Advise and Consent (1959)
Pulitzer Prize (Fiction)
Advise and Content is sort of the undeserved poster child (along with Gone With the Wind) for all of the intellectuals, critics and "serious" writers who like to dismiss the various book awards. It is deemed to be unworthy of recognition because it is: about politics; is conservative in viewpoint, is conventional in form; and Drury's style is quite earnest. Yeah, okay. It also just happens to have stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for a staggering 93 weeks, which is still the record for a novel. The eggheads may not like this book, but obviously we readers do.
The story is very loosely derived from the Chambers-Hiss case [see Orrin's review of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997)(Sam Tanenhaus) (Grade: A)]. An ailing Republican President appoints a controversial liberal, Robert A. Leffingwell, to be the new Secretary of State. Conservatives in the Republican Senate mobilize quickly to oppose him, lead by Orrin Knox, the senior Senator from Illinois, and Seabright B. Cooley, a crusty old South Carolinian, for whom the battle is personal due to past run-ins with the nominee. The Majority Leader, Robert Munson, seeks to defuse some of the tension in the confirmation hearings by forming a select committee and putting young Brigham Anderson of Utah in charge. Anderson is one of the Senate's rising stars, thoughtful, decent and well liked.
Many Senators are disturbed by Leffingwell's views, which it seems fair to say lean towards appeasement of the Soviet Union. But what really blows the lid off of the hearings is the testimony of a government bureaucrat, Herbert Gelman, that he, Leffingwell and a man named James Morton were part of a nascent Communist cell at the University of Chicago some years before. Leffingwell is able to show that Gelman has had several nervous breakdowns and, since no one can find the mysterious Mr. Morton, the nominee manages to plausibly deny the story, though he must lie to the Senate in so doing.
Things really turn ugly when Morton approaches Brig Anderson to confirm Gelman's story and Anderson puts Leffingwell's confirmation on hold. The President, who turns out to be completely unscrupulous, recruits a demagogic Democrat named Fred Van Ackerman, and they use an unfortunate incident from Anderson's past to try and blackmail him. The elders of the Republican Party try to help Anderson out, including the benevolent but seemingly lightweight Vice President, Harley Hudson. The mounting tension begins to claim victims and a stunning string of events concludes the book, leaving the country with a new President and a new Secretary of State on the eve of a summit with the Russians.
All of this is vastly entertaining. The political machinations and the high stakes of the game make for great drama, as we've seen in real life hearings ranging from the House Un-American Activities Committee to Watergate to Clarence Thomas to the recent unpleasantness with President Clinton. What's really surprising is how few previous books had been set in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the only great prior novel of Washington was Henry Adams's Democracy).; the two best American political novels All the King's Men (see Orrin's review) and The Last Hurrah, had been set in Louisiana and Boston respectively. This is mostly indicative of what a backwater the Capital was until the New Deal, WW II and the Cold War. But Drury, who covered the Senate for papers like The New York Times, clearly loved the whole Washington scene and his fascination with and affection for institutions, politicians and politics itself are apparent on every page.
Drury was a conservative himself and the book was apparently intended to both warn against a too lenient foreign policy approach to Communism and to demonstrate that Liberals were just as likely as anti-Communists to practice McCarthyism. But his personal politics never deteriorate into axe grinding and the heroes and villains are drawn about equally from the opposite sides of the aisle. And there are heroes here, what's more there are politicians--in the most naked sense of the word--who are heroes; men who fight hammer and tongs for what they believe in, without going over the line. The intervening forty years have reduced us to the point where we seem unable to acknowledge the possibility that these men actually believe in what they are doing, but as you read the book you realize how little politics has changed and how likely it is that the opponents in our real life dramas are acting, at least in part, out of personal conviction.
The one sentiment, though, that emerges most strongly from the story is Drury's faith in the resilience of the American system itself. At the end of the story, just as at the end of Watergate or Zippergate, there's a sense that the ingeniously balanced institutions of our government will quickly shrug the whole thing off. In this sense, the book is unabashedly optimistic and patriotic. It's old-fashioned and corny and I loved it.
(N.B.--we just watched the movie too and it is also terrific)
-OBIT: Allen Drury, Father Of the D.C. Drama (Ken Ringle, Washington Post)
-OBIT: Washington correspondent dead at 80 (USA Today)
-OBIT: Pulitzer Prize author Allen Drury dies at 80 'Advise and Consent' drew critical acclaim (MYRNA OLIVER, Los Angeles Times)
-The Pulitzer Prize Thumbnails Project: 1950 - 1969
-ESSAY: The Lost Word: Allen Drury's "Advise and Consent" (Philip Gold, Washington Times)
-ESSAY: Allen Drury and the Washington Novel (Roger Kaplan, Policy Review)
-ESSAY: Advise and Decide (Edwin MacDowell, NY Times)
-ESSAY: Learning about the Senate: A Senate Journal, 1943-1945 (senate.gov)
-ESSAY: Where Have You Gone, Orrin Knox? The Decline of the Washington Novel (Terry Teachout, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY: Washington Talk; Fiction Mirrors the Loss of Majesty (E. J. DIONNE Jr., NY Times)
-ESSAY: PRIZES, SURPRISES AND CONSOLATION PRIZES (William H. Gass, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY : The Fictional Senate of Allen Drury's Advise and Consent (David Bratman)
-REVIEW: of PUBLIC MEN By Allen Drury (Erik Tarloff, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of PENTAGON By Allen Drury (Webster Schott, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE HILL OF SUMMER A Novel of the Soviet Conquest. By Allen Drury (Patrick Anderson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Decision (Evan Hunter, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: Christopher Hitchens: Ode to the West Wing, NY Review of Books
Shelley's Heart by Charles McCarry
I saw the phrase 'Advise and Consent' used today (Jan. 25, 2005) in the context of the Rice confirmation and immediately thought of this book which I read as a teenager many years ago. As a Canadian I found it to be a great primer on congress. During the Watergate hearings I couldn't help but see some of the characters of the book in the words and actions of some of the the leading players - especially the senior senator from South Carolina. Great stuff. Enjoyed your review.
- Paul Douglas
- Jan-25-2005, 18:54
I read them all--and the Egyptian stuff--many moons ago at Summer camp. I loved them then and was gratified this one stood up well.
- Nov-23-2003, 23:36
Hi Orrin, I too share your opinion of this fine political novel (but I guess you would have to like it given the name you share with a certain major character... But the real point of this note is: Have you read the others in the series??? I think from memory there are 3 more direct sequels ("A Shade of Difference", "Capable of Honour" & "Protect & Preserve" I think are the titles) but the series climaxes with 2 alternate concluding novels "Come Nineveh Come Tyre" - the liberals triumph, and "A Promise of Joy" - Orin & the conservatives carry the day. I agree with your judgement of Drury's even handedness in Advise & Consent, but in subsequent titles this goes out the window as he pillories (& lampoons) media commentators for their insistence on knowing what is best for everyone. Similarly, his tolerance for the liberals in politics becomes smaller as the series proceeds. But, despite these quibbles, I enjoyed the series immensely. As an Australian, I am sure that some of the finer points of the US system of government have escaped me but I regard them as an excellent primer to your political world. Regards Dave
- Dave Ansell
- Nov-22-2003, 23:48
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