Tom Clancy and Ronald Reagan

The Hunt for Red October was a sensation in the Reagan administration—and Clancy took to its circles with impressive ease.

Back in the days of the Reagan presidency, when I was a Wall Street Journal reporter assigned to the White House beat, I scheduled a lunch interview with Nancy Reynolds, a close friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and a true administration insider. We met at a high-toned restaurant called Maison Blanche on F Street, hardly more than a block west of the executive mansion that bears the same name, only in English. I wanted her to feed me all manner of information on the White House scene, with plenty of inside gossip on personality clashes and stealthy maneuverings on the part of top staff officials. But all she wanted to talk about was a new novel called The Hunt for Red October, by an obscure rural Maryland insurance salesman named Tom Clancy.

It seems that Michael Deaver, Reagan’s all-purpose image maestro and trusted confidante of both the president and first lady, had discovered the book and liked it so much he had distributed copies to people throughout the West Wing and beyond. The recipients had included the president himself, who read it and revealed publicly that he could hardly put it down. Reynolds, it turned out, brought the book to my attention just as it was about to make a hearty splash-down into the American literary consciousness, in the process rendering Mr. Clancy both rich and famous.

After lunch Nancy Reynolds lured me to a bookstore across the street, where I promptly bought a copy of the Clancy book. I read it aboard Air Force One as I was flying west to Santa Barbara as part of the White House journalistic “pool” that always stayed close to the presidential entourage.

I found myself musing about that literary discovery after reports hit the news that Tom Clancy had died at age sixty-six after a brief illness of undisclosed description. Since the time of his discovery twenty-eight years ago, he ran out a string of literary and cultural feats of rare dimension, producing military thrillers at a dizzying pace and squeezing abundant success also from cinematic and video-game versions of his stirring tales.

I met Clancy only once, at the beginning of his literary career. But the encounter reveals something significant, I think, about his success—indeed, about most genuine success in our competitive world. Having read Clancy’s first book back in 1985 and expressed my enthusiasm for it to both Nancy Reynolds and Mike Deaver, I became an initiate in the Clancy fan club that had emerged in the West Wing and surrounding journalistic and political precincts. Thus it was that I was invited to a luncheon sponsored by Deaver at the White House, where Clancy would be brought together with some of his more noteworthy admirers. The luncheon was in the West Wing Roosevelt Room, graced with a dramatic painting above the fireplace of Teddy Roosevelt astride a spirited steed and a small Remington sculpture of a frontier buffalo.

I recall that one of the attendees was James Brooks, the movie director and screenwriter, who was hanging around Washington in those days doing research for Broadcast News, his hit film about the fast-paced culture of Washington television journalism. When someone suggested Clancy’s book would make a fine movie, Brooks injected a note of skepticism, saying the story line hinged far too much on technical details related to the inner workings of submarines. I disagreed and felt justified in my amateur opinion when Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin proved upon the big screen just how dramatic Clancy’s underlying tale really was.

But my sharpest memory from that luncheon was how abjectly wrong I had been in anticipating that this obscure insurance man from Calvert County, Maryland, might be just a bit intimidated to find himself in the company of twenty or so of the country’s leading governmental and journalistic figures. Deaver presided over the discussion with his usual wry wit accompanied by a sly smile that seemed to reflect a substantial internal satisfaction with his circumstances. And, as he sought to draw out the fledgling novelist, it became clear that Tom Clancy was far from intimidated. In fact, a detected just a hint of a possible feeling on his part that he was head and shoulders above his luncheon companions in his knowledge of global military strategy. There was just a wisp of that smirk that the world came to know behind those famous aviator glasses.

But there was one person present whom Clancy seemed to regard with particular respect. He sat at the near end of the table, across from the TR painting, and he was John Lehman, the Navy secretary, who held a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and was a noted military strategist within the administration. Before long the conversation turned into a lively and erudite discussion between just two of the table participants, Lehman and Clancy. The rest of us sat mute and mesmerized as the two bantered at a very high level about the arcana of naval warfare and strategy. It wasn’t easy to keep up, and I’m sure I didn’t most of the time, but the effort was rewarding in itself.

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