Clancy's 'Executive Orders': politics, zealotry

September 08, 1996|By James Asher | James Asher,SUN STAFF bTCGR: REPRODUCTION

"Executive Orders," by Tom Clancy. Putnam. 874 pages. $27.50.

It's a fatal combination. Tom Clancy has combined the timeliness of today's headlines with some unabashed populism to create a drama of high moment.

"Executive Orders" begins where his last novel, "Debt of Honor," ends. Virtually all of the U.S. government is destroyed, killed when a Japan Air Lines jumbo jet crashes into the Capitol building. Members of the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president and his Cabinet are all dead in a single stroke. Clancy uses this tragedy as a technique to recreate a government the Founding Fathers would endorse and to test the suddenly elevated vice president, John Patrick Ryan, with a gauntlet of domestic and international horrors.

President Ryan has two principal adversaries: Inside-the-Beltway Politics and the devil-incarnate religious leader of Iran. At various times, Ryan seems bound to succumb to either or both villains. And the suspense of it all is enough to wear a certain smoothness to one's chair.

Clancy has again concocted a story that thrives because of the largeness of detail. His authority on matters military, clandestine, geographical and technical take this novel a long way from fiction. His theories of terrorism and politics make it seem that President Ryan is as real as this season's presidential campaign. For instance, Ryan's decision to scrap the IRS code sounds awfully like the current Dole-Kemp proposal.

In fact, Ryan's twin antagonist - the typical politician and a religious zealot - suggest that the expected popularity of this book will have a lot to do with what Jimmy Carter called the American malaise - the deep cynicism about our government and our enemies.

Ryan risks failure in reconstituting the whole U.S. government not because his ideas aren't rooted in the purity of the Constitution but because special interests have so corrupted the de-mocracy. Such is truth of the waning days of the 20th century.

Ryan's pre-schooler is nearly murdered by hard-eyed terrorists; the president himself is nearly assassinated by an Iranian infiltrator in his own Secret Service, and thousands die from a massive attack on America by Iranians armed with the horrific Ebola virus.

Each is fomented by a twisted vision of the Koran.

Such fictions are hard not to accept given the frightfully similar terrorist rationale for Pan Am at Lockerbie, the World Trade Center and Iraq's newest warfare against the Kurds.

Dulled by modern history, Clancy will find millions of willing believers convinced that too many in the Muslim world would risk a holocaust for the Koran. The fundamentalists of "Executive Orders" have replaced the Evil Empire of Soviet fame. And we Americans seemingly can find no logic to deny Clancy's fiction.

These prejudices aside, "Executive Orders" makes it easy to indulge in reflective flag waving as Ryan overcomes his adversaries. While we've never met, I dare say Clancy's politics might be uncomfortably close to mine. And in an ending too unexpected to spoil, I found myself wishing our current crop of politicians had Ryan's conviction and true grit. If one did, I'd find voting this time around a far simpler task.

James Asher is city editor of The Sun. He was previously an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been writing for newspapers for 25 years.

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