The Ironies of Tom Clancy

Tomclancy2By Peter Galuszka

The timing is extremely odd, but the death of techno-thriller author Tom Clancy came this week just when federal workers were being furloughed by the hundreds of thousands through Capitol Hill gridlock.

Clancy, who died in Baltimore at 66, did much in the 1980s to makes heroes of the men and women who served the government as military personnel, contractors or intelligence agency operatives and analysts. Technology helped make them great.

It was a substantial cultural transformation. The government had taken some very bad hits during the Vietnam War for wanton killing of civilians and lying to the American people. Nixon ruined trust with Watergate. Jimmy Carter (although an Annapolis graduate) epitomized Washington incompetence.

Then a B-list actor and advertising pitchman named Ronald Reagan made the military and fancy gizmos romantic and desirable again as he pushed one of the largest peacetime defense buildups ever. It was Reagan who helped make Clancy a literary star by praising his first novel, “The Hunt for Red October,” which was loosely based on a Soviet destroyer captain who tried to defect in the Baltic Sea with his ship.

While Clancy’s characters were always simple, shallow and predictable, they were extremely likeable. Thus, he boosted the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region that is heavily dependent upon federal jobs. If you had grown up with the military and lived anywhere around the area, you could easily recognize the scenes: Hampton Boulevard running up to the Naval Base in Norfolk, Pautuxent Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland, the Marine Base and FBI training center at Quantico and, of course, the bucolic setting of the CIA at Langley.

Clancy’s characters were typically stand-up men and women who preferred serving their country to more selfish endeavors like making money, although super hero Jack Ryan apparently made millions on Wall Street before giving it up to become a CIA analyst and global trouble shooter. His sexy and smart wife was a highly-successful eye surgeon.

Many of the characters were Irish Catholics from Baltimore and rooted for the Colts or the Ravens and sometimes the Redskins. You had your occasional token African-American or Japanese-American, in one case an ugly F-15 jet fighter pilot who was a woman.

The bad guys were carbon copies of fascists, commies and cruel-hearted dictators. At the time when his first novels were coming out, I was posted in the Soviet Union as a news correspondent. They made for great and light reading on the long plane rides over.

But once I got to know more about Moscow and other Evil Empire spots, I realized just how goofy Clancy really was. Real Russians didn’t talk the way he set up his dialogue. The timing was also way off. “The Cardinal of the Kremlin”of the 1980s  was based on 1960s master spy Oleg Penkovsky who was executed around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One hotshot, female CIA operative who got the eye for cheering her son on at a Moscow hockey game was actually based on a real CIA officer who got caught in a much more mundane way by  sloppily leaving secrets near a major rail bridge over the Moscow River.

One problem was that Clancy was stealing examples from years before as the Soviet Union was changing extremely quickly and then crumbling. I always made that connection when I tucked my over-heated Clancy novel away in my bag when I landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and faced the passport and customs control officials of what was really a Third World country (albeit one with rockets).

For that matter, Clancy’s “SOSUS” network  of underwater microphones spanning the Atlantic in the 1980s to listen for Russian submarines had actually been set up in the 1950s.

Even so, technology was the real hero in Clancy’s novels. It was just in time for the 1980s. After stagflation and economic misery, Reagan’s government spending was creating a real Keynesian and defense-based economic boom (leaving a lot of debt, no matter what conservatives say today). Personal computers were starting to overtake mainframes and the Internet was in its infancy. A lot of the gear actually did come from the military and Clancy exploited this like the master reporter he was.

Naturally, the technology was nearly Godlike in its infallibility. It ALWAYS worked regardless whether it was a space-based laser, an underwater sonobuoy or an ultra-fast microburst radio transmitter. American grunts were always brave. Pilots never mistakenly bombed civilians. Clancy’s later work was a lot weaker, involving barely disguised advertising tomes for various parts of the defense machine.

Personally, Clancy did not seem like a nice man. A chubby, near-sighted insurance salesman who lived for years in Maryland’s rural Calvert County, he always seemed to have an inferiority complex that he made up for by shooting off pistols with the FBI or creating admirable military and spy officials that he never could be.

He was perhaps the biggest and best marketer for Virginia and his home state of Maryland. So, it is indeed ironic that the conservatives who adored Clancy and his comic book world likewise hate the very same federal workers and the government that employs them. They are now being punished for Congress’s lack of political skill.

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17 responses to “The Ironies of Tom Clancy

  1. I never read anything by Tom Clancy. I did read quite a bit by Andrew Greeley though. Kind of liked his recurring theme of Divine forgiveness.

  2. Clancy’s fiction to me was always recognizable as that — just fiction. Methinks he was no literary heavyweight and after two or three books I lost interest. Hunt for Red October was a great book but others became jingoistic. His novels all read like screenplays to me, which eventually many of them were. But I’m sorry he went at such a relatively young age. RIP.

    The military got its mojo back after the disaster at Desert One not because of Clancy but because of Reagan.

  3. Oh, and how come you’d never describe Reagan by how he really got his start in politics — union organizer and union president? 🙂 SAG was and still is a major labor organization. I lived in CA during his first term as governor.

  4. “Personally, Clancy did not seem like a nice man. A chubby, near-sighted insurance salesman from Marylands Eastern Shore, …”

    Tom Clancy was from Baltimore. As far as I know, he never lived on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

  5. DJR,
    You are right, he didn’t live on the Eastern Shore. He lived for a while in Calvert County on the western shore. Have fixed. He grew up inBaltimore.

  6. What were Clancy’s merits as a writer?

    Presuming to know the answers to that question about Clancy’s work (or that of any writer) is always risky and arrogant business. And, of course, its easy to say with assurance that Clancy’s work had no literary merit whatsoever. For those of high literary sensibilities the charge is irrefutable.

    But the financial success of Clancy’s books, and their impact on the attitudes and emotions of an entire society, altering its views and feelings so substantially from their post Vietnam moorings, all this cannot be ignored.

    Back then it seemed a near miracle that the Naval Institute Press, a small non-fiction shop, saw his genius poised for blockbuster sales and national acclaim, rising to a variety of cult status with hula hoop popularity, when no other publishing house in the nation had a clue of that lurking dynamite.

    Perhaps what was obvious to the Navy Press blinded the civilian press wallowing in the poisoned atmosphere of post Vietnam America. So what could they not see?

    Clancy had a singular genius for bringing war machinery to life. At his best he could coil the sublime and awful power of war machines into their readied crouch for a terrible strike against America’s enemy, and he could hold them there, tethered only by the thin treads of men tasked to control that terrible power while Clancy brought the men and their machines to a near boil in the pressure cooker war games that Clancy build around them until … until … until … who the hell could ever know?

    Many writers can build great stories and finely wrought suspense. Bringing machinery to powerful and convincing life is more rare and harder to do.

    So Clancy surely had a great gift, despite his many literary shortcomings. And he had a knack for grabbing and keeping his reader’s imagination afire and his readers attention absolutely riveted.

    Clancy was also a highly gifted and aggressive business man. As time passed, his writing likely suffered for it. His book production exploded. It’s rumored that most of Clancy’s later books were ghostwritten. An accomplished novelist told me that a writer friend of his had ghostwritten several books for Clancy that Clancy hardly read at all.

  7. Clancy knew, to some extent, how military weapons worked. He apparently has friends or did a lot of reading of Janes or other means but that’s what gave his writing some resonance with folks.

    But he was blinded by what he thought was an almost invincible image by our military… certainly the most powerful in the world but does have it’s share of ClusterFs.

    Reagan? The guy who got how many innocent Marines killed in Beirut by going against the advice of his advisers? And got himself involved in Iran-Contra and then claimed as POTUS – he had no idea what his people who reported to him were doing?

    jesus…

    Reagan was a GREAT COMMUNICATOR – perhaps the greatest in history but people forget his training for that role.

    Reagan – bless his pea-picking soul – he DID PROVE that we had a much greater capacity to incur debt to pump up our military and outspend the Soviet Union causing them to go into default.

    I’m a bit conflict by it – because the man claimed to be a fiscal conservative but apparently that was only 1/2 true. Welfare Queens – boot their fat butts to hell and back… the military, Oliver North, et al… spend, spend spend.

  8. Right,
    Reagan,
    Spend, spend, spend.

    Where is Bacon?
    to respond, respond, respond.

    Too afraid

    I am sure.

    • Peter, you are a cut-up!

      Yeah, deficits rose during the Reagan years, as the Dems tirelessly remind us. What the Dems have buried in the memory hole is that they pronounced one Reagan budget after another “dead on arrival” and proceeded to restore his domestic spending cuts. Perhaps you were in Moscow at the time, so you don’t remember. I do remember.

  9. Peter, interesting post and commentary on Tom Clancy. Curious though about this comment: Republicans “hate the very same federal workers and the government that employs them.” Hate, now that is a very strong word. As a Republican and conservative, I’ve never hated anyone, much less federal workers or the government. And as someone who has been active in the GOP movement all my life, including working at the RNC in the 1990s, your assessment is just way off base and erroneous. Why do you say these things? Incite?

    • I totally agree. There’s just as much hate, if not more, on the left than the right.

      Consider the wildly popular Bill Maher — his entire schtick is skewering Republicans in the most vicious and vulgar ways imaginable. The Libs eat it up. He has no counterpart on the right.

    • Jason Poblete – Thank you for stating a common reality and then backing up its assertion with a simple question so obvious that requires no answer. Rather its asking of that question stands alone, shimmering the air around it, as it clarifies and edifies so powerfully that no answer can do it justice.

  10. As long as I live, I will remember the hostages coming home on Inauguration Day, as just the idea of American led by Reagan cowed the mullahs. Whereas the peanut farmer was helpless for 444 days. That moment alone justified his election. We are still fighting Jimmy Carter’s War today, and the Marines in Beirut and the Special Forces in Mogadishu and the thousands on 9-11 were all casualties in that same war. No president yet has figured out how to win this war, certainly not the Current Occupant.

    I’m not going to defend Reagan to you yahoos. I’m just hope we get another one like him in my lifetime.

  11. re: the GOP all one’s life.

    I’ve voted for GOP over the years. I voted for Reagan, Nixon, and Bush as well as Dems.

    I’m not voting GOP any more because the part has been hijacked by wacko birds.

    and yes “hate” is an appropriate world to use for the ones who have engaged in overt racism against the POTUS while the rest of the GOP stood by and did nothing.

    “hate” is an appropriate word for an agenda that is based on lies, propaganda, misinformation and disinformation – to further ideological beliefs.

    how in the world can you, for instance, opposed abortion, hammer unmarried women with kids – and refuse them the morning-after pill?

    At the GOP debate – shouts of “let them die” were heard when talking about people
    who did not have health insurance.

    “death panels” have been used over and over to scare the hell out of seniors.

    “govt doctors” have been used to scare people from Obamacare which is PRIVATE doctors.

    it goes on and on.

    this is not the party of people who were of good character who espoused fiscally conservative principles.

    It has become a party of zealots and wacko birds who have shown they are perfectly willing to shut the govt down unless their cherry-picked legislation is approved by the other house of duly-elected Congress and the POTUS.

    I’ll vote GOP again – when the party comes to it’s senses and realizes just how stupid it’s become… but my suspects are that as time goes by and they continue to alienate one would-be constituency after another – things might get worse.

    The apologists and true believers of the GOP are part of the problem.

    the party is infested with racists, wacko birds, and haters…. yes… – who DO hate people – and you can see this in a wide variety of blogs these days (but not on this one where Bacon actually requires civility).

  12. Jim,
    I was in the states during the Reagan years from 1981 to 1986. No matter how you want to spin it, the budget deficit ROSE during the Reagan years and its was HIS defense buildup not Dems sticking in entitlements. Actually Democrat Bill Clinton brought it back to earth.

    Charts, graphs and Power Points on request.

    • Did I claim Reagan was the ultimate fiscal conservative? Would the Tea Party of today really love, him? No. Yes, he ran up expenses on defense (and don’t forget the tax cuts) and then there was a peace dividend after the fall of the Soviet Union and ACTUAL SURPLUSES (credit shared by a D president and an R House of Reps.) Clinton enjoyed the economy he inherited from Reagan-Bush and Obama would have to if he had just left well enough alone. He killed off a very nice recovery.

  13. hahahaha I LOVE the way Conservatives “think”. If there is a DEFICIT and a Dem is in office, it’s HIS fault. If there is a surplus and a GOP preceded him, it’s the GOPs credit!

    then the reverse works nicely also.

    but POTUS don’t spend money unless Congress authorizes.

    so in order for the POTUS to actually be involved – three things have to be true:

    1. – The POTUS advocates INCREASED – DEFICITl spending
    2. – the Congress AGREES
    3. – The POTUS signs the budget with the deficit.

    so Reagan talked about Welfare Queens in Cadillacs sucking up entitlement money – hurting the budget – basically at the same time he advocated raining new money down on DOD to “bury” the soviet union…

    this has turned out to be the Pro Forma approach to budget for the GOP.

    Kill entitlements… go into deficit over the military – and when making cuts – don’t touch a hair of military spending… then blame the deficit on entitlements.

    Yes.. we COULD – Balance our budget if we cut all of our entitlements including MedicCare and MedicAid but then instead of only spending 2/3 of our current revenues on DOD/NatDef, we’d be spending 7/8 and instead of spending more than the next 10 countries combined, we’d be spending more than the next 20 countries combined.

    The problem with the GOP is that they’re simply not serious about the deficit and debt – because if they were – they’d know, recognize, admit that both entitlements AND DOD/NatDef are going to have to share in the cuts – that is if we are truly serious about it.

    so in not a single budget or continuing resolution since Bush was first in office has the GOP proposed real cuts that get close to balance – not in 20 decades, not in 20 repeal votes of ONE law that adds how much spending and is funded how?

    tell me how many folks now the real CBO cost (not some propaganda) of ObamaCare …….. AND How it is funded?

    how many know? how many on the right who oppose it on money grounds know?

    I’ll be providing this info in upcoming blog threads that deal more with budget and health care… but suffice to say – ObamaCare costs LESS than Medicare by as much as half… and gets funding NOT from the general revenues that Medicare does.

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