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December 27, 2006

TT: Shame, R.I.P.

I've been rereading my mother's battered copy of Advise and Consent, Allen Drury's 1959 novel about a Senate confirmation hearing and its aftermath. I regret to say that I was more than a little bit snarky about Drury in an essay about Washington novels that I wrote for the New York Times Book Review back in 1995. The occasion for the piece was his last novel, A Thing of State, which wasn't very good:

Mr. Drury is still up to his familiar tricks: bad guys in the Middle East, bad guys in the White House, bad guys in the Washington press corps (the only thing Mr. Drury hates more than a wimpy politician is a liberal columnist), all simmering gently in a rich stew of adjectives.

That essay riled Drury so much that he sent me a sharply worded letter. It embarrasses me in retrospect, though not because I now believe Advise and Consent to be an unheralded masterpiece. It is, in fact, a quintessential example of the plot-heavy blockbuster novel, massively eventful and heavily laden with characters wearing primary-color hats. So far as I know, next to nobody under the age of fifty has even heard of the book, which has been out of print for years.

On the other hand, just about everyone older than that is likely either to have read Advise and Consent (it was on the best-seller lists for nearly two years) or seen Otto Preminger's 1962 film version. As Peggy Noonan wrote in What I Saw at the Revolution, her 1990 memoir of the Reagan years, all the baby boomers in the Reagan White House "had read Advise and Consent and at least one other of Allen Drury's wonderful old novels about Washington. We had read them in the Sixties, when we were young, and they were part of the reason we were here."

I, too, read Advise and Consent when I was young, and find myself returning to it every few years, not because it's a great novel, or even a good one, but because it is a hugely entertaining good-bad book that fills me with nostalgia. (Nor am I unique in this regard, as you can see by going here.) I looked up my old essay on Drury and the Washington novel the other day, and found in it an explanation of why this should be so:

Unlike his more recent predecessors, Allen Drury was not a novelist de metier: he started out as a Washington correspondent. And "Advise and Consent," the story of a confirmation fight that leads to the suicide of a senator, the resignation of a majority leader and the death of a President, is very much a reporter's novel, full of the inside skinny. Some of Mr. Drury's senators drink too much and sleep around; some remain in loveless marriages to further their political careers; one, a promising young Mormon from Utah, has a homosexual past. (Tony Kushner, call your office.) Like all clubmen, they mostly like one another and mostly get along, and not infrequently strike private deals that have nothing to do with party politics.

If all this sounds old hat, bear in mind that Mr. Drury was writing long before Politics as Life Style became an obsession of American journalists. When he came along, nobody was covering Washington politicians as personalities, at least not with anything remotely approaching candor. C-Span and the Style section of The Washington Post were far in the future. Yet the appetite for personality journalism about politicians had already been created by radio and television: all that remained was to feed it. Mr. Drury did so with a vengeance, and thereby became rich, famous, and the proud owner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

"Advise and Consent" also sold because, like all big-selling novels, it told its readers what they wanted to hear. In 1959, Americans were digging fallout shelters and watching Nikita Khrushchev cavort menacingly on TV. They saw the Soviet Union as a concrete threat to their continued existence, and wanted desperately to believe that American politicians, whatever their differences, were collectively up to the task of keeping the Russians on ice. The containment of the Soviet Union is the only ideological issue at stake in "Advise and Consent": every character is defined by whether or not he is soft on Communism. And though there are villains in Mr. Drury's Washington, never is it suggested for a moment that every politician is a liar and a thief. In fact, nearly all of his characters seek earnestly to do the right thing: "Just when things seem at their most cynical, something comes along that appeals to idealism and fair play, and the forces of deceit go down before it like tenpins."

These sentiments were decidedly in vogue in 1959. Never was public faith in government's capacity to do good as unswerving as in the ask-not-what era, in which the man who won World War II was succeeded by Mr. PT-109....

Ah, youth!

I should add, however, that something else has changed since 1959. Advise and Consent hinges on the suicide of a married senator whose wartime affair with a serviceman is about to be revealed by a political columnist. It isn't generally known, but this plot element was loosely based on the real-life story of Lester C. Hunt, a Democratic senator from Wyoming who shot himself in his Capitol office in 1954.

Here's what happened, according to Hunt's Wikipedia entry:

Hunt was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, taking office on January 3, 1949. During his tenure in the Senate, Hunt became a bitter enemy of Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and his criticism of McCarthy's anticommunist tactics marked him as a prime target in the 1954 election.

Leading up to the 1954 election, Republicans held a Senate majority of one vote, and pressured Hunt to resign from the Senate. Republican Senator Styles Bridges warned Hunt that unless he withdrew, Wyoming voters would find out about the arrest of Hunt's twenty-year-old son for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square in July 1953. After some vacillation, Hunt announced that he would not seek reelection on June 8, 1954. Eleven days later, he shot himself in his Senate office.

One significant detail is missing from this dry account: Hunt's son was president of the student body of the Episcopal Theological School of Cambridge. That would have upped the humiliation ante considerably in 1954--but what about now? Can you seriously imagine a senator, or any other public figure, commiting suicide under similar circumstances today? In fact, let's take it one step further: can you think of any secret so shameful that a contemporary public figure would rather die than face the consequences of its becoming known? I can't.

Interestingly--if not incidentally--Allen Drury was both a staunch conservative and a lifelong bachelor. So far as I know, he never had anything to say for public consumption on the radical change in American mores that took place between the publication of Advise and Consent and his death in 1998 at the age of eighty. Given the fact that he portrayed Brigham Anderson, the senator who commits suicide in Advise and Consent, as a man of high integrity, I'd venture to guess that his views might have been worth hearing.

I offer in evidence a passage in which Senator Anderson reflects on his marital difficulties:

Searching his heart and mind with complete and unsparing honesty about it now, he knew with absolute certainty that the situation they were in could have happened, and indeed did happen, to many and many a marriage; it had nothing to do with ghosts from the past, though he never denied their importance to his life. He was a good father a good if temporarily troubled husband, a good servant, a good Senator, and a good man; and central to all this, in a way he understood thoroughly in his own nature, was the episode in Honolulu....

For all its pain, and for all that it was not exactly the sort of thing you would want to discuss in Salt Lake City, he did not regret that it had happened. There were things he had to find out about himself; the war, as it did for so many, furnished the crucible, and in it that episode had probably been the single most illuminating episode of all. He could not honestly say he was sorry; his only sorrow was that fate had ended it so hurtfully for them both instead of allowing the war to send them apart again as calmly and simply and inevitably as it had brought them together.

Again, I'm not going to try to tell you that Advise and Consent is any better than it is--but in how many best-selling American novels of the Fifties can you find a passage remotely like that? No doubt somebody will get around to writing a dissertation on it one of these days....

Posted December 27, 2006 12:10 PM

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