A Sharp Learning Curve for President Jack Ryan


Tom Clancy’s longtime hero, former CIA analyst Jack Ryan, has managed to assume the Presidency, Gerald Ford-style, without ever having been elected on a presidential ticket.

Unlike Ford, however, Ryan had never been elected to any public office at all.

Asked by President Durling to serve as Vice President, after the previous Vice President is forced to resign in the wake of a sex scandal, Ryan reluctantly agrees to take on a largely ceremonial office. The catch for the non-politician Ryan, however, is that the Vice-Presidency is only a heartbeat away from the most burdensome job in the world, and one which Ryan shivers at the thought of undertaking.

Then the incredible happens, when a grief-striken Japanese pilot who lost family in a brief Japanese-American shooting war, mans a jumbo jet during Ryan’s swearing-in ceremony and crash lands into the Capitol, thereby all but obliterating government. The President, First Lady, the entire Supreme Court, nearly all the Cabinet and most members of Congress are killed in a few calamitous moments.

This leaves Ryan, who survived by sheer fluke, to assume an office which he frankly dreads approaching. A complete political outsider, Ryan has an excellent working knowledge of the government, but close to zero political instincts. A populist and technophile of the sort both idolized and unelected by America, Ryan must bumble through his grief and shock at the horror which has befallen his nation and attempt to lead it. His hostility toward any form of ideology that appears other than starkly pragmatic, however, is ultimately disappointing. In the guise of non-partisan vigor, Clancy has Ryan deliver a series of startlingly conservative speeches praising a flat tax and denouncing abortion rights.

If Ryan’s claims to integrity are occassionally enough to set one’s teeth on edge, Clancy establishes a magnificent character in “India”, the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy and a Picassoan study in minimalism. Referring to her only by the name of the country she represents, Clancy cleverly harkens back to the medieval language of kings, who refer to one another by the name of their countries. Only a few lines summon up memories of the frosty intellect of Indira Gandhi. India’s beautiful English conveys all at once her educational sophistication, her exquisite mendacity, and her diplomatic wile.

One memorable conversation between India and Ryan comes when he attempt to secure her promise of safe passage of American vessels through the Indian ocean. India effortlessly evades Ryan’s direct request a number of ways, each time protesting offense and hurt feelings on behalf of her nation. While India is written as a villain in Clancy’s novel, conspiring against America, her cleverness elevates her far above a lummox-like American government. India’s protests on behalf of her “sovereign nation”, as Ryan attempts to shove her military around, will resonate deeply amongst Clancy’s international audience.

Meanwhile, America’s vulnerability is a huge source of inspiration to any number of enemies, both foreign and domestic. Ryan’s forte, like Clancy’s, lies in international relations, and an array of hostile nations (India, China, Iran and Iraq) plan intricate attacks on the American homeland and its new President.

Clancy has a speechwriter inform Jack Ryan that his brusquely accurate use of language, is far from poetic, conveying to foreign leaders his great liabilities. Clearly, the same can be said of Tom Clancy. But what Clancy lacks in artful turns of phrase, he makes up for in scholarship. None of the attacks dreamed up by foreign powers against America are, in themselves, totally unbelieveable: it is only their sheer number and simulteneity that gives “Executive Orders” its far-fetched quality.

Tom Clancy’s learning about weapons systems, military manoeuvers, Pentagon and CIA operations, is put to good use. Even an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Zaire, which is quickly capitalized upon by the new United Islamic Republic (composed of former enemies Iran and Iraq), is described with clinical accuracy. The governmental institutions he describes are entirely real. Clancy’s gift is for taking the world of politics as he knows it to be, and rearranging a few pieces on the chessboard to suggest fictional events evolving from familiar institutions.

A large amount of the pleasure derived from a Clancy novel comes from simply trying to follow it. The acronyms are endless, yet largely real. Clancy shares his war stories in warmly confidential tones, allowing the reader the great vicarious pleasure of merely comprehending: testing each piece of data and finding most to be reflections of reality.

While many readers will note a kind of jump the shark quality to Ryan’s extraordinary assumption of the Presidency—for where else had he to go in Clancy’s imaginary career trajectory?—the book has an educational quality for students of geopolitics. World leaders use subjective impressions gleaned at diplomatic receptions to decide upon military gambits. Everyone in politics has an agenda, noble or not, and all leaders use a range of discursive strategies to communicate with the public, their cabinets, the international community, and with other leaders. None of these voices is entirely sincere or truthful, and some are not a bit of either.

Clancy will establish in his readers the important instinct toward looking for the ever-present subtext behind every public speech and pronoucement, and for this reason alone, at least one or two of his novels should be attempted by students of politics

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2 Responses to “A Sharp Learning Curve for President Jack Ryan”

  1. Erin O'Brien says:

    27 of 31 readers found this review helpful

  2. Erin O'Brien says:

    Manish Chakravarty

    I have read Executive Orders multiple times. This is one of the better reviews that I had read and i concur with the writer.
    Except the part about “India”. India under Indira Gandhi or any other Indian prime minister was never pro-China and anti-US. In today’s world it’s the opposite. India lost a border war with China in ’62 and that is something every Indian knows.

    India conspiring with China/Iran/UIR (in the novel) against the US is something which is not likely to happen at all.

    Yes, I am an Indian. Yes, I love the novel, other than this small error on Clancy’s side.

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