H’wood plots a political thriller

Guest column

If you want to change the world, consider writing a book.

Richard Clarke wrote “Against All Enemies” because he knew that the Bush administration hadn’t been honest about the state of our national defense.

Almost no one in our government has the credibility, experience or expertise to make such a charge. Clarke has been in government service for 30 years and has served four presidents. During the Clinton administration he was so aggressive in pursuing Osama bin Laden that he wore a gun to work.

How does a film agent in Hollywood come to be associated with the leading expert in terrorism, who lives in Washington and rarely goes to the movies?

Clarke entered my life when his literary agent, Len Sherman, a lone gun from Phoenix, called and asked if I would be interested in Clarke. Much to Sherman’s surprise, I knew who he was. I recently read about him in a book I was representing called “The Age of Sacred Terror.”

Some months later, Clarke came to town, and he was not at all as I had imagined him. My assumption was that an antiterrorism expert would be stiff, militaristic and arrogant. We had lunch at the showbiz hangout Orso, and he was surprisingly entertaining.

In early October, the manuscript was delivered to the publisher, but because Clarke had top-secret clearance, various intelligence agencies had to check the pages to make sure there weren’t any breaches in national security. I was left with the impression that this process wouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks. Much to everyone’s amazement, the White House sat on the book until February.

As the film agent, I wanted to read the book as soon as possible. I assumed I would be getting an early copy. I was wrong. Sherman called to say the publisher wasn’t releasing the manuscript. Since I knew the publisher, I boldly said that I would call her. My call was met with a fiery speech about how there was no way that I would get the book, about how all Hollywood did was leak material and finally, that this book didn’t need a movie deal anyway.

I hung up, thinking to myself, “What is in this book?”

Clark was booked to appear on “60 Minutes” on March 28, the day before the book was scheduled to go on sale. Monday, March 29, was a remarkable day. It is as if the heavens had opened and bombs went off. It was clear that the Bush White House was shaken. Condoleezza Rice was on TV, Dick Cheney went on Rush Limbaugh, and Donald Rumsfeld weighed in. They all attempted to discredit Clarke. The book made front-page news around the world.

Finally, a copy arrived. As someone who sells books, I am aware that most books get little attention and vanish quickly. But here, people were begging for copies, though to my utter frustration, I didn’t have any to send out!

I read the book that night. What I hadn’t been prepared for is how good a writer Clarke was. The opening chapter was incredibly cinematic. He knew how to set up a scene, make a point and move on. In addition, he revealed how government works or doesn’t work in a way I had never seen.

I knew that despite all of the overwhelming attention, this would not be an easy book to sell. The book was political; it didn’t have a love story. The producers are always afraid that between the heat of the moment and the release date, the public has cooled. I was aware that it could be done for cable, but I wanted to see that the deal reflected the book’s importance and its popular success. I had to ensure that the absolute best talent be brought to making this. I was convinced then that this would have to be done as a feature film.

Then came Thursday, April 1, and with it Clarke’s appearance in front of the 9/11 Commission. His opening apology to the 9/11 families was stunning. Much of the questioning that followed turned out to be very partisan in nature.

Of almost equal importance — at least to me — that same day a handful of books arrived. I sent out this meager handful to the people who had expressed the greatest interest.

By Monday, I was beginning to have serious discussions about the book with several studios and cable outlets.

One cable exec asked me if Richard was the guy from Survivor. “No,” I said. “That’s Richard Hatch.” By Wednesday, the only copy of the book I had was my own.

Something went off in my head that day. I remembered that John Calley was somehow involved with the film “All the President’s Men.” I found him in Toronto and asked if he was interested in reading the book. He wanted to see it as soon as possible. I sent him my last copy.

The phone rang late the following day. It was Calley saying that this was a movie he had to make. He said that he knew how to do it, and that he was the right person. I thought about it and felt that indeed he was. Also, Sony didn’t own any radio or TV stations and I wouldn’t have to worry about the potential of government influence in getting the film produced and distributed.

I found Clarke and Sherman, and made a very hard sell of why the movie had to be made with Calley. The other interest I received didn’t seem to matter. We now had the ideal studio and the ideal producer.

I called Clarke over the weekend to go over the practical terms of the deal and explain to him what this deal meant. I also made it clear that if he didn’t want the deal, I would also understand. The deal was closed the following Tuesday.

Ron Bernstein is head of the ICM book department on the West Coast.

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