Academic journal article Policy Review

Allen Drury and the Washington Novel

Academic journal article Policy Review

Allen Drury and the Washington Novel

Article excerpt

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. …

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