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Reflections On The Spy Who Jumped Off The Screen

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The autumn of 1964 was soft and golden, but the chill of the Cold War fell across it when we arrived as freshmen at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

By virtue of the alphabet, Bill Clinton and I were assigned rooms a few doors from each other on the second floor of Loyola Hall. We met at a corridor meeting that evening and there began a friendship that led to our being roommates a few years later and that has remained uninterrupted, even by a single memorable argument, to this day.

As were most of our fellow students, we had been drawn together by a common interest in government, often in politics, and in a larger world that was already growing smaller thanks to the arrival of jet travel and satellite communications during the previous few years. John Kennedy's charismatic flight to the Presidency had emblazoned itself upon our teenage imaginations and his unimaginable assassination had left us prematurely weary. We were looking for something we could neither find nor yet define.

In the meantime, dreaming of one's future in Kennedy-esque terms was an occupational hazard in a student body so rich with jut-jawed Irish Catholic schoolboys sporting full heads of hair.

America was at its zenith, or so we felt it to be. I, myself, was on the border of a decision as to whether to pursue a career in politics or as a writer. Politics held the lure of the spotlight, as well as a chance to effect positive change, but words, I was beginning to feel, were my natural milieu.

I don't recall whether it was at our very first meeting or at another soon afterwards, but it was not long before I recognized that Bill Clinton possessed an outsized appetite for friendship, an intense curiosity about others' pasts and ambitions that, in combination with a striking lack of envy, made him a natural for elective office. In that respect, he left the rest of us in the shade and, by his obvious ability, may have tipped the balance in my own choice of career.

In the evenings, we began to haunt bookshops, initially the Common Reader on N Street then, more often, the Savile on P, where books were shelved in warren-like rooms according to their publishers.

It was there that Bill first drew my attention to Graham Greene, whose novel, Our Man in Havana, he had recently read. I picked up a paperback copy and took it back to my room, relishing the verbal swordplay of cynicism against faith on display with in it, and, later, in The Ministry of Fear.

If thrillers were not the catalyst of our friendship, our mutual appreciation of the genre was surely an element of the glue that cemented it.

Mystery lurked in the streets just beyond our dorm windows, and not just the mystery of romance or sex, or those fantasies of great-things-to-come that attend so many young minds of eighteen, but the particular mysteries of Washington, of hidden as well as obvious power.

Many of that fabled old neighborhood's streets were paved with cobblestone. Just as in the Prague of my book The Spy Who Jumped off the Screen (Viking, $26.95), "the percussion of our shoe's soles" against these "echoed through the shallow urban canyons." In the lamp-lit windows of Georgian and Victorian townhouses, beyond sheer curtains, one could discern figures that might very well, with not too much exercise of the imagination, have been those of great men and women conducting or composing important Movements of State.

Of course, they might equally have been living out innocent domestic scenes as familiar in the suburbs of Baltimore or Hot Springs as in the nation's capital, but that would have been too disappointing to conjure. The glamour of Hollywood having spilled onto the stage of politics, we were ripe for illusion and intrigue.

And we found it, if not in drawing rooms for which we were a generation too young, in books! Over the next years, in addition to Greene, we read Ian Fleming for flare and John Le Carré for reality, although, with time, those categories would blur, even, eventually, migrate.

We devoured Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Dimitrios, ripe with the lure of the exotic, and Len Deighton's gritty Harry Palmer books, as well as any other thrillers or writers recommended by friends or the reliable staff of the Savile.

In re-run houses, we watched Orson Welles in The Third Man and The Lady from Shanghai, and in the first-run theaters, Sean Connery as James Bond, Richard Burton as the burnt-out Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Michael Caine in The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin.

Even Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago seemed like thrillers, after a fashion, in the gifted hands of David Lean, which held Bill and me in its thrall when we went to see it together in the old Warner Theater on Fourteenth Street. We drifted from theater with a new and unfamiliar distance between us, two young men in love with the same woman: Lara, as played by Julie Christie.

In those days, just as in those books and films, the Russia that had been wrought by revolution not quite a half-century before, was still an ominous presence. The life-threatening cloud of the Cuban Missile Crisis had developed and been dispelled only two years before our arrival at college.

A year prior to that, a showdown between President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev over Berlin had threatened the peace. That, in turn, had come quickly on the heels of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which, without much of an interval, had followed the downing of an American U-2 reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union.

The gauntlet of Sputnik, which our entire cohort had been enlisted to pick up, had been thrown down just as we'd left childhood, a fascinating, unprecedented loss of innocence, in retrospect. Now, an engagement in Laos, if not yet clearly Vietnam, loomed, and so did the draft.

Then as today -- as always -- thrillers, which are but drama stripped bare and made relevant to its moment, were a way both of escaping the random tedium of life and of imposing at least one possible order on that chaos. As with a crossword puzzle or a set of mathematical equations, there is a way to be found through them, the prize for finding which, usually in direct proportion to the challenge, can be genuine satisfaction and delight.

This is why I suspect President Clinton and I have always enjoyed them so much. In The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen, an early draft of which the former president edited and for which he has written an Introduction, the hero, Ty Hunter, is, practically by accident, a glamorous young movie star.

He is also a former covert operative, skilled in the arts of evasion, espionage and twilight war. In the observation of one character, "It's as though Matt Damon really were Jason Bourne."

Perhaps, on reflection, it is just that uncertainty as to who is really whom and up to what that at once makes the novel so apposite to our age and connects it to its lineage.