Apr 22, 15
Fans of political fiction
Read in January, 1967, read count: 1
Allen Drury was, for some years, the U.S. Senate correspondent for United Press International. This gave him a deep background of inside knowledge about the Senate, the Washington press corps, and the larger national and international political contexts of that day (this was published in 1959) in which they operated. And like many fiction authors before him, journalism honed his professional writing skills. In these respects, for him writing political fiction was a natural evolution; and with my budding interest in politics as a teen, I was naturally likely to read his book. (My curiosity was whetted by having seen the 1962 movie adaptation, starring Walter Pidgeon and Henry Fonda, on TV --the book, of course, proved to be considerably deeper and more substantial than the film, and the latter simplifies a great deal and takes various liberties to ratchet up the drama.)
Unlike most of his press colleagues, Drury self-identified with the political Right, mostly in terms of a strong anti-Communism and a preference for a hawkish foreign policy based on a Cold War perception of the Soviet Union as existential menace to humanity and the U.S. as the natural guarantor of the world's freedom and justice. (Today, he would be identified as a neoconservative.) This outlook constitutes the basic message of the book, and grows organically out of the Senate-centered plot, with a president nominating a liberal intellectual perceived as favoring appeasement of the Soviets for Secretary of State, and the Senate having to vote on his confirmation. But the novel succeeds as fiction because here Drury doesn't allow the message to take over and replace the story; his primary focus is on the characters and their relationships, and the study of the dynamics of political decision-making. He lets his viewpoint be a seasoning for an artistic confection, not an in-your-face obsession that would turn the book into a tract; and the characters on all sides of the issues are realistic, flesh-and-blood humans, not political cartoons.
The novel is divided into four major parts ("books"), each with a different Senator as viewpoint character (and a short final section that's a sort of epilogue). All of these men (the Senate of that day was still almost exclusively a boy's club), and the secondary cast as well, are excellently drawn --some are more likeable than others (Orrin Knox was the one I liked best, and could identify with to a degree), but all have foibles. Drury's portrayal of the culture of the 1950s Senate, the political climate of the Cold War, and the kinds of political intrigue that operate when principles are intermixed with personal ambition and self-interest, strike me as spot-on. (So does his unflattering portrayal of the press corps, which was already shaping up as an ideologically monolithic propaganda machine.) Some aspects are dated: for instance, Democrats with a position like Drury's on foreign policy would no longer be largely represented in the Senate (the terms "Democrat" and "Republican" aren't used in the book, but the two parties are still clearly identifiable), nor would we find Dixiecrats, like Seab Cooley, from the Jim Crow South there today. But for the time that the book was written, it's realistic. The author writes well, and crafts a genuinely involving story. He earned his Pulitzer Prize (at a time when it still meant something).
Goodreads lists this as #1 in an Advise and Consent series. I'm not sure Drury actually named the series as such, but he did write some five sequels over a period of 16 years, all of which I've read and most of which I've rated at one star. They suffer, for one thing, from the fact that they all supposedly take place within a period of about two or three years of each other; but during the long real time of the writing, U.S. political culture changed epochally, and it's not possible to see the later books as really part of a consistent setting with the earlier ones. Also, they move away from the central focus on the Senate, the realm Drury knew first-hand and was most at home in describing, to arenas he knew less well and captures less plausibly. But they suffer most from a steadily decreasing literary quality, and a steadily rising inverse increase in ideological stridency and loss of temperance and nuance, with the characters becoming caricatures and the plots being subsumed by message-driven tracts. IMO, it's a pity the author attempted to write sequels, rather than quitting while he was ahead. (Riffing on the title here and one of the later ones, a high school classmate of mine observed that someone should tell Drury "Cease and Desist," which I thought wasn't a bad idea.) But this first novel remains a worthy achievement that I'd recommend.