Something for the Boys

Executive Orders

by Tom. Clancy
Putnam, 874 pp., $27.95

Tom Clancy
Tom Clancy; drawing by David Levine

The dedication page of this Behemoth carries a lapidary, capitalized inscription, “To Ronald Wilson Reagan, Fortieth President of the United States: The Man Who Won The War.” And this is only fair. In 1984, the Naval Institute Press paid Tom Clancy an advance of $5,000 for The Hunt for Red October. It was the first fiction that the Naval Institute had knowingly or admittedly published. There matters might have rested, except that someone handed a copy to the Fortieth President, who (then at the zenith of his great parabola) gave it an unoriginal but unequivocal blurb. “The perfect yarn,” he said, and the Baltimore insurance agent was on his way to blockbuster authorship. Putnam this past August issued a first printing of 2,211,101 copies of his newest novel, Executive Orders, and, on the Internet site devoted to Clancy, mayhem broke out as enthusiasts posted news of pre-publication copies available at Wal-Mart. Clancy’s nine thrillers, as well as exemplifying an almost Reaganesque dream of American success, have catapulted him into that section of the cultural supermarket which is always designated by the hieroglyph #1. And this, too, is apt. Remember when America itself was #1? Are we not #1 today? Must we not be #1 tomorrow?

There are other superficial resemblances between the Reagan phenomenon and the Clancy one. Tom Clancy, the true-grit chronicler of air combat, has an aversion to flying and will not get on a plane unless he absolutely has to. Ronald Reagan became phobic about flying in 1937 and did not board another aircraft for almost thirty years. (While grounded, he played heroic airmen in Secret Service of the Air, Murder in the Air, International Squadron, and Desperate Journey.) When he wrote Red October, Clancy had never been on a submarine unless it was tethered to the dockside. Ronald Reagan, who never got further than the Hal Loach Training Studio on a Los Angeles backlot, told Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal that he had been present in person at the liberation of the Nazi camps, and often referred fondly to the wartime years he had spent “in uniform.” Tom Clancy talks like a leatherneck when interviewed by the press, and keeps a large green M4A1 tank parked on the main lawn of his 4,000-acre estate on Chesapeake Bay. (There is a shooting range in the basement of the main house.) So the nation’s two leading fans of vicarious combat make a good pairing. We cannot therefore be sure which “war,” in the dedication, Reagan is supposed to have “won.” It may be one of the wars that took place only in his head. I think that the millions of Clancy-consuming vicarious-war fans are supposed to assume, however, that it was that “cold” war, in which Tom Clancy was proposed by Vice-President Dan Quayle as a member of the National Space Council.

Clancy’s fictional projection of his rather rotund…

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