Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cold War Politics

Advise and Consent
Advise and Consent 

"Like a city in dreams, the great white capital stretches along the placid river from Georgetown to 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."  -    Allen Drury - Advise and Consent 

Re-reading Advise and Consent (and watching the 1962 Otto Preminger movie by the same name), after a span of several years, I am reminded of my original reading and seeing the film version in the late 1960s. Drury followed up this first novel with a handful of sequels and over a dozen other books, but none of them came close to the popularity of the 1959 hit — ninety-three weeks on the best-seller list, a play, a movie and a Pulitzer (the Pulitzer Board overriding their committee’s recommendation of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King). In many ways, Advise and Consent would be a fine reading in Cold War history courses or in courses that seek to explain the nature of Cold War politics. As an insight, though, into the nature of the appointments process as currently practiced, it remains locked in its time.
The novel tells the story of the nomination of peace-loving diplomat Robert A. Leffingwell to be Secretary of State. Unfolding in “books” from four senators, the story proceeds quickly and in rich, complex detail, aided no doubt by Drury’s intimate knowledge of how the Senate worked based on his experiences as a Washington political reporter. The first edition of Advise and Consent numbered 616 pages and the level of exegesis and dialogue is deep and broad. All layers of the advice and consent process are covered—from gripping hearing testimony to vitriolic floor debates, from the machinations of the White House to the cloakroom deals in the Senate.
Not only does Advise and Consent access the political dynamics of the Senate’s advice and consent to presidential nominations, the novel also delves deeply into the personal stories of the characters who must manage and judge this process. One widowed senator, the majority leader, is intimately involved with a Washington socialite and there is the past of the nominee, who flirted with communism while teaching in Chicago and is forced to confront this aspect of his personal history to secure confirmation. Another senator, a married Mormon from Utah, is blackmailed by a colleague who has discovered the senator’s intimate, sexual relationship with another man while in the army during World War II.

The narrative depth and the richness of the story’s details make it a fascinating read. It provides a panoramic view of Cold War Washington. It is a story that brings together strands of different actual events and real characters to create a composite vision of the U.S. Senate and its workings in the area of advice and consent. The novel was followed by Drury's A Shade of Difference in 1962 and four additional sequels. While Drury's Advise and Consent is arguably the best of its kind (and may have defined the genre) I have enjoyed others like O'Connor's The Last Hurrah and, more recently, Primary Colors.

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury. Avon Books, 1981 (1959)

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