By Hillel Italie
NEW YORK: In 1985, a year after the Cold War thriller The Hunt for Red October came out, author Tom Clancy was invited to lunch at the Reagan White House, where he was questioned by Navy Secretary John Lehman.
Who, the secretary wanted to know, gave Clancy access to all that secret material?
Clancy, the best-selling novelist who died after a brief illness Tuesday in Baltimore at 66, insisted then, and after, that his information was strictly unclassified: books, interviews and papers that were easily obtained. Also, two submarine officers reviewed the final manuscript.
In an interview with the New York Times in 1987, he explained that unclassified information can lead to insights about state secrets.
“One of the reasons we are so successful is that we have a free society with open access to information,” he said. “If you change that, if you try to close off the channels of information, we’ll end up just like the Russians, and their society does not work. The best way to turn America into another Russia is to emulate their methods of handling information.”
Government officials may have worried how Clancy knew that a Russian submarine spent only about 15 percent of its time at sea or how many SS-N-20 Seahawk missiles it carried. But his extreme attention to technical detail and accuracy earned him respect inside the intelligence community and beyond and helped make Clancy the most widely read and influential military novelist of his time, one who seemed to capture a shift in the country’s mood away from the CIA misdeeds that were exposed in the 1970s to the heroic feats of Clancy’s most famous creation, CIA analyst Jack Ryan.
“Thrillers, like all art, are always a reflection of the culture,” said fellow author Brad Meltzer. “No one captured that Cold War fear — and that uniquely American perspective— like Clancy. Jack Ryan wasn’t just a character. He was us. He was every American in those days when we were a push-of-the-button away from nuclear war.”
Fans couldn’t turn the pages fast enough and a number of his high-tech, geopolitical thrillers, including The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, were made into blockbuster movies, with another, Jack Ryan, set for release on Christmas.
“Fundamentally, I think of myself as a storyteller, not a writer,” Clancy once said. “I think about the characters I’ve created, and then I sit down and start typing and see what they will do. ”
Clancy had such a sure grasp of defense technology and spycraft that many readers were convinced he served in the military. But his experience was limited to ROTC classes in college. Near-sightedness kept him out of active duty.
Someone thought enough of The Hunt for Red October to give it to Reagan as a Christmas gift. The president quipped at a dinner that he was losing sleep because he couldn’t put the book down — a statement Clancy later said helped put him on the New York Times best-seller list.
Clancy wasn’t happy about the movie versions of his books. He complained that Harrison Ford was too old to play Jack Ryan, and he regretted the lack of creative control, saying: “Giving your book to Hollywood is like turning your daughter over to a pimp.”