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

Tom Clancy
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Tom Clancy
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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?'"

The next decade of Clancy's life was a time of false starts. He began and shelved three plots – ideas that would later become Patriot Games, Without Remorse and The Sum of All Fears – before coming across a newspaper story about a Soviet frigate whose crew attempted to defect with their ship to Sweden. With a few changes (Sweden becomes America; the frigate becomes a nuclear sub) he had the plot of The Hunt for Red October. When Clancy speaks of this – and when he speaks about a lot of other things, too – he lapses into the sort of Army talk familiar to kids in back yards all over the country. "I was never thinking about whether this was a good book or a bad book," he says. "I was thinking of the mission. You have to focus on the mission, and the mission is finishing the book, and everything else is only a sideshow to the mission."

Completing the mission also gave Clancy a means of escape, a way out of the suburban malaise. For several hours each morning, he could go off with his imagination, living out the fantasies of every movie-watching, flag-waving American male. And these fantasies began to take the shape of one man: Jack Ryan. Appearing in all but one of Clancy's books, Ryan is an idealized version of the author. A CIA analyst, Ryan has tremendous courage and charm. Yet he is vulnerable, fearing air travel and death. He is a family man. He has a code. He is followed by spies, by glances, by whispers, by women. And when he's on the 18th hole, his cellular phone rings. On the other end is his daughter, whom he soothes, or maybe it's the secretary of state, whom he also soothes. Ryan's phone number is programmed into the president's autodial. "When I sketched Ryan, I made a conscious decision to make a departure from the typical thriller hero," says Clancy, who talks about James Bond as if he were a neighbor of whom he does not approve. "Bond drove a Bentley and gambled and played around a lot. But people like that would not be employed by an intelligence agency. They just look like a security risk. So why not make a hero a real guy? And I didn't want him fooling around all the time like Bond. Most men don't do that. And from a psychological point of view, a guy who has to do crazy, exciting, dangerous things for a living is going to want a point of stability in his life, and that will be his family."

The ending of Red October shows Jack Ryan on an airplane, fresh from saving the world, and strapped beside him is a large teddy bear, a gift for his little girl: "The sky was overcast, and when the aircraft burst through the cloud layer into the sunlight, Ryan did something he had never done before. For the first time in his life, Jack Ryan fell asleep on an airplane."

In February 1983, Clancy showed his finished manuscript (mission accomplished) to an editor friend at the Naval Institute Press, which paid Clancy $5,000. (It was the first fiction the Naval Institute had ever published.) The next year, someone gave the book to Reagan, and Clancy's future was assured.

In a way, Tom Clancy has become Jack Ryan: He lectures at the FBI; he dines at the White House; he has been asked on numerous occasions to run for public office; he gives his thoughts on world affairs; he hosts fund-raisers for his friend Oliver North; he attends meetings at the CIA; and like his friends there, he seems almost comically obsessed with leaks and the flow of information. Yes, he'd like to tell me the name of the college where he serves as a trustee, but that information is "classified." And, yes, he'd like to tell me about his daughters, their interests and their ages, but that might constitute a "security risk." At one point, in fact, when I ask Clancy, who owns a percentage of the Baltimore Orioles, if he was a fan of baseball growing up, he waves me off and says, "Classified."

Sitting in his chair in his library, which looks out over Chesapeake Bay, speaking his mind on this and that, Clancy seems other-worldly. His shoulders are narrow, and his body thickens as you move down. His nose, sharp and pointy, looks like the acute angle drawn to represent a nose on a cartoon face. And his arms, long and sinewy, are forever reaching – for a pencil, for a light, for an idea just beyond his grasp. "Congress can't balance the budget or fix the economy, so what do they do?" he asks, lighting a Merit. "They ban smoking on all airplanes." His narrow eyes, set way back in his head, are made spooky by his tinted glasses, which are thick and magnify his pupils. As he talks, his eyes scan the room and occasionally fall on you, and when they do, they become as big as silver dollars. "Things have changed so much," he says, leaning back. "Ten years ago I was not yet a published author. I was working six to eight days a week in my insurance agency. The world was a very different place.... The Russians were coming." He raises his eyebrows. "That's right. In the '80s there was a goddamn good chance they would launch an invasion. They always wanted to conquer Western Europe. And they saw what was happening, that Reagan was developing SDI, technology that would make their ICBMs obsolete, and without those missiles the Russians were just Chad with an army. They saw the window closing. Now a friend of mine who just retired from the Army, a three-star general, he knows many of the Soviet general officers, and they told him the Russians were coming. No shit. This is Soviet generals talking to American generals. Now you know. Kind of gives you chills, doesn't it?"

As the hours roll by, Clancy delivers many such monologues, long rambles on U.S. history, war, the nature of man. "This is America, and people are free to be idiots," he says. "But you have to really listen, because every now and then the idiot turns out to be right." His talk is filled with tangents, tangents that lead to the past ("The bench mark for a good fighting force is Caesar's army in Gaul") and tangents that lead to other tangents. But in the end, like a dark alley opening on a sun-filled plaza, all his musings wind up back here, in the bright high-ceilinged library that looks out on the bay. "This thing is supposed to trigger muscle memory," says Clancy, picking up a golf club that ends just below the handle. "Here," he says, thrusting the club into my hand. "Tell me what this weighs."

"I don't know."

"C'mon, c'mon. Tell me."

"I don't know; 15 pounds?"

"You wanna bet? Wrong. It just feels that way. Try 2 pounds. Wanna weigh it?"

One thing that distinguishes Clancy's work is an exacting attention to detail, an all-consuming interest in military hardware. Clancy likes weapons the way Hugh Hefner likes women. As the plot of Red October unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Jack Ryan is a minor star when compared with the Russian sub: "The Red October carried 26 SS-N-20 Seahawk missiles, each with eight 500-kiloton, multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles – MIRVs – enough to destroy 200 cities."

In the course of a Clancy story, a careful reader is let in on certain trade secrets – how to dismantle a nuclear missile, how to fire a torpedo, how to defeat stealth capability when shooting down a jet. Much of Clancy's early success resulted from just such specificity. In the '80s the rise of Tom Clancy neatly paralleled Ronald Reagan's arms buildup. So as Americans weretold they must spend millions each year on smart weapons, Clancy showed these exotic new toys in action. So exact were some of these descriptions that people began to wonder: Does Tom Clancy work for the Company? After all, if you were a CIA official and wanted to place an agent somewhere in America, what better cover than insurance? "An insurance agent is sufficiently good cover that I've been unable to penetrate it myself," says the author, smiling. And if you were to have that agent spread propaganda about American military might, what better medium than a fast-paced cinematic thriller? In fact, when Clancy first appeared on the scene, Pravda warned readers that he was a pitchman for the American military-industrial complex. "I don't know why people want to believe I work for the CIA," says Clancy, adjusting his glasses. "I think it's more interesting that I do not work for the CIA, that an ordinary person can dig all this stuff up. There's my research library right there." He points across the room, where several oversize books are neatly stacked: Jane's All the World's Aircraft, U.S. Nuclear Weapons, Weapons and Tactics of the Soviet Army. Anyone with the patience and fortitude to wade through such imposing texts, claims Clancy, can accumulate enough intelligence to seem like a spook. The people in power know that the place to hide a fact isn't a safe (safes can be blown) but between a million other facts, most of them boring. So Clancy spends much of his time playing private eye, hunting down data as you might hunt down criminals, reading thousands of pages on strategy and tactics. "The really important things are never classified," he says. "They're hard to find but never classified." In those rare moments when Clancy cannot find a fact, he gets as close as the books will take him, then takes a guess. In the past his hunches have been so good that CIA friends tell Clancy he would make a fine analyst. "I suppose it takes a certain kind of intelligence," he says, shrugging. Still, he would not trade his life for the daily triumphs of Jack Ryan. "When you live like Ryan, you're all the time getting dropped in the soup," he says. "And who wants to be in the soup?"

Besides, Tom Clancy the writer has probably done more for the departments of state and defense than any CIA agent. With his steady praise of the country's armed forces, he has spread the myth of American invincibility. "These weapons will work, even if the talking heads on MacNeil/Lebrer and 60 Minutes never believe it," he says, stubbing out a cigarette. "The Russians always believed in our weapons because the Russians have good intelligence."

For the author, the Gulf War therefore came as a kind of redemption, a dramatic display of the weapons he had so long rhapsodized over. "What we did to the Iraqi army is the closest thing we will ever see to The War of the Worlds," he says. "The Iraqis literally did not know what was happening to them." So when the Pentagon released video of cruise missiles making hairpin turns and sailing smoothly over hills and doing everything else short of asking directions to find their targets, Clancy felt the pride known to Geppetto the toy maker when Pinocchio became a real boy at last. "No, it wasn't a fair fight," Clancy says. "But who said it's supposed to be fair? A good friend of mine, Gen. Fred Franks, a four-star, said, "When I fight a war, I don't want to win 24 to 21. I want to win 100 to nothing.' That was the score in the Persian Gulf."

The use of weapons as heroes has made Clancy's plots especially tempting to filmmakers. People go to Clancy movies for the same reason they stand for hours to see three or four passes by the Blue Angels or watch cars take 500 laps with the hope of catching one wreck – because the only thing more exciting than watching machinery at work is watching it explode. And though Clancy acknowledges a certain thrill in seeing his books made into films ("It's kind of a singular experience," he says, "as though someone reached into your brain, grabbed one of your dreams and built it"), he has a populist disdain toward showbiz, especially Hollywood showbiz. Indeed, in a time short of rivalries, when even the Israelis and Palestinians are ready to risk peace, Clancy still has Hollywood. When I say something he finds disturbing, something about honor and how it now seems like just another word, he frowns and says, "Sounds like something a Hollywood puke would say." And whenever Clancy talks about the virtues of America – how this is still an idealistic country, a country of believers and inventors and artists and optimists – he is careful to leave Hollywood out. As a result his relationships with the people who turn his books into movies are problematic.

A few years ago a rift opened between Clancy and Harrison Ford; according to newspaper accounts at the time, Clancy thought Ford too old for the role of Jack Ryan. "I have never had a cross word with the guy," Clancy now says. "I've only met him a few times. The last time in Vegas. And, yeah, we had a few things to talk-about, and it was a lively discussion. We were nose to nose for two hours, but after it was all over, we shook hands. I don't make public statements about Patriot Games, and I haven't seen Clear and Present Danger." Dropping his voice, he continues: "They did not even invite me to the premiere of Clear and Present Danger. They said I was out of the country, but I was right here."

The movies have made his job so much more difficult. All of a sudden an entire industry hangs on the fate of Jack Ryan. "When someone pays me a bazillion-dollar advance, suddenly I have to write a bazillion-dollar book," he says, folding his arms. "And each book has to be better than the last, which means a more complicated plot, which drives me crazy."

What's more, Clancy has to deal with the constant sniping of critics who sometimes seem infuriated by the author's success, as if it were a joke being played on them. A few weeks ago, for example, reviewing Debt of Honor in the New York Times, Christopher Buckley called Clancy "the James Fenimore Cooper of his day, which is to say, the most successful bad writer of his generation." According to Clancy, behind many such attacks you can find a trace of jealousy. After all, these critics probably make nothing like the money made by Clancy, and even if they are fabulously wealthy, even if they inherited a billion dollars, there is just no way they own a tank. In the wake of the Times review, the critic and the writer exchanged a salvo of faxes, which ended when Clancy, an expert at keeping his mind on the mission, brought the debate back into focus: "Sonny, when your paperback sales begin to approach my hardcover sales in, say, England, do let me know."

"I don't want to sound commercial, but I'm in it for the money, not the awards," says Clancy, reaching for a cigarette. "This is my job. It's how I feed my family. Shakespeare did the same thing. It's an honorable tradition. What do I care if someone reads my books a hundred years from now? I will be dead. I will not be walking the earth. And it's kind of hard to make money when you're dead."

In recent years the mission has become muddied, the enemies unclear. During the Cold War, your enemy was often more reliable than your friend. This was important to Clancy, who was always interested in national conflict, in the dynamics of war. Unlike Crane or Remarque, however, he is not concerned with how battle affects the individual. "I've never been a soldier," Clancy says, "so how can I know about that?" Clancy wants the big picture, the view from the White House or the Kremlin, how the pins look as they sweep across the map. He plays with fictional armies the way a kid plays with toy soldiers. But ever since Russian troops began packing into rickety old trains and heading east, those games have become increasingly difficult to play. "I think the time of the big war is over," he says. "I'm not sure we need to have any more wars at all. Having defeated the Soviet Union, for the first time in all of human history, we live in a world without the possibility of superpower conflict. All the way back to the Trojan War, the big boys have butted heads. But it's a new world. And if you change the rules of the game, then it's a different game, and everything that had happened before – wars, treaties, conflicts – they don't matter. Countries are increasingly run by citizens – the people who get up and go to work every day – and the citizens are smart people. They don't want to go off to war and get killed. They would prefer to smart their way out."

On the road to peace, however, Clancy foresees all kinds of small skirmishes, attacks from terrorists and thugs. "It's just a large armed robbery," he says. "Someone has something they want, so they take it, just like holding up a liquor store." To depict this new world, Clancy has assumed a cops-and-robbers tone in his more recent novels. Hooligans with detonators and slogans and strange accents disturb the peace, only to be foiled by America, the land of smart weapons. In Debt of Honor, the United States must deal with the rambunctious Indian navy, which is menacing our fast-shrinking 7th Fleet (message: increase defense spending); a drug-dealing Middle East terrorist; and a group of Japanese businessmen who, sitting in a Tokyo bathhouse, fantasize about world domination and blond American women: "'And she knew her place. ... She sat there while Yamata-san went over the papers, waiting patiently. No shame in her at all. Such lovely bosoms.'"

Clancy makes use of everything that happens everywhere; he may be the only person in America who truly profits from watching the news. If you see it on TV, it will probably wind up in a Clancy novel. All of the author's new work, books that come after the fall of communism, books laced with words like warlord and cartel, are bound to sound timely no matter when you read them, because American foreign policy currently seems caught on a tape loop, like a cartoon background that forever repeats, where the same conflict arises again and again, and where a description of a house-to-house search in Somalia gives a fair depiction of operations in Haiti. "Yes, there may not be one obvious enemy like there once was," says Clancy. "And all this might mean I have to write about different things, but it also means my children will grow up in a safer world. And given the choice between making money and having my kids grow up in a safer place, what the hell choice do you think I'm going to make?"

Still, Clancy thinks there may be a few great foes left. So here comes Japan, moving through a crowd of has-beens and two-bit palookas, stepping through the ropes at 120 million strong, the masters of disaster with an economy that hums like a steel guitar. They are met at the ring by Clancy, a kind of literary Don King, a man ready to promote, warn of and predict the outcome of the brawl. "I don't know anyone who has been to Japan and come back with the opinion that the Japanese like us," says Clancy, looking toward the bay. "And I know quite a few people who do business in Japan and do it quite successfully, and I will tell you in all candor: These people don't just dislike the Japanese; they hate them. The Japanese think we are fools. But they also thought we were fools back in '41 – stupid and cowardly. Ah, we killed about 2 million of them proving otherwise. The Japanese still believe the master-race thing. We pounded that out of the Germans but not the Japanese. They still think they are the elected of God or Buddha or whatever. They just think they are better than everyone else."

Tom Clancy was fortunate to enter the public eye in a time of great enemies. He had a foe equal to his imagination. He painted in broad strokes, strokes compelling in their depictions, in their fears. For the first half of his life as a novelist, Clancy was blessed with Soviet Russia. He was blessed with Soviet Russia as McDonnell Douglas was blessed with Soviet Russia. His energy had a target, and that target sprawled across one-quarter of the world's land-mass. And then as Clancy sat in his office waging battles in his head, his world began to change. The Soviet Union collapsed. His children grew. The Democrats took power. The seasons passed. The IRA laid down its guns. And the headlines flew by like a million opportunities. And yet, in all the important ways, life here at Camp Kaufmann does not change. The books are written. The view from the library is the same. The reviews are mixed. The sales are astounding. The movies are popular – if a bit disappointing. And the good guy always wins. "Money has made me no different," says Clancy, smiling. "For better or worse, I am the same jerk I always was."

This story is from the December 1st, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.

 
From The Archives Issue 696: December 1, 1994