Writer Chris Stewart Warned Us. But Does Congressman Chris Stewart Care? | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

March 07, 2018 News » Cover Story

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    • Jeff Drew

    Chris Stewart was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012. I found out Stewart was my congressman around the time I moved to Salt Lake City in 2013, when I learned that my house was just a block north of the new boundary line between the 2nd and 4th districts. (With a view of the Wasatch Mountains to the east, I could reasonably purport to see all four of Utah's congressional districts from my front yard.) But it was a couple years later when I learned that Stewart held a second job every bit as ignominious as U.S. representative: he's a writer, too.

    I made this discovery through happenstance: a couple years ago, I worked part-time as a shelver at the Salt Lake City Public Library. One day, I noticed a glut of titles from an author named Chris Stewart. In the first few seconds of recognition, my brain reflexively recoiled against the connection about to snap together: that Chris Stewart is the same person as Chris Stewart.

    A quick Google search revealed the unavoidable truth. To date, Stewart has penned a thick stack of volumes, most of which are novels. His career got rolling shortly after retiring from the Air Force in the mid-1990s, honing his chops on military techno-thrillers in the tradition of Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler. The author bio on the jacket of Stewart's first novel unabashedly touts his bonafides as an Air Force pilot:

    Chris Stewart is major in the U.S. Air Force. On June 3, 1995, Stewart led a flight of two B-1s on an around-the-world bombing mission. For 36 hours, 13 minutes, he flew nonstop, averaging 640 mph and shattered [sic] previous world records in time, distance, and speed. In August of that year, he was presented with the MacKay [sic] Trophy for the "most significant aerial achievement of the decade." The author welcomes E-mail at stewart@micron.net.

    In addition to techno-thrillers, Stewart has dabbled in spiritual self-help, autobiographical ghostwriting (he helped with Elizabeth Smart's memoir), political history, and most recently historical fiction. Perhaps his most ambitious project was a series of novels called The Great and Terrible, a six-part, 1,387-page set that charts an epic course "from the beginning of time to the final hours of the last days." The series sounds a bit like the Revelations-inspired Left Behind books, except reimagined with Mormon theology.

    When Stewart first ran for Congress in 2012, opponents suggested his lively imagination and preoccupation with the end times could inform his actual worldview. But Stewart balked at those claims. "My true worldview is just the opposite of this apocalyptic," he told the local Fox affiliate. "Look, I know we're going to have challenges, and who knows, maybe there will be a zombie apocalypse or something like that, but I think, really, we have great reason to be hopeful, and that's the more important message and really the message of our campaign."

    I had zero interest in reading Stewart's work until last year. As the investigation in Russian election interference began to pick up steam, I amused myself with the thought that Stewart must be kicking himself for never coming up with such a sensational premise on his own. But then I wondered, what if he did already come up with that premise? So I started digging deep into his bibliography of military dramas and quasi-religious fantasies. When I came back around to his 1997 debut novel, Shattered Bone, I hit pay dirt. Here's the publisher's synopsis:

    A nightmare scenario becomes terrifying reality when the Ukraine calls in an undercover agent from the old Russian regime who has lived in America nearly all his life and is now an elite bomber pilot. Drawn back to his home, the agent is pitted against a Russia ambitious to rebuild its tyrannical power. As his stolen bomber sweeps down on its target, the world braces for nuclear war, and everyone is left to wonder: Who is the renegade pilot working for?

    • United States Congress | M. Evans & Co., Inc.
    It was almost everything I wanted out of a Chris Stewart novel: Russian intrigue, international espionage, nuclear doomsday scenarios, elite bomber pilots. At 384 pages, the novel threatened to be a slog. But as a masochist with a penchant for novelty, I couldn't resist: I had to read this book.

    The main protagonist is Richard Ammon, an all-American hotshot pilot who loves Bruce Springsteen and the Dallas Cowboys—or so we're led to believe. We later find out that Ammon is actually a Ukrainian man named Carl Kostenko, a top-shelf Soviet spy who was planted in the United States as a teenager in an elaborate, years-long plot to infiltrate the U.S. military. Ammon held up his end of the ruse when he became an active Air Force pilot, but by that time the Soviet Union had folded, leaving the purpose of his mission unclear.

    When Ammon is suddenly kidnapped by his Ukrainian superiors, he's debriefed on an escalating conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The new Russian president, Vladimir Fedotov, is hellbent on retaking Ammon's childhood homeland and restoring Russia's status as a world superpower. To achieve his geopolitical aims, Fedotov even approves a top-secret proposal for a nuclear strike meant to devastate Ukrainian forces into submission. To counteract the dastardly Fedotov's plans, the Ukrainians give Ammon a new mission: use his insider status at the U.S. Air Force to steal a nuke-loaded B-1 bomber and use it to ratchet up tensions between the U.S. and Russia. It's so crazy that it just might work.

    There's something spooky about this Russian president. In part, it's his physical presence—he's described by the omniscient narrator as "a wiry man, with thin brown hair atop a narrow face and pointed chin. Black eyes sat deep within his pock-marked face and his roman nose jutted out above pale, thin lips." But it's his sinister persona that rings every bell.

    To most of his subordinates, Fedotov was a mysterious man, shrouded in a veil of paranoia and fear. He was a shadowy figure, a hard and ambitious man who had risen to power with such speed and direction that he left no trail in his wake.

    Fedotov is characteristically thorough in his political intelligence-gathering. Over the course of his previous stint as prime minister, Fedotov "had committed enormous resources to collecting such information on the power elite, the most interesting and useful of which was compiled into thick but tidy dossiers and tucked away in his safe." We're told that he retains such meticulous information about every member of his inner circle that he could've "instantly recited the most intimate personal details—from their habits of personal hygiene to their latest travels, from their political sympathies to conversations they had with their wives while lying in bed."

    "The man has no moral compass," one of Ammon's Ukrainian co-conspirators claims. "No internal sense of right or wrong. Already he is an international pariah. By his own choosing. He has isolated himself from the West for this very purpose. He does what suits his own interest. And his interest is perfectly clear."

    While Ammon prepares for his improbable B-1 heist, the war between Russia and Ukraine escalates dramatically. Russian forces invade the Crimean peninsula then follow up with a surge across the Ukrainian border into eastern Ukraine, committing myriad atrocities along the way. In desperation, Ukrainian officials initiate Ammon's mission way ahead of schedule. Ammon and a companion named Morozov are sent to the United States, but they're captured by the U.S. government before they ever set foot on an Air Force base. (I guess by now I should've warned readers about spoilers. Oops.)

    Still with me? Ammon, who it turns out genuinely loves Springsteen and the Cowboys, makes a secret pact with U.S. officials to carry out his caper posing as a Ukrainian spy. But instead of nuking Russia, he's ordered to carry out a precision strike on just one high-profile target: Fedotov.

    Ammon and Morozov (who was drugged and has no memory of being captured by the U.S.) manage to steal the B-1 and fly halfway around the world into Russian airspace. But when Morozov figures out what Ammon is up to, he foils the American assassination plot and launches five onboard nukes, sending them all to major Russian cities. Ammon is able to disarm all five warheads before Russian fighter jets force the B-1 into a crash landing, but not before Fedotov learns that an American bomber has aimed nuclear missiles at targets across Russia. In the spirit of mutually assured destruction, Fedotov launches his own nuclear missile directed at the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

    "I will not sit here and wait to be destroyed," Fedotov exclaims to his top general. "I will not roll over like a dog on his back and expose my jugular vein."

    What follows is maybe the most affecting scene of the entire novel. When Fedotov's general tries to explain that the American warheads have been disabled and pose no threat, the Russian president is unmoved. The general begs Fedotov to self-destruct the Russian missile, but with mere seconds remaining until the point of no return, it becomes clear that Fedotov has no intention of canceling the strike. He insists that the Americans started the fight, that he's just "calling their bluff."

    "They are cowards, and I will not back down. So, General Nahaylo, don't tell me what I must or mustn't do. Unless you are in charge here. Don't tell me what to—

    "Forty-five seconds, sir!"

    Nahaylo grabbed Fedotov by the shoulders and pulled him around, staring him straight in the eyes. "President Fedotov, you must kill the missile!" he cried. "We must stop while we can! This isn't some kind of game here! This is life! This is death! This is war!" Fedotov pushed him away. Nahaylo held on. Fedotov pushed him back once again, then glanced at his guards in a panic.

    "Thirty seconds, sir!" the sergeant cried out. Sir! What do you want me to do?" [sic]

    "Captain Blenko!" Fedotov called to his guard. "Arrest this man! Get this coward out of my sight!"

    It gets better. The guard is frozen with indecision. Only one person in the room wants to start a nuclear war, but that person is also the only one with the authority to decide. The general panics and reaches for the control panel. He and Fedotov tussle, and as Fedotov orders the guard to shoot, Nahaylo's mind flashes to all of the innocent lives that could be lost, including his grandchildren.

    "Ten seconds, sir!!" the sergeant cried out. "Nine ... eight!"

    General Nahaylo pulled out his pistol and shot Fedotov square in the chest, blowing him back in his chair.

    "Kill the missile!" he cried again, while lurching for the self-destruct button.

    The book ends happily, with a nuclear crisis averted, a dangerous Russian president eradicated, and a battered Richard Ammon returned to his beloved wife and life in the United States.

    So was Shattered Bone a slog? I'll say this much: The plot is mostly predictable, the characters are two-dimensional, and the writing—when it's not describing an action sequence involving aerial combat—is unspectacular. Other readers were more enthusiastic. "Absolutely thrilling page-turner," one Goodreads commenter said. "Exciting and well-paced without a potty-mouth vocabulary. The worst I could find was sonofa... [sic]. How refreshing!" another posted.  

    Stewart's strength in this book is knowing his subject matter, which is perhaps an awareness he more broadly possesses about all his writing 20 years on. When I interviewed Stewart over the phone back in June, he portrayed his current yet-to-be-published project as a hodgepodge of his interests.

    Congressman from Utah's Second Congressional District, former Air Force pilot and published author Chris Stewart. - VIA FLICKR.COM/REPCHRISSTEWART
    • Via flickr.com/repchrisstewart
    • Congressman from Utah's Second Congressional District, former Air Force pilot and published author Chris Stewart.

    "I guess you're supposed to write what you know, right?" he offered rhetorically. "And I know a little bit about intelligence and national security and military. And I know now a little bit about politics. So it's a little bit of a combination between the two."

    Even as he plugs away at a new book, it's hard to imagine Stewart could write anything more timely than his maiden effort, given its eerie prescience. He even admitted that "maybe once or twice" it occurred to him that present-day proceedings have overlapped with certain events in his 1997 novel.

    "There's been times on the intelligence committee when I'm doing work, or when I'm in Russia, that I am reminded and realize, you know, this is similar to what the book laid out," he said.

    But Stewart stopped short of calling his novel prophetic. He said the Russia-returns-to-Soviet-glory scheme in Shattered Bone was just a reflection of suspicions held by some U.S. military personnel in the 1990s.

    "Those of us in the military were hopeful that they would be integrated into the West, but we never really—I don't want to say we didn't expect it, but I don't think we were surprised to see that that didn't work out very well."

    And as for the fictional president Fedotov, Stewart maintained that the character wasn't based on any specific, real-life figure; Fedotov represented "more of a composite of just Russian mentality or Russian culture more than any one individual." It's also worth mentioning that Vladimir Putin didn't come to power until 2000, three years after Bone was first published.

    Stewart's book, then, is a worst-case scenario. It's an exploration of what would happen if our worst fears were realized, if Russia returned to an authoritarian, anti-West mindset under the insidious reign of an anti-democratic megalomaniac. What's unsettling is that it's entirely rational to argue we've arrived at those conditions, but it's the climactic scene with the paranoid, unhinged leader ready to start a nuclear war to reassure his own sense of pride—the culmination of the worst case—that really gives me pause.

    I wondered if Stewart felt the same way. When I asked him what has prevented a comparable nuclear crisis from happening up until now, he might have misinterpreted my question as contesting the plausibility of the crisis crafted in the novel.

    "I wouldn't have any fun writing a book that wasn't based on something that was plausible," he posited. "It's just so much more challenging when you stay within the realm of what's real and try to create something entertaining within that realm. And so, not only with this book but with other books as well, I mean, they're all plausible. They're all based on, you know, the military world as I saw it, the relationship between political leaders and military leaders. So you know, something like that, you know, clearly hasn't happened, but it could happen. And that's what makes the drama kind of fun to me is to keep it within the realm of what's actually possible."

    Just as I was about to transition to a new topic, Stewart cut in: "Did that answer your question? I'm trying to figure out if that's what you asked."

    "Maybe elaborate a little bit on your concern of that situation arising and why or why not it might happen," I replied, attempting to restate my initial question more explicitly.

    "Well I'm not sure what else I can say, and to be honest with you, as you described the scene, I remembered it. But if you'd asked me about it, I would've struggled to kind of come back to that scene, but—maybe I'll just leave it as that's the best I can say."

    I moved on to questions about Stewart's writing career after that. We talked about what it takes to improve as a writer, and how to measure that improvement. I feel an immediate kinship with anyone who tries to write because, well, writing is hard, and it's difficult to appreciate how hard it is unless you've tried it. It was Gene Fowler who once said, "Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until a drop of blood forms on your forehead."

    So I have respect for anyone, Stewart included, for trying to write. But the paths we've chosen as writers are much different. I see myself as more of an observer, one who stands to the side and describes what he sees. Stewart might have started out with a similar ethos in the 1990s—in fact, I see Shattered Bone as a creative expression of accumulated experience and testimony. It reflects something authentically observed.

    The Chris Stewart of 2018 has a different role. One that isn't as conducive to speculative flights of fancy. It's the position of a U.S. Representative. Moreover, it's the role of a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which includes a chairmanship over the Department of Defense Intelligence and Overhead Architecture Subcommittee, a congressional group that broadly oversees "the policies, programs, activities, and budgets of the National Reconnaissance Program, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Program, the General Defense Intelligence Program (Defense Intelligence Agency), and Department of Defense activities that are funded through the Military Intelligence Program."

    In other words, Stewart is not a passive observer anymore. Instead of dreaming up fictitious Russian plots to disrupt the world order, he literally oversees our nation's efforts to track and counteract actual Russian plots to disrupt the world order. Oh, to be Chris Stewart these days! How techno-thrilling to have the inside scoop on all these juicy, stranger-than-fiction Russian plots:

    The 2016 plot to sow distrust in the American electoral process, and the plot to do it again in 2018.

    The plot to support Donald Trump's Putin-friendly U.S. presidential campaign while undermining the campaign of Hillary Clinton, a longtime Putin foe.

    The plot to propagate outrage and division over social media with Twitter bots and fake news farms.

    And why not: the plot Putin announced just this month to develop a nuclear ballistic missile that would render U.S. missile defense systems "absolutely pointless"—though one might blame this recent arms escalation on our president's worldwide boast about his big and powerful "Nuclear Button."

    It would be unfair to imply that Stewart is completely unconcerned about Russia. In August of 2016 after a trip to Moscow, Stewart did warn both The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News that the Russian government was looking to stir hijinks in our election and "in nearly everything we do." But in his address to the Utah state senate in January, Stewart drew attention to other concerns. He dismissed charges of collusion between the Trump campaign and Kremlin-tied conspirators, claiming "there just simply isn't evidence." He slammed the inflammatory Steele Dossier by simultaneously discrediting its origins and flatly pronouncing "there is nothing in it that is true." Furthermore, he accused "a few individuals in very senior positions" at the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the CIA (without naming them) of working as "political operatives" (without citing evidence).

    So this is who Congressman Chris Stewart has become: a member of the House Intelligence Committee who publicly impugns the motives and integrity of top U.S. intelligence officials, all while casting unspecific doubt on an American investigation into a foreign adversary, one whom Stewart himself admits is acting with indiscriminate malice toward our democracy. He's an intriguing character, this all-American hotshot pilot, so full of complexity and contradiction—maybe too good even for writer Chris Stewart to concoct.

    But as much as Stewart's critics have shunned his active literary imagination in the past, I personally wish he honed its power more sharply right about now. A man in his role who can foresee the apocalypse so vividly is, perhaps, well-positioned to prevent it.

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