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The Many Sides of the 'Talk of the Pentagon' : Best-Selling Author of Military Thrillers Still Sells Insurance in Maryland Hamlet

August 06, 1986|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

PRINCE FREDERICK, Md. — He is, quite simply, the talk of the Pentagon.

But here on the tobacco farms nestled between Chesapeake Bay fishing villages, Tom Clancy is not known as the best-selling author of the military thriller "Hunt for Red October," and a second war novel published this week, "Red Storm Rising."

Here Clancy is still what he was before he hit the best-seller lists out of nowhere with the first book he ever attempted--an intricate, modern war scenario so suspenseful and realistic that critics thrust him in the same category with revered military writers such as Jules Verne ("Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea"), H. G. Wells ("The War of the Worlds") and Gen. John Hackett, whose essay, "Third World War," was said to be kept at President Jimmy Carter's bedside table.

Here, in a quiet hamlet of 1,700 people four miles off the shore of the Chesapeake, Tom Clancy is an insurance salesman.

Although Clancy estimates he will earn $2 million from his first two books alone, he will continue to sell automobile, boat and home-owner policies (no life insurance--"That's morbid!") for the foreseeable future. Since he graduated from Loyola College in Baltimore with a degree in English 17 years ago, selling insurance is the only regular job Clancy has had, and he's not going to quit now, just because he's famous, a millionaire and a best-selling author.

"I have 1,000 clients. I can't walk away from them," Clancy said. "I have responsibilities."

Yes, these matters are not to be taken lightly. You can't just let people like this fend for themselves. There was the time one of Clancy's policyholders, following the directions of a parking attendant, backed his car right over the attendant's foot, crunching several bones.

"I've had some real beauties," Clancy said, talking in his home recently over the clamor of 3-year-old son Tommy and the bulldozer that was digging the swimming pool just outside the window. Clancy lives here with his wife, Wanda, and four children ranging in age from 9 months to 13 years.

While not many other small-town insurance salesmen have a $39,000 Mercedes 380 they just bought "on sale," the critical difference between Clancy and other policy purveyors is contained in a small smoke-filled room in his house. This is the room where a 39-year-old man whose "career" has been "marriage" can put on his Coke-bottle-bottom glasses and forget that bad eyesight robbed him of his dream of a military career. Here he can become anyone, go anywhere, see everything.

Book-Lined Room

This is the room where Tom Clancy reads and writes.

Three walls are lined with thousands of books he arranges alphabetically and scales with a ladder. National Geographics are heaped in a corner, on the floor. "Charles and Diana" join "Wired," a set of encyclopedias, "The World's Missile Systems" and George Burns' "How to Live to Be 100" in a mixed population among the shelves.

"I like being around books. It makes me feel civilized," Clancy said in his library. "The only way to do all the things you'd like to do is to read."

Tucked in a small corner of the library is an Apple personal computer, attached to a laser printer. This is where he sits, flipping cigarette ashes into a shell casing from an M-1 tank, and performs magic. Or at least something close to it, to hear the military people tell it.

"The technical detail is superb," said Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who not only knows something about military matters but also has reviewed books on an occasional basis.

"There are lot of spy novels and novels involving military technology," said Weinberger, who once panned Robert Ludlum's popular "Bourne Identity," "but I don't call to mind many, if any (that would compare to Clancy's "Hunt for Red October"), based on accuracy, ability to communicate, narrative skills and plot. It's hard to stop reading this book."

President Reagan invited Clancy to the White House after reading it.

John Keegan, himself a respected military author and the defense correspondent of the Daily Telegraph of London, raved about "Red Storm Rising" (Putnam $19.95) in a review he wrote for the Washington Post. The new book is a scenario for World War III that has the Soviets starting a war against NATO, with both sides using state-of-the-art technology in conventional land, sea and air battles in Germany, Iceland and the North Atlantic. After reading Clancy's idea of how a Third World War might be fought, Keegan wrote that John Hackett's "Third World War" essay "bears the same resemblance to Tom Clancy's flights of imagination as a high school essay does to a Ph.D. dissertation."

Main Fascination

The main fascination with Clancy's work has centered around how anyone outside the inner loop of the Pentagon could know so much about the most complex military technology and strategy. Was this guy CIA?

Not quite. He was HIA.

Hartford Insurance Agency.

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