes the shotgun more appropriate for work around the house. Before belonging to Clancy, this land was home to Camp Kaufmann. "A summer camp for poor Jewish kids," he says. "But they ran out of them."

Clancy bought Camp Kaufmann seven years ago, and it now stands as a sort of physical manifestation of his literary success, something worth protecting with a gun, a dog, a tank, a plot twist, a movie contract, whatever. Clancy has written the story for Op Center, a miniseries that will appear on NBC next March, and in his spare time he is banging out Reality Check, a book of essays that will move him into the land of the conservative pundit. Indeed, Clancy seems to have saturated the national consciousness, creating a new American style, a hybrid of rugged individualism and high technology. At any hour of the day, you can walk the aisle of an airplane and pick out the Clancy titles: Patriot Games, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Debt of Honor.

When it happens, it happens fast. One day in 1982, Tom Clancy, the son of a mailman, this poor guy selling insurance six days a week, is lugging a typewriter and a briefcase all over downtown Baltimore, writing whenever he can find the time. The next day he is a favorite of the Republican establishment, the creator of the technothriller. By the end of the week, ensconced in his Maryland estate, he is famous, an expert on foreign affairs, a popular commencement speaker. And as a result of his stunning success – he reportedly received a $13 million to $14 million advance for Without Remorse – Clancy symbolizes to many just what an idea is worth: He is the kid with the dream when the dream comes true; he is Ralph Kramden when the invention works, and Alice says, "Ralph, you were absolutely right."

"I have shown people that if a dream is all you have," says Clancy, "you still have a hell of a lot. I have shown people you are only a beat away from your dream's coming true."

Despite appearances, Clancy's success was more than an overnight affair. Like many great Americans, he traces the roots of his fame clear back to youth. "The writing bug bit me when I was in high school," says Clancy, who attended Loyola High, a Jesuit boys' school outside Baltimore. "I was having a rather bad junior year, so I got myself a typewriter and began putting things down on paper. And that's when I decided that someday I wanted to see my name on the cover of a book."

By the time Clancy went off to Loyola College, in Baltimore, it was 1965, and there were distractions: protest marches, drugs, rock & roll. But he was never swept up in those passing fashions. "Did I ever do drugs?" he asks. "Never. I was not involved in the movements. Like the great majority of people, I just didn't bother. I had a job, or I was in school. And when I wasn't in school, I was studying or watching TV. I was just being a regular person, as opposed to going out and making trouble." He tried to enlist in the Army but was excused for severe myopia.

Clancy was busy complicating his life in traditional ways. Before he knew what was happening, he was married and had kids and a mortgage. "Life has a way of interfering with your dreams," he says, frowning.

Read Peter Travers' 1994 Review of Clear and Present Danger

But as Clancy's career advanced and his family grew (he now has three daughters and a son), he continued to read: about naval history, about battlefields, about weapons, about spies. And then in 1971 he read The Day of the Jackal, the Frederick Forsyth thriller, and that changed everything. "That's when I decided to write thrillers," Clancy says. "I noticed that all the people writing these things were Brits, and I began to wonder, 'Why can't an American do this?'"

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