President George Bush once told a group of reporters that novelist Tom Clancy has made “a marvelous contribution...to our literary world and, I also would like to think, to the national security interests of the United States.”
Bush is wrong on both counts. Clancy writes a gripping yarn—for those who are into the “techno-thriller” genre he almost single-handedly created—but beyond the compelling story-telling, Clancy’s books have little literary merit. His stick-figure caricatures won’t win him any Nobel Prizes for literature—he has characters saying things like, “So, my Captain, again we go to sea to serve and protect the [Motherland]!” And I’m afraid the Peace Prize is out of the question, too: Clancy’s message, assumptions, and influence are a downright danger to the security of people here and around the world.
Twenty million people have read Clancy’s five books, and at least as many are likely to see the movie version of Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October (1984), directed by Die Hard’s John McTiernan. Ronald Reagan called Clancy his favorite author, and several times had him in to the White House for a private chat. Dan Quayle once gave a speech on the Senate floor urging funds for the ASAT anti-satellite weapon system on the grounds that it was what won the war in Clancy’s second book, Red Storm Rising (1986). “They’re not just novels,” Quayle explained. “They’re read as the real thing.”
And that’s the problem. The books are exciting, exhilarating, captivating—all the things a good airport-read should be. But they’re not, as Quayle maintains, the real thing.