Remembering Novelist Tom Clancy As An Exceptionally Effective Conservative Artist

Credit: GoodReads
Credit: GoodReads

The news that author Tom Clancy had died today at 66 prompted a lot of jokes about middle-aged white men in need of hugs and future sources of Dad Christmas presents. But as someone who busted the spine on my copy of Executive Orders, I’m sorry to hear of Clancy’s passing, too. I don’t share Clancy’s politics in many areas, but he could be an outstandingly entertaining pulp writer. And given the ongoing lament in conservative circles about the liberalism of pop culture, I think it’s worth eulogizing Clancy as the rare person who managed not just to stiffly praise conservative ideals but to generate genuinely exciting plots and truly compelling characters from them.

Clancy’s probably best known among people who haven’t read his novels or played the video games in his franchise for the scenario he spun in Debt Of Honor, in which an ultranationalist Japanese airline pilot crashes a jet into the U.S. Capitol during a special joint session of Congress, convened to confirm Jack Ryan as Vice President after his predecessor has resigned in disgrace, killing almost every high-ranking member of the three branches of Congress. It’s a frightening scenario, and it became an eerie part of the national consciousness when in the September 11 terrorist attacks, members of al Qaeda made a riff on Clancy’s fiction a reality. Given that the idea that anyone would use an airliner as a weapon was difficult for many to imagine, even in the Golden Age of hijacking, Clancy’s ability to conceive of this scenario had an uncomfortably prophetic quality to it.

Less remembered, I think, is the extent to which Clancy forecasted a lot of the messaging of the Tea Party movement in Executive Orders. In the sequel to Debt Of Honor, Jack Ryan’s become president, and to rebuild the government, he explicitly asks the governors who have to replace Senators and the voters who are choosing new members of the House of Representatives not to “send me politicians” because “We do not have the time to do the things that must be done through that process.” Specifically, Ryan wants “engineers who know how things are built. I want physicians who know how to make sick people well. I want cops who know what it means when your civil rights are violated by a criminal. I want farmers who grow real food on real farms. I want people who know what it’s like to have dirty hands, and pay a mortgage bill, and raise kids, and worry about the future. I want people who know they’re working for you and not themselves.”

In the world of Executive Orders, this is a cathartic process that gives a way people to invest in their government again after a national tragedy, and gives ordinary citizens actual power to make the policies and decisions that guide the nation out of an astonishing catastrophe. Even in the reality of the novel, however, Ryan ends up imposing martial law in response to the spread of an exceptionally deadly strain of Ebola. But he ultimately announces that he’ll run for president, seeking validation of his performance in a position he rose to first by appointment and then out of necessity. It’s a vision of government where self-interest doesn’t poison things, one that embraces the fallacy that if we just set aside partisanship and do what needs to be done — because of course, the right thing is clear, and a broad consensus exists in support of it — great things can come out of disaster.

This is not how things have actually played out. Working as lawyer doesn’t mean that Ted Cruz doesn’t have national political ambitions, just as working as an OB/GYN doesn’t mean that Ron Paul could grok the needs of all American women. The theoretically ordinary people who have come to Congress as Tea Party candidates don’t represent a broad swath of American public opinion: they’ve primaried their opponents to the right in conservative states where Republicans have a lock on districts or state-wide seats, effectively gaming the system to put control of the election in the hands of a small number of voters. But one of Clancy’s achievements was that he could make it all sound awfully good, and awfully possible.

Similarly, The Bear And The Dragon, which chronicles Jack Ryan’s response to a Chinese invasion of Siberia in an attempt to exploit Russia’s natural resources, does an excellent job of posing a conservative vision of human rights policy and transparency. One of the inciting events in the novel is an attempt by the Chinese government to perform a forced abortion on a Catholic woman. Obviously, forced abortion is a grotesquerie, and it’s a powerful image for the novel to land on, but it’s also shocking in a way that doesn’t require Clancy to reckon with an argument that full reproductive freedom would allow people to both terminate pregnancies and carry them to term as they wished. The opposite of the One Child policy is not that every family has a zillion children, but crisis is not the moment for that discussion.

The novel also has some proto-predictive moments that echoed in the heady days of the Arab Spring. Jack Ryan, once again trusting the people to do the right thing, beams CNN’s reporting on China’s invasion into the country through a spy satellite, and makes available surveillance videos of Chinese troop movements to corroborate the reports. In response, Chinese students take over the Politbureau, work with a reformist to stop the invasion, and start a cheerful transition to democracy. Once again, it’s a nice, exciting idea. But it’s also one that ignores the extent to which existing bureaucracies fight for their own survival, and the reality, now unfolding in many of the countries where Arab Spring protests took place, that not every country’s relationship to Western governance ideals is precisely what we should wish. And Ryan’s throw-open-the-doors policy on American intelligence seems amusingly quaint given the calls to drone strike Edward Snowden or execute Chelsea Manning, though it’s also situational, rather than engaging with actual principles for transparency.

None of this means that I like Tom Clancy’s beliefs — I’m particularly turned off by the way his Rainbow Six video game franchise turned all of his political opponents into terrorists so they’d be worthy of being taken out by military force, rather than combatted in the battlefield of ideas. But if conservatives want to win the culture war that they so often feel they’re losing, emulating Tom Clancy would be one of the best ways to go. He managed to give real plot momentum to conservative issues like abortion and the composition of Congress by putting them in the context of big, sexy action stories, rather than assuming all readers would share a sense of prima facie urgency. He created characters, particularly Jack Ryan, who felt recognizably human, rather than standing as wooden avatars of virtue. In other words, he knew that he was writing novels, not tracts, and that his first job was to entertain. And if the liberals, like this one, who got pulled in by the stories didn’t end up as converts, well, Clancy came out of it all with a huge pile of money.