Over the last four decades, only two people were able to make wide swaths of the American public really care about the importance of guarding against our nation’s enemies. One was Ronald Reagan. The other was Tom Clancy. The Gipper died in 2004, aged 93. Clancy died Tuesday in Baltimore, just 66 years old.
Despite their age difference, Reagan and Clancy had a lot in common. They loved this country more than anything. They most admired those who put service to nation above service to self. And both were gifted story tellers. Best of all, the stories each man told revealed large and necessary truths.
They say write about what you know and love. Clancy did that from his first book, "The Hunt for Red October."
As FoxNews.com reports in its Clancy obituary, "By a stroke of luck, President Reagan got 'Red October' as a Christmas gift and 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 rooted every Jack Ryan novel in his passion for protecting America. He laced every book with bits and pieces of the real life challenges of keeping us free and safe.
For many Americans, his books served as primers on contemporary defense challenges, ranging from Cold War intrigues, to cat-and-mouse sea hunts, from star wars to insider spies to drug cartels and homeland security.
Sometimes Clancy addressed problems even before they’d garnered attention in the media or been the subject of congressional hearings.
Clancy will be best-remembered for Jack Ryan, a character who, over the course of many novels, goes from the Marine Corps to the CIA and the presidency.
But Clancy also co-authored an important series of non-fiction books in which senior military leaders offer an inside glimpse of modern warriors who have fought for us on the land, over and under the seas, across the skies, and in the shadows.
Books like, “Into the Storm – On the Ground in Iraq” (with Fred Franks) published by Putnam in 1997 are exemplary military history, appropriate tributes to the armed forces and—for those who have never worn a uniform—superb introductions to the trials of military service.
Clancy helped millions understand the transformation of American security challenges from the Great Power confrontations of the Cold War to the new world disorder full of terrorists, narco-traffickers, and failed states.
If there was a down-side to Clancy’s personal work (ignoring the pop-culture Clancy factory of spin-off books and computer games), it was that sometimes he was just too damn good at his work.
One novel, “The Sum of all Fears,” featured terrorists smuggling a nuclear bomb in a shipping container. Post-9/11 this threat became an obsession with some in the homeland security community.
Washington wound up spending big bucks on what is actually a most unlikely threat.
What self-respecting terrorists would stick a nuclear weapon in an unsecured container and wave good-bye?
It is the most nonsensical attack scenario imaginable. In fact, most of the advocates for defending against it had no other source of intelligence other than Clancy’s book to suggest it was an idea worth worrying about.
Even more troubling was that many took the character of Jack Ryan seriously. Not the Jack Ryan, dedicated CIA analyst—there are plenty of real-life Jack Ryan types out there, wearing all kinds of uniforms or no uniforms. But Jack Ryan as president was a different case altogether.
Like the commander-in-chief on TV’s “West Wing” or Harrison Ford in the movie “Air Force One” (or, more recently, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), the president as superhero is myth that deserves to die.
Too many Americans take it too seriously. And it’s a serious mistake to think that we must look to the White House for somebody to solve all our problems.
None of that is Tom Clancy’s fault. He was just trying to write books worth reading. And he did just that … over and again.
He also tried to tell us something true and important about the men and women who protect us and the threats they face. The fact that sometimes we couldn’t distinguish fact from fiction—well that was all on us, not him.
Clancy is gone, and we may no longer be able to call Jack Ryan. That’s a great loss.
But it’s also okay. As the beloved author knew well, there are plenty of real-life heroes out there still looking out for us.
James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.