After an airliner crashes into the Capitol, killing the president, Jack Ryan, the vice-president takes over. The novel describes Ryan's campaign to impose a right-wing morality on the U.S. and a new order on the world, the latter accomplished with the aid of high-tech warfare. A sequel to Debt of Honor. Jack Ryan becomes president by sheer accident when the former president, most of Congress, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court are bombed out of existence. Ryan must jump in to discover who did it, all the while contending with the threat of military takeover and covert biological warfare.
I suppose I should have seen my overall reaction coming. When Clancy dedicated his book to Ronald Reagan, I had a sneaking suspicion as
The story has plenty of pulp promise. What appears to be the entire American government is wiped out in one fell swoop, and it's up to Jack Ryan to become the new president. But Clancy doesn't know when to quit. He adds on layers and layers of subplots, most of which would work by themselves, but only serve here to bloat an already large novel.
Part of the problem is that there is no sympathy created for any character. Every person in Ryan's entourage is decent, hard-working, and completely uninteresting. Any person who doesn't fit in with Clancy's idea of a hero is treated with suspicion and contempt. It might make a difference if ANY character was remotely memorable, but evidently, characterization is not Clancy's strong suit.
I had higher hopes for the action portions of the novel, but alas, I was also disappointed. Pages and pages of technical jargon only prove that Clancy has done his homework. What it doesn't do is advance the plot. Tank warfare may make for entertaining viewing, but they make for deadly dull reading. Particularly if, once again, there is absolutely no empathy created for anyone involved in the actual battles.
And as for the actual backstage look at how the presidency is run? I am reminded of a recent newspaper critique of television's THE WEST WING. It stated (quite accurately, to my mind) that when it comes to drama, the democratic viewpoint is the most dramatically satisfying. It leads to shows such as THE WEST WING, I'LL FLY AWAY, PICKET FENCES, and HOMICIDE. When the republican viewpoint is emphasized in a drama, you get THE A-TEAM and TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL.
By this point in his career, Clancy's books were becoming much more ideological and less interesting, and Executive Orders is quite bloated.
Despite being huge it lacks the interesting details of former books, and doesn't have the saving grace of taut prose to redeem it.
Starting with Red Storm Rising (1986), I used to buy every new Clancy novel in hardcover the day it came out. Back then, I was all about the storytelling, and when Clancy was on his game, there wasn't anybody better. He created an
Clancy always was an unapologetic conservative Republican, which, OK, I can deal. But right about the time he and his first wife separated and then divorced (1995-1999), a strain of misogyny started creeping into his books. Without Remorse (1993) was outright obscene, in fact--lovingly describing the sexual torture of one of the characters. That's when I started getting leery of Clancy.
So, with that backstory, on to Executive Orders, the second book to come out after Without Remorse and the eighth book to star Jack Ryan. By now, Ryan has become President, after a major terrorist attack on Washington, and he's fighting battles on several fronts: political, personal, the media, etc. At the same time, forces are gathering to destroy the U.S. once and for all, using multiple forms of attack. It's a race to the finish to see whether Ryan can set up a functioning government and unravel the conspiracy before other disasters strike.
The story is told from multiple perspectives, as usual. The best sections involve Clark and Chavez, the biological weapon development and its effects, the military strategies, and the political maneuvering. But it's WAY too long--it could have been cut by a third without losing anything. Jack's wife, Cathy, shines when she's in her medical role, but she's been reduced to a simpering fool at all other times. In fact, all of the women in the story are reduced to their reproductive function in the end--if they're childless, they always wanted to have them, for example. Blech. I didn't really notice how Neanderthal Clancy was when I was younger, but now that I've been around the block a few times, it's everywhere...in several places, I just kept flipping pages. It's still a satisfying story, but the signal-to-noise ratio was really low in this one.
This was the last semi-decent Clancy novel--the ones that came out afterward, in my opinion, aren't worth the effort to wade through the bloviating. It's too bad, too, because the Ryans, Clark, Chavez, Holtzmann, etc. were great characters for so long.
Readers should not start with this book if they are interested in
Star character, President Jack Ryan, had not aspired to
One of many twists and turns in the book relates to an outbreak of Ebola. It didn't come naturally. The death-dealing outbreak of disease was unleashed in major cities across the nation. The dreaded virus was spread on the orders of the leader of the recently formed United Islamic Republic. Iran and Iraq had become united as a single country. It wasn't long after the first cases of Ebola in the United States started being reported before experts correctly surmised that the outbreak was the result of an enemy attack.
The First Lady is employed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where she is an eye surgeon. She comes close to the Ebola story in that capacity. She is whisked off to her daily work by helicopter.
There are three young children in the White House, one of whom is a preschooler. You're kept on pins and needles when this youngest child of President Ryan is targeted by terrorists who swoop in on the Giant Steps Day Care Center. Heroic efforts are taken to protect the child. There is much gunfire. Things become very bloody.
War erupts in the Persian Gulf region near the end of this long yarn. President Ryan is personally moved by news of the first deaths of American personnel. The new president is faced with the unenviable personal task of writing letters to survivors of soldiers killed in this outbreak of hostilities. This is a war that has no match to previous ones that have occurred throughout history. Very precise enemy targeting is made possible by global positioning system technology. Individual war battles are very short in duration. Because of the fuel and ammunition carried by modern military tanks, the targeted vehicles can burn for days on end.
Dated references that give clue to the time frame in which the novel was written. One of the people called upon by President Ryan when he appears before the press corps is simply referred to as Helen, an obvious allusion to the late Helen Thomas, the long-time White House journalist who died in 2013. The hardcover edition of the book appeared in 1996. There are mentions of the Rolodex, which was an office tool used to keep phone numbers on file for quick and easy reference. I understand that some people still use this device. Close office friends of mine are certainly not among them. The book is continues to be available at Amazon, and I suspect that this fascinating work by the brilliant Tom Clancy will continue to be on the market for a very long time to come. It's hard to believe that he's been gone for almost a decade.
In other words, a fantasy.
I have always been and will always be, an unapologetic fan of Clancy's works - the ones he wrote himself - so falling back into Jack Ryan's world was, if not a comfort, at least familiar and comfortable. It's been 2 decades since I last read this, and it generally holds up perfectly. The first half of the book is a bit overly idealistic, but what struck me about it is that Tom Clancy showed a startling degree of prescience not just in some of his major plot lines, but in his story arc.
Executive Orders is the story about a non-politician ending up as President of the United States, vowing to eject the political riff-raff out of Washington, and appointing business sector executives to the cabinet to get things done.
Sound familiar? Of course, Jack Ryan wasn't a paranoid narcissist and he was highly educated and qualified regardless of his lack of political savvy. He also had more integrity than your garden variety black widow spider. But Clancy imagined the world we live in today twenty years ago, with startling accuracy, albeit in the most idealistic light.
His idealism extended to America's response (and only America because his plot extended no further) to the epidemic that grips the country in Executive Orders; his national lockdown works flawlessly; almost nobody ignores the mandate, there are no rushes on grocery stores, and there's no general panic. Of course, I'd like to think that any country's population would react to an epidemic of ebola exponentially better than they're reacting (or not) to the corona pandemic, so maybe my faith in humanity hasn't been completely snuffed out.
Either way, it was good to revisit a world that works, even when everything is pear-shaped.
Carl Alves - author of Blood Street