Feburary 9, 2015
THE GREAT WASHINGTON NOVEL
Rediscovering Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent
JOHN J. MILLER
One of the best descriptions of Washington, D.C., and its permanent political class comes in the second chapter of Advise and Consent, the 1959 novel by Allen Drury: “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 fifty years, 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.” Yet they’re lying to themselves and everyone else, because even when they leave they always “hurry back to their lodestone and their star.”
Two-thirds of the way through this long paragraph, Drury inserted a line that may have been about himself: “They come, they stay, they make their mark, writing big or little on their times.”
When Advise and Consent appeared, Drury was 40 years old, entering the middle of this career, and probably wondering if he would write big or little. He had spent the previous 16 years as a reporter, mostly covering the Senate. His work was well regarded, but like so much of the content of newspapers and magazines, its individual parts were fishwrap by Friday, and he must have known it.
So in 1950, Drury started to write a book, but he made little progress as he battled the demands of a daily job and a bad illness. Then, beginning around the launch of Sputnik in the fall of 1957, he worked furiously for 13 or 14 months, composing what may be the most successful novel of Washington politics ever written — and one that has annoyed liberals almost from Day One.
Following a long stretch in which it could be found only in libraries and used-book shops, Advise and Consent has returned in a new edition. It’s amazing that it had slipped out of print for a generation, given its initial run: The novel spent nearly two years on the New York Times bestseller list, won the Pulitzer Prize, and became a popular film starring Henry Fonda and Charles Laughton. It should have kept rolling off the presses in commemorative editions with forewords by famous people. But it’s a thick book, noticeably longer than Moby-Dick; with each copy an expensive production, Doubleday abandoned the title. The rights reverted to Drury’s estate in the early 1990s. Last year, Kenneth and Kevin Killiany, brothers who are Drury’s nephews and heirs, took advantage of the revolution in digital publishing to rerelease Advise and Consent and seven lesser-known Drury volumes through WordFire Press, a Colorado imprint.
They’ve enjoyed modest success — enough, at any rate, to sustain plans for bringing back about 20 of Drury’s books over the next couple of years. Soon, readers will be able to march through Washington’s major institutions with Drury and his novels, from the courts (Decision) to the media (Anna Hastings) to the military (Pentagon). Yet the greatest service of this publishing boomlet may be to bring renewed attention to Drury’s first and finest book, a modern classic of political fiction.
Critics are forever debating the identity of the Great American Novel — a work that supposedly captures the spirit of the nation, the way the epic poetry of Homer embodies ancient Greece. A subordinate debate involves the Great American Political Novel, including the curiosity that for a country founded on a political idea, there are so few good candidates for the honor. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, may be the novel that had the biggest political impact, but it isn’t really about the machinations of democracy. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren, may be about the machinations of democracy, but it takes place in the hinterlands. Most of the great novels set in Washington are thrillers — great because they entertain, not because they will endure. Journalism always has ruled D.C.’s literary scene, which prefers All the President’s Men to All the King’s Men.
Television producers who want to develop a show to compete with Netflix’s House of Cards would do well to look to Drury. Advise and Consent contains the ingredients of a potboiler: Its tale turns on sex, death, and blackmail. Readers plow through its pages to discover what happens next. Yet Drury’s real purpose was almost civic-minded. He wanted “to show people that this was how their government worked,” as he put it in a 1961 memo (which Kenneth Killiany unearthed in his uncle’s papers at the Hoover Institution). His fundamental point may be that although impersonal, deterministic forces often appear to control government and its actions, real people in fact operate the levers of power — and they are motivated in varying degrees by idealism, ambition, and jealousy. At a time when many Americans worry about national decline, Drury offers a helpful reminder that decline is a choice rather than a fate.
Advise and Consent presents an abundance of characters, large and small, depicted in brilliant sketches. Drury writes of a Senate chaplain, for instance, who “was made further insufferable by the fact that he took with great seriousness the title ‘the Hundred-and-First Senator,’ which had been conferred upon him . . . in an unwise moment by a whimsical feature-writer.” Taken together, these figures bring to life a Washington whose traits we can recognize today. So do several other aspects of the book, such as Drury’s description of how congressional appropriators and federal agencies conspire to ensure that “the always-swelling empire will continue its steady, inexorable growth.” In an era of trillion-dollar budgets, that may seem like a truism, but Drury noticed it early, when the entire federal budget could fit inside today’s HHS.
Drury also targets the media. In Advise and Consent, the press functions as a Greek chorus, explaining the action on the stage — but also comes in for the critique of a man who knew its liberal biases well: “It was almost impossible for them to refrain from developing strong opinions, and almost equally impossible for them to keep their opinions from showing.”
The plot centers on the president’s pick for a new secretary of state. He nominates Robert Leffingwell, a man who benefits from “a protective screen of press adulation.” Leffingwell is an appeaser who would rather accommodate Soviet tyranny than confront it. Drury based him loosely on Alger Hiss, and a Whittaker Chambers–like figure emerges to make a controversial claim. Fred Van Ackerman, a brash senator from Wyoming, becomes a left-wing McCarthy, hurling accusations and rallying a group called the Committee on Making Further Offers for a Russian Truce, or COMFORT.
Drury refused to favor one party over the other: Instead of “Democrats” and “Republicans,” he referred to the “Majority” and the “Minority.” Yet he wanted to defend a few Cold War commitments. As he put it in that 1961 memo, he hoped to express “certain thoughts on foreign policy in the period of crisis through which the U.S. was passing vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.” Kenneth Killiany describes his uncle not as a Reagan Democrat but as a “Scoop Jackson Republican,” citing the (real-life) Democratic senator from Washington State who inspired neoconservatives in the 1970s (and was a personal friend of Drury’s). Whatever the labels, Drury’s own views on Left and Right possibly find voice in the thoughts of Bob Munson, the Senate majority leader in Advise and Consent, who worries about “fatuous, empty-headed liberals who [have] made it so easy for the Russians by yielding them so much” as well as “embittered conservatives who [have] closed the doors on human love and frozen out all possibility of communication between peoples.”
The ideological scorekeepers of the Left never have cared for Drury, largely because of his anti-Communism. The British writer Pamela Hansford Johnson denounced Advise and Consent as “politically repellent and artistically null with a steady hysterical undertone.” When the novel became a play on Broadway in 1960, Howard Taubman of the New York Times rebuked it as a “loaded condemnation of the liberal position.” Drury replied that his book in fact condemns lying to Congress, “crawling on one’s knees to Moscow,” and sinning without atonement. Do liberals support such things? If Taubman — “this incompetent little man” — really thinks so, then he has achieved something special: “I have never seen a more savage and shocking attack upon the liberal position,” wrote Drury, in a retort that William F. Buckley Jr. found so amusing he published it in National Review.
When Drury died in 1998, his obituary in the New York Times mentioned the old scuttlebutt, though it also recognized that he wrote “in the tradition of Galsworthy, Dickens, and Thackeray” — in other words, he produced long novels full of sharp observations about social and political conditions. Was Drury the Dickens of D.C.? That’s too grand, but unless Tom Wolfe puts out a novel on Washington, Advise and Consent may come closer than anything else. Perhaps it’s enough to grant that Drury wrote big on his times — and that he still has a lot to say to ours.