Review: The General’s President

The General’s President
John Dalmas

The best way to look at Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders is to consider it a thought experiment into how the American Government can be reformed by a President who is not part of the political system to the point where he cannot cause real and long-lasting change. However, Clancy was hardly the first writer to explore such a theme. John Dalmas, known for The Regiment and other military science-fiction books, preceded him by at least eight years.

In the world of The General’s President, the US economy crashed in 1990, following an ongoing war between Iraq and Iran that pushed oil prices up into the stratosphere. (The General’s President was published in 1988, hence plenty of dated references.) The Vice President has resigned under a cloud of scandal, there are riots on the streets, martial law has been declared and Congress has given the President emergency powers. But, wanting to resign himself, the President offers the position to General Cromwell. Cromwell, however, selects a self-made businessman and inventor called Arne Haugen. (The timeline of his life struck me as absurd, at first, but it makes sense given when the book was published.)

Haugen, finding himself given almost-supreme power and charged with rebuilding the nation, sets out to do just that.

I liked Haugen as a character. He’s clever, but not supremely impressed with his own cleverness; inspirational without being dogmatic; quite willing to experiment to see what works and what doesn’t … and not burdened by the disadvantages of having spent a lifetime in politics. Unlike many dictators (and, to all intents and purposes, he is a dictator) he is not obsessed with building up his own power base, but determined to hand back as much power to the citizenry as possible.

He’s also aware of the limits of his own powers – and those of America. He negotiates with the USSR (particularly after getting into an undeclared war with the Russians) but he also recognises that America cannot demand the release of Eastern Europe. He opposes the apartheid regime in South Africa, yet doesn’t get very involved in the region.

The book is let down by some of the other characters that appear in the book. His domestic opponents are mainly cowards or incompetents, including some that should be a great deal more dangerous. Those who are good are won over; those that aren’t get into trouble fairly quickly. In the end, his opponents largely destroy themselves through their own flaws, rather than through the President’s actions.

It is in ideas, however, where the book truly shines. Haugen fiddles with everything from education to law and prison reform, putting forward his ideas to make the system work again. Readers may not fully agree with his suggestions, but they do offer food for thought and debate. For example, he suggests total economic disclosure between business owners and workers, so that upset workers will see that the profits (or lack thereof) for themselves. He also points out that the increased absurdity of justice only weakens faith in justice, to the point where people start taking the law into their own hands. The case he cites – a farmer being sued after a trespasser injured himself on the farm – may have seemed absurd, but there have been comparable cases in the real world.

This does lead to a problem shared by many other such books. Such solutions work, in the books, because the author deems them to have worked (as is his right). The real world is not normally so obliging. It would have been nice to see Haugen take a pratfall once or twice, perhaps while dealing with a field outside his own expertise.

Diplomatically, Haugen has a more realistic view of America’s strengths and weaknesses than most real Presidents. His honest admission that there are things outside America’s control is the kind of blunt speaking that real President shun, but it is important to grasp.

He also recognises when foreign leaders are trapped in a cleft stick. Unusually for a book of that era, it treats General Jaruzelski (military dictator of Poland) with surprising sympathy, recognising that Jaruzelski was caught between a rock and a hard place. If he didn’t crush the activists demanding freedom, the Russians would invade and Poland would be much worse off. South Africa gets much the same treatment, with Haugen condemning the apartheid regime and, at the same time, doing what he can to give the regime a way out without bloodshed.

Problems appear, however, when the author casts his net even wider. Apparently, Earth has been visited by aliens, there is a secret government conspiracy to fight them … and America and Russia both possess secret weather-modification equipment that the Russians are prepared to use to bring down the United States, derived from alien technology. This leads to a confrontation that could easily have sparked a nuclear war … something the Russians tried to avoid in real life, as did the United States. This part of the plot is completely unnecessary and should have been cut out.

Further, Haugen’s enemies are linked to a centuries-old conspiracy that intends to take control of the world and keep the population from thinking for itself. I don’t believe in conspiracies, certainly not ones that operate undercover for generations. It is unlikely that any such group could have remained intact – or, if we grant its existence, not actually won. There is some useful insights into why certain people may feel that controlling the sheep is better than letting them think for themselves (the attitude held, among others, by the leaders of the Soviet Union) but they are tainted by the conspiracy theory. A multi-generational conspiracy stretches my suspension of disbelief to breaking point.

Heinlein had saying about not attributing to malice that which could be explained through stupidity. Haugen makes the point, more than once, that America got itself into this mess and needs to get itself out of it. And yet the book suggests, towards the end, that isn’t entirely true. It’s disconcerting, to say the least, and also undermines the central message of the book. Take responsibility for yourself.

Another issue (although a more minor one) is the introduction of a whole new power source by Haugen. While I like the idea of better living through technological advancement (and it certainly beats the alternative) the discovery appears to be too convenient. But I wish it would happen.

Despite these points, the book is well worth a read, simply because it opens up hundreds of valuable points for discussion – and, perhaps more importantly, it will start you thinking about the political process. Certainly, the background reads rather dated (in Haugen’s world, Gorbachev is overthrown before the USSR can tumble, although there is a fairly good analysis of the USSR’s underlying weaknesses) but don’t let that distract you. The General’s President is worth reading far more than once.

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