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October 1, 1999

Allen Drury and the Washington Novel

Revisiting the author of Advise and Consent


WHEN ALLEN DRURY DIED LAS YEAR on his 80th birthday, the thoughts of editors and obituary writers naturally turned to Advise and Consent, the book that made him famous, that gave a memorable last film role to Charles Laughton, and that in many ways invented a genre in fiction. Henry Adams and John Dos Passos had written novels on politics in Washington. But the use of a racy intrigue, if possible involving both sex and foreign policy, is what characterizes the contemporary form. Forty years on, Advise and Consent is the only book of this genre that a literary-minded person really ought to read. Indeed, as Saturday Review noted in August 1959, "It may be a long time before a better one comes along." Forty years so far.

The plot of Advise and Consent revolves around a showdown between the president of the United States and the senior senator from South Carolina, the memorable Seabright Cooley. They belong to opposing wings of the same party and disagree on most things, and specifically, in this case, the president’s nomination of one Robert A. Leffingwell — slick, popular with the media, devious, liberal (he was played by Henry Fonda) — to be secretary of state. The president of the United States has the right — everyone in this book agrees — to his policies. But the Senate has the duty to protect the higher interests of the nation, in this case its basic security, since the nominee may be a communist and is certainly a liar. The first question is how the senators should use their prerogatives and their oversight responsibilities to block Leffingwell’s nomination or so circumscribe him that he will be ineffectual if confirmed in the position. The next question is to what ruthlessly manipulative lengths the president and his allies are willing to go to get their man in. The final question is how much the men of character in the novel will grow from the awful dramas resulting from the confirmation fight — notably the rather bumbling vice-president, who will soon find himself, when the president dies, with the ultimate responsibility of facing down the Soviet Union.

Loosely inspired by the Hiss case, the plot of Advise and Consent unfolds against the double background of nasty domestic politics and an ominous international situation. The story, set contemporaneously, was written in 1958 — Drury said he had started it several years before and returned to it — and published in 1959. The date is noteworthy, because it evokes a time when Washington really was a simpler place than it is today ("a sleepy southern town," the saying went). Also, the great political forces set in motion by the New Deal, regarding the power of the federal government in relation to the states, and the power of the executive in relation to the other branches, had not entirely resolved themselves. The immense power of the presidency was a fact, but it was not quite a custom yet. The Senate still had prestige, and Drury loved — and taught millions of readers to love — its grand traditions of oratory and parliamentary politics. These protected the states and the republic against the excesses of the executive’s grasp for power. Drury understood perhaps as well as anyone in his time that executive power was corrupting, in the manner Lord Acton said it was.

Transcending the immediate issue — whether the president should jeopardize national security by placing an appeaser, and possibly an agent, of the Soviet Union at the helm of American diplomacy when the Soviets (this too dates the story in the late 1950s) seemed to be pulling ahead of the U.S. in the arms race with the successful testing of a moon rocket — the question was whether the president should be able to run foreign policy without waiting for, as the Constitution has it, the Senate to Advise and Consent. This is a question, as the next decades would amply confirm, that transcended ideological or partisan differences, as every president, conservative or liberal, found himself in bitter disputes with the Senate over foreign policy questions.

Drury, a man formed in Texas and California (Stanford University, about which he wrote three novels), loved Washington.

Like a city in dreams, the great white capital stretches along the placid river from Georgetown on the west to Anacostia on the east. It is a city of temporaries, a city of just-arriveds and only-visitings, built on the shifting sands of politics, filled with people passing through. They may stay 50 years [as Drury did], they may love, marry, settle down, build homes, raise families, and die beside the Potomac, but they usually feel, and frequently they will tell you, that they are just here for a little while. Someday soon they will be going home. They do go home, but only for visits, or for a brief span of staying-away; and once the visits or the brief spans are over ("It’s so nice to get away from Washington, it’s so inbred; so nice to get out in the country and find out what people are really thinking") they hurry back to their lodestones and their star, their self-hypnotized, self-mesmerized, self-enamored, self-propelling, wonderful city they cannot live away from or, once it has claimed them, live without. . . . They come, they stay, they make their mark, writing big or little on their times, in the strange, fantastic, fascinating city that mirrors so faithfully their strange, fantastic, fascinating land in which there are few absolute wrongs or absolute rights, few all-blacks or all-whites, few dead-certain positives that won’t be changed tomorrow; their wonderful, mixed-up, blundering, stumbling, hopeful land in which evil men do good things and good men do evil in a way of life and government so complex and delicately balanced that only Americans can understand it, and often they are baffled.

This was Allen Drury’s Washington. For three or four years, Drury was the necessary reference to anyone needing a picture of what mattered in American politics, and for at least a generation beyond that, Advise and Consent remained the only novel that easily came to mind when one needed a fictional authority to describe what Washington was.

Drury’s prose has all the grandiloquence and turgidity of the repressed wire service man, New York Times reporter, and Reader’s Digester that he was. But it is distinctly and honorably his. He wanted to paint a broad canvas, just as Balzac (another sometimes awful prose writer) did for Paris. His prose had character, integrity — style. It succeeded in evoking a place and a phenomenon, in a way American novels are called upon to do. To find out about the army, you read James Jones and Irwin Shaw; the navy, Herman Wouk; the "Jewish Experience," Saul Bellow; the "Negro Experience," Ralph Ellison. Of course this is to mix together writers of vastly different ambitions and achievements, but it is to say that there is a claim — and who is to say it is not a legitimate claim? — on novelists that they devote at least part of their careers to adding to the great unfinished fresco of American life. Drury did it for Washington.

Drury never wrote a roman à clef. Even with his transparent attack on the Washington Post, Anna Hastings (1977), he wanted his characters to be originals. Critics of Advise and Consent assumed that his Senate Majority Leader Robert Munson, for example, was a stand-in for Robert Taft, whom Drury admired. But Drury didn’t just graft a fictional name on a journalistic portrait. His "Taft" is, to pick an essential quality of the original, anything but an isolationist. The "McCarthyite" character in Advise and Consent is a flaming pro-communist liberal. This may or may not have been an anticipation of the direction American liberalism would take. But it certainly was Drury’s way of saying that the liberals were as prone to the demagogy associated with "McCarthyism" as were the conservatives, perhaps more so. It is remarkable how prescient Drury was about the evolution of American political tendencies in the 1960s and ’70s.

But unlike many journalists, senators, ex-policy makers, and others who have tried their hands at fiction and covered themselves with embarrassment, Drury was not only trying to say something about the issues of the day. He was trying to say something about character and about the way it will express itself — or how it will be tested — in American democracy. In other words, it was character — a novelist’s subject matter — that he was really interested in. That is why Advise and Consent works as well today as it did in 1959. In Advise and Consent and the first sequel he wrote, A Shade of Difference, Drury was able to depict not what political animals are like in Washington, but what politics does to the human animal.

The issue Sen. Cooley seizes to kill the presidential nomination in Advise and Consent is honesty. The nominee lied about something in his past. It was very minor, probably did not extend into his later career. But before Cooley’s victory there has been considerable (and tragic) drama, a life has been destroyed, the honest men have been separated from the scoundrels.

The two major human dramas in A Shade of Difference (1962) concern the competing claims on an individual’s loyalties that men, and politicians in particular, accumulate as they make their way in life. Drury understood that good, or better, men are formed on the anvil of moral ambiguity — rather than in the certitudes (selfish or ideological) of demagogy. Cullee Hamilton, a brilliant and charismatic black congressman from California, must represent his district, which is reasonably liberal; he must represent "the race," since this is 1962 and the final push for civil rights in the U.S. is under way but still an unsure thing (the Voting Rights Act did not pass until 1965); he is a patriot who believes his country has done well, by any comparative measure, in dealing with racial issues. Above all, at a time when racial polarization was rapidly gaining momentum and black liberals were becoming easy targets — easier even than white liberals — for radical race men, he has the courage to believe that America’s democratic political system offers the best chance of peaceful and legal progress. He loves his mother, a South Carolina charwoman who after the death of her husband made sure her children worked very hard, stayed very honest, and did very well. He loves his wife and feels a loyalty to his best friend in college, who has veered off toward the politics of confrontation.

South Carolina’s senior senator, introduced in Advise and Consent, too has competing pressures on him. He is loyal to the United States and the U.S. Senate in which he has served many decades, but he is loyal as well to his constituents, who are segregationist whites with whom he agrees and identifies. His personal life is simpler than Hamilton’s: Disappointed in love, he has remained a life-long bachelor. This may, in reality, make him a more complicated man than Hamilton, but at least the outward pressures, such as having a promiscuous and spoiled wife taunt him for uncle-tomism (or whatever the equivalent would be in his case), are not there.

It was when character took second place to contemporary events, as it increasingly did in Drury’s writings, that the writing seemed more like fictionalized commentary than real fiction. Actually, Drury after Advise and Consent pioneered a genre that might be called the novelization of Washington politics. Henry Adams had done something like this in his novel Democracy, a satire on political life in Washington in the 1880s.

One of the reasons for the huge success of Advise and Consent — it beat all records for duration (98 weeks) on the best-seller lists, won a Pulitzer Prize, and was well received critically — was surely its journalistic skill and political acuity. It not only captured a nervous moment in American political life, but settled a number of scores that had been festering since the New Deal, and particularly since the Truman administration. In 1959 many Americans were still passionately divided over Roosevelt, some judging him to have been the messiah and others a cynical and manipulative liberticide. Truman was still loathed by Republicans in general and conservatives in particular, not just Southern conservatives, as the evil genius of liberalism. Liberal Democrats, though they had to defend Truman against the right, were well aware that he had invented a national security policy, both at home and abroad, with which many of them (by no means all) were uncomfortable. Republicans in the 1950s did not view Truman as a principled anti-communist. And tough and principled and sensible as he was, Truman himself was not always as clear-sighted as advertised a generation later by some of his neoconservative followers, who used him as the reference for the transference of their allegiances to another party. In the 1956 election, for instance, Truman was still all but defending Alger Hiss, who by then had been convicted and sent to jail. Many if not most liberal Democrats were still more Stevensonian than Kennedyesque, and Kennedy was the real follower of Truman, tough on communism and a hardball player in domestic politics.

Likewise, in A Shade of Difference and Capable of Honor (1966) and the later books, Drury used a series of dramas to organize his view on the issues of the day. He was good at this. A Southerner and a conservative, he was clear-eyed and ahead of everyone, notably almost all Southerners and most conservatives, in sensing how the country’s political conventions were moving. Drury’s treatment of the racial issue had nothing of the depth of Faulkner or Ellison, that is true; but he understood the issue, in political terms, in policy terms, and even — though he did not have the art to render it as they did — in psychological terms. In 1962, when America was still in practice and even, to some degree, in law, a segregated society, this was no small measure of his importance as a writer. (It is also, no doubt, part of the reason A Shade of Difference did not know the success of Advise and Consent; for some, it cut a little too close to the bone.)

The same acuity informed Capable of Honor, in which a newly independent African nation, whose leader was introduced as part of the racial schema of the previous novel, is now under attack from communist-supported insurgents. The analogy to South Vietnam was clear. Yet for readers in the 1960s, it was not general knowledge that in taking up the defense of South Vietnam, three administrations were not only involving themselves in a foreign adventure necessitated by the doctrine of containment of the Soviet Union, but also provoking a contest over the meaning of the United States itself which far outlasted the Vietnam war. Drury understood this earlier and better than most.

Now, of course, the depth of Drury’s insight should not be exaggerated. The race problem had been around for a long time, and there had been passionate arguments about American purposes and American foreign policy throughout the 1950s, not to mention following World War I and, for that matter, during the administration of Thomas Jefferson. However, the 1960s were different in that the contradiction between America’s domestic situation and the purpose it had defined for itself in the world became untenable. Drury understood this very well. In making Cullee Hamilton the hero of A Shade of Difference and setting him in a pure Druryesque drama, namely a man attractive both personally and politically who is set upon by hyenas both at home and in public, Drury expressed his own liberalism on the racial question even as he foresaw that this position would soon be overwhelmed by racial demagogy. And he also showed how well he grasped that this demagogy would be used by America’s enemies both at home and abroad, at precisely the moment when the American political system was showing a capacity for evolution toward racial harmony inconceivable anywhere else in the world.

He understood, too, the likely consequence, or at least one highly possible series of consequences, of the larger demagogy caused by the endless grasp for power. In Advise and Consent, the good guys win, notwithstanding the tragic price some of them have to pay. In A Shade of Difference and Capable of Honor, the good guys win, but with some ambiguity, and the reader is left with the idea that the other side will always be able to come back for more, whereas the patriotic American side, which holds that the nation can reverse its injustices at home and stand abroad as a bulwark of civilization against international communism, seems to be growing weaker. In fact, though he later left the racial question aside, in foreign affairs Drury became increasingly pessimistic. There were reasons for hope in the 1980s, but toward the end, with A Thing of State (1995), he was diagnosing American leadership as sooner or later incapable of resisting the likes of Saddam Hussein.

The profound pessimism is surely debatable on the merits. It also seems to have overwhelmed and clouded his political acuity. But that’s not the real problem with the books. What’s wrong with everything Drury wrote after Advise and Consent and A Shade of Difference is his excessive reliance on contemporary events to shape his fiction. He had a grand vision of his beloved nation, shaped by a grand question, which he placed at the end of his first novel: whether "history still had a place for a nation so strangely composed of great ideas and uneasy compromises." He believed it had, of course. He believed it had because the great ponderous system of checks and balances and compromises so lovingly depicted in Advise and Consent would assure the success of this improbable balance between ideals and practical problem-solving politics. But rather than continue to show, through the writer’s art, how men’s characters were formed in such a system and thus ensured its continuation, he gave in to the journalist’s art of describing the events that were testing his contemporaries.

Though he never lost his talent for spinning a good yarn, drawing amusing, likeable, admirable, and detestable characters in great quantity, he lost his interest in transcending the political moment. It is impossible to read A Thing of State without finding deliberate references to the conduct of foreign policy under Presidents Carter and Clinton. His demolition of the Washington Post and the vices he considered to have seeped into the craft of political journalism in America, Anna Hastings, is incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the evolution of the American media, and particularly the Washington media, in the past generation.

And this, of course, is the difference between art and melodrama. In drama something happens against which men’s real characters are tested; in melodrama they are the way they are because of the way they are. Melodrama in other words serves up types; drama serves up real people.

This explains not only why Drury’s first novels are the only ones that can be read for the aesthetic pleasure and moral insights literary art brings, but also why a "Washington novel" worthy of the name is such a rare thing. Washington attracts highly educated people who by almost any sociological definition are "intellectuals" — they deal in the circulation of ideas. But Washington (the place: but also the culture of political debate as it is practiced in America) does not produce an intellectual culture in the sense this would be, or would have been, understood in a traditional cosmopolitan capital (such as New York). Washington types are not interested in invented drama; they live with real drama every day in their battles over how to make and report and interpret and react to real events and policies. Policies and politics take on dramatic lives of their own, but for that very reason the human dramas behind them are forgotten. Even the mad soap opera of presidential impeachment the capital recently lived through probably will never be used as the basis for a work of fiction; R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.’s advance fictional rendering of a Clinton impeachment drama was characteristic of writing about Washington in that it was a fictionalized version of contemporary events rather than fiction.

IS THE ENDLESS EXCITEMENT of Washington the reason there are so few memorable Washington novels? Is it why every young writer who comes to Washington with at least the potential for a novel in him instead devotes a lifetime to writing policy memos and journalism? This does not seem reasonable; many other cities are endlessly exciting. The reason, rather, is to be found in the nature of American politics. American politics is not about extreme situations. American politics, as Drury’s (good) senators are at great pains to insist, is about compromise and restraint. This is why American literature has produced very few notable political novels, comparable to masterpieces like Dostoevski’s The Possessed or Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. American political novels of that level are on the short list of all-time cross-category masterpieces, for example Ellison’s Invisible Man. Great political novels on the level just below this — Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, for example — are not set in Washington. In Invisible Man, it is well worth remembering, as in Darkness at Noon, an extreme situation, namely the issue of communism and specifically of the need for communism to dehumanize its opponents (and for that matter its followers), is crucial. Both these books are about politics. But they are great books precisely because, notwithstanding the communist issue which is essential to their plot lines and subject matter, they really transcend the issue of communism; indeed, they transcend politics. The great Washington novel must transcend the endless fascination of Washington.

This is what makes Advise and Consent such a remarkable achievement. Quite a few authors, in the 1970s and ’80s, took up some of the themes that occupied Allen Drury, such as the threat of communist aggression and the changing role of the media in American culture. They tried to use their own insights or experiences in the world where media and national politics intersect — Washington — to offer a fictional shortcut to what they had learned. What they did was sometimes interesting and intelligent, and some of it might have been readable then, but it is no longer readable. What Drury did badly, they did worse, but they never did what he did well.