Friday, 23 May 2014

Was Tom Clancy Fox News Patient Zero?

This is the 2nd of 3 posts on Tom Clancy, this one giving a more personal perspective. The first post covered Clancy's predictions of military and cyber war confrontation in the South China Sea. The 3rd post will be a review of the new Clancy reboot JACK RYAN.

I lost my dad to Fox News: How a generation was captured by thrashing hysteria  eloquently puts the argument that Fox News is a mental illness targeted at senior citizens.

I wonder if that applies to Tom Clancy? A  a typical Reagan conservative turned into a s frothing neo-conservative corporatist? Was Tom Clancy patient zero?

Yes I am a leftie, and yes I reading Tom Clancy books. Or, rather, I did until 2005. This I've recovered from my Glastonbury 2005 diary

I try and escape into a book but Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon is the most racist piece of crap I’ve ever read and I’ve sworn not only that this will be the last Clancy but I’ll actually burn it so it won’t be passed onto anyone else.

Frankly I am not proud of burning any book ("National Socialist!") and my reaction to Bear and the Dragon was probably amplified by the state I get into at music festivals. It probably says a lot about me that I was reading a bloody Tom Clancy book at Glastonbury (what's the phrase? "always swimming against the tide"?)

Well, as evidenced by my review of Threat Vector it wasn't the last Tom Clancy I'd read - and as the author passed on recently I thought I'd add some personal appreciation here.

My history with Clancy
In the mid-80s a secret college secret fraternity, The Fast Jets and Napalm Society (the less repellent face of college conservatism believe it or not) were chief promoters of Clancy's books at my college. I ignored them until my interest was piqued as we streamed out of the movie for Hunt For Red October and they said
"Oh - that was just edited highlights from the book"

After that I started on Clear and Present Danger and, hooked by Clancy's skill as storyteller, I worked quickly backwards and forwards from his books from there. Clancy was a genius at pacing and writes a thrilling action scene full of believable detail, but I was also surprised, early on, at the nuances in the politics. Clear and Present Danger has almost a civil war break out in the Pentagon, with the FBI seeking to prevent the CIA conducting an "off the books" assassination program in South America.

In Patriot Games Clancy seemed to have a pretty even handed and informed view (for an American) view of Northern Irish politics. In Sum of All Fears Clancy suggests solving the problem of Jerusalem and Palestine is to take it away from Israeli control and have it run as a religious city state like the Vatican. (Something I see John Kerry seems to be considering right now - another example of Clancy being ahead of the curve)

Jack Ryan, Clancy's hero, as we first see him, also seems to be a more even handed, more cerebral version of Bond. He begins as a CIA analyst, not a field agent, and is often reluctantly drawn into situations he is not comfortable with on a danger or morality level.

The intrigue in Clear and Present Danger, as the FBI try and uncover a plot while the CIA is killing US soliders to cover it up is brilliantly gripping conspiratorial drama. Nuclear hotline scenes at the end of Sum of All Fears, as Ryan intrudes on the hotline between US President and Russian Premier to prevent a misunderstanding leading to a full nuclear exchange, are some of the most thrilling and tense scenes I've ever read in a novel.

Quickly the books fit you like a driving glove and become very comforting and addictive reading. I remember reading Red Storm Rising while a Brazil v England World Cup quarter-final* was on in the background! I'd avoided WW3 fantasies while The Day After seemed more likely, but after the fall of the Soviet Union Clancy's epic description of the Cold War going hot suddenly became one of the most gripping alternate history novels ever written. I admit I was using it to avoid England's inevitable collapse (thanks David Seaman) but I honestly can't think of more trouble I've had putting a book down.

Unlike Fleming's Bond Clancy has his character Ryan follow the career path of George Bush Snr and climb the ladder of success to eventually reach the presidency of the United States. At this point his books become quite interesting alt history fiction bordering on fantasy. Depressingly from Rainbow Six, his 1998 novel, onwards  Clancy's politics start to intrude more and more.

Debt of Honour (1994)  has the US involved in a surprisingly believable war with Japan which ends with the (now famous) climax of a 747 crashed onto the Pentagon. As the senior member of US government still surviving Ryan is forced to become President and from that point, Executive Orders (1998) we are firmly in an alternate universe refereed to by by fans as the 'Ryanverse'. By now we have swapped the technical detail for gripping alternate history but in the midst of great deal of wonderful White House plotting we are increasingly assailed by the odor  of Clancy's politicised agenda.

Some person with better political and journalistic skills should compare the great fantasy Presidents of our era, President Jed Bartlet from The West Wing, and President Jack Ryan from Clancy's books. I suspect the chasm between their policies would be breathtaking and quite revealing of US political debate.

Clancy obviously began as a supporter of Reagan era 'trickle down' or supply side economics (that which have blown deficits through the roof and brought the Western societies all the benefits of the late 19thC), but alternative 1998's President Ryan goes farther than any real US Republican ever has and introduces a flat tax rate, literally enshrining in law that the super rich pay the same rate as the poor. In our reality the likes of Mitt Romney can achieve this using tax dodges but a flat tax has never been put before US voters for good reason. Contrary to most opinion the US electorate are are not fools and would vote it out. Even Clancy realises a flat tax pushing reality and eventually it is repealed  by President Ryan's Democratic arch enemy Ed Kealty.

Ed Kealty is a bitter caricature of then real world President Bill Clinton. This version of the President who balanced the US budget after Reagan's deficit would be quite surprising, perhaps shocking to foreigners. But would be very familiar to anyone watching the new cable news phenomena at the time.
Roger Ailes launched Fox News on October 7th, 1996.

Eventually the Ryanverse would (apparently) be jolted back into line with our own by 9/11, which also happens in the Ryanverse, but before we get there we have his Siberian war fantasy The Bear and The Dragon, which is firmly in Cheney neo-con territory. Having ingested a gallon of Ayn Randian politics over the course of Executive Action I really finished with Clancy here. He begins the book with drawing parallels between China's one child policy, abortion, contraception and genocide and the holocaust - and no amount of Glastonbury scrumpy could make that digestible.

Did Clancy's politics really evolve?
Seen with more perspective it might be possible to see Ryan's books as a mirror of the Bush-Clinton era's with Ryan as Bush Snr and Jack Jnr, who inherits the 'action' role from his father from with a boneheaded confidence very reminiscent of Bush Jnr.

When I recently restarted Clancy with his penultimate novel Threat Vector, I found it another thrilling read (covered here) but full of telling detail revealing Clancy's increasingly anachronistic views

One of the first indicators in his penultimate novel that we are firmly in the newly Foxverse world of the Ryans when it transpires Jack Ryan Jnr's girlfriend has been compromised by a foreign intelligence agency. What mighty foreign force could have a CIA analyst working in their pay? This is revealed as the mighty Palestinian Authority.. Which is funny until you recall the frequent and serious history of Israeli spying on the United States, which has to my knowledge never cropped up in Clancy's books, which purport to be realistic on the subject of international espionage.

Later Chinese hackers are found to be using a server on US territory in Florida. Why? Apparently international cyber terrorists (or "Bad Guys") prefer to use server space in the United States because of less government "red tape". Indifferent to the irony alarm Clancy then has his heroes travel to Florida, waxing lyrical about the joys of travelling in a private jet. Travelling in a private jet and enjoying it is in itself is no bad thing, but recalls Lee Child's character Jack Reacher, who has in more austere times replaced Jack Ryan as cult literary action hero of choice. (Reacher is a penniless wanderer far more suited to Greyhound bus travel than private jets)

Perhaps the biggest indicator of Clancy's loss of perspective are the heroes of his later books, The Campus, a private spy agency. The Campus is so right wing and so lacking in irony that if adapted for screen they would look like a Christopher Nolan re-boot of Team America World Police - with the strings controlling the characters only visible to those with an awareness of modern political reality.

From the Clancy wiki

The Campus is an "off the books" intelligence organization and private military company established by President Jack Ryan, Sr .. Backed with one hundred blank presidential pardons, The Campus operates outside of any federal jurisdiction as it is not a formal member of the United States intelligence community.  ....The Campus is situated between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA).  This enables The Campus to remain in the loop about intelligence briefings without the cumbersome organizational bureaucracy or political red tape.  The Campus operates under the cover of Hendley Associates, a financial trading institution.  Utilizing the intelligence brieifings from the CIA and NSA, Hendley Associates is able to see currency or market flunctuations ahead of most financial institutions and is able to utilize this information on the financial market.  The profits generated from trading on financial institutions are utilized by Hendley Associates to fund the operations of The Campus.  

After decades of Fox News Clancy's hero has become the villain from one of his own earlier books (Clear and Present Danger).

Jack Ryan Jnr fairly loathsome, with non of the bumbling vulnerability that Snr showed in the beginning of his career an an intelligence analyst in Hunt For Red October. Jnr also works as an analyst - but for the financial industry, surely a sign of the times and perhaps final grim proof of Clancy's talent for prediction. I'm hoping the fact that that Jnr is investigating financial crime in the last book, Command Authority, is a sign Clancy finally woke up to the real threat to his country and the world. As Fox News continues to be a real and present danger to the mental health of those watching it I'm not hopeful.

Pic at the top is apparently the Danish Air Force enjoying themselves (and who can blame them)

* thank you loyal reader


  1. England got to the World Cup semi finals?

  2. I love this review. I'm a big fan of Tom Clancy's books myself despite the fact I'm a huge flaming liberal verging on anarchist at times. Honestly, the Campus books may be some of my favorite of his works because they're just so....SILLY.