Allen Drury, Father Of the D.C. Drama
By Ken Ringle
In an era awash with political thrillers and White House conspiracy films, it is difficult to convey the impact on the nation 39 years ago of a 616-page novel built around a Senate confirmation battle over a nominee for secretary of state.
But "Advise and Consent," whose author, Allen Drury, died Wednesday on his 80th birthday, marked a cultural watershed in Americans' perception of their government and the political process that propels it. It gave birth to the modern Washington novel.
Drury's was only the third major work of fiction in the nation's history to be set in Washington; the previous two -- Mark Twain's "The Gilded Age" and Henry Adams's "Democracy" -- had been written 80 years before, in the previous century. And it seized the national imagination by portraying the termites of equivocation and moral relativism nibbling away at the strengths and structures of the United States.
Tom Kelly, a Washington writer who was covering Congress for the old Washington Daily News when "Advise and Consent" appeared, remembers the "enormous impact" of the novel on the consciousness of the nation.
Despite the revolutionary growth and innovations in government spawned by the New Deal in the 1930s, Kelly said, a generation later there was still "very little interest in the country in the legislative process. . . . I doubt that there was one American in 1,000 then who understood how the committee system in Congress really operated."
To Kelly, no great admirer of Drury's literary craftsmanship, "that was his very real achievement: showing how this huge machine that affects your life really works."
Ward Just, widely viewed as today's foremost practitioner of the Washington novel, agrees. He remembers reading "Advise and Consent" as a young man in Chicago, when "thoughts of Washington were the farthest thing from my mind." And though he remembers thinking that as a novel it "wasn't the greatest thing I'd come across . . . I do remember thinking it treated a terrific subject. You had Melville with his whaling and Hemingway with his infantry tactics and here was this incredible setting of cloakroom drama and political intrigue" that Drury rendered "very well."
And as Kelly points out, "the success of `Advise and Consent' convinced every paper-pusher on the Hill that he, too, was a potential novelist." The 1960s would teem with political thrillers like "Fail-Safe" and "Seven Days in May" in which the geopolitical stakes of "Advise and Consent" would be gambled anew in stark Cold War arenas.
"Advise and Consent" was Drury's first book, written during seven years while he was covering the Senate for the New York Times. And though he went on to write 17 other novels and five nonfiction works, none even began to approach the success of his first.
The heart of the book is the battle between a Machiavellian president and a wily Southern committee chairman over the nomination of a well-born, erudite and ideologically slippery nominee for secretary of state named Robert A. Leffingwell -- a character in whom many saw a more than passing resemblance to accused Soviet agent Alger Hiss.
"That's what I'm driving at," Senator Knox informed him tartly. "Your state of mind. . . . I think it is very important to know what principles . . . you adhere to and which you would discard."
The confirmation ultimately hinges on a single highly principled senator who is pressured and ultimately forced to suicide by the threatened revelation of a homosexual affair years before.
It was not a pretty portrait of Congress. Yet the real villain of the book was "the equivocal man" -- the clever, able and status-hungry Washington player whose principles are far less deeply rooted than his ambition. At a time of threatening Soviet ambitions, this was a clear bugle call in the somnolent final years of the Eisenhower administration. Chalmers Roberts, who covered Capitol Hill for the old Washington Star in the '50s, remembers "a certain two-faced reaction in the Senate" to "Advise and Consent": "The chicanery depicted made a lot of people look bad, and a lot of people who should have been ashamed therefore fell all over themselves to say publicly what a great book it was."
In a famous photo before the 1960 election, both John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon are shown reading the book.
Its popularity was astonishing. It still holds the record for the longest-running novel on the New York Times bestseller list -- 93 weeks. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and was made into a play as well as a major film starring Henry Fonda and Charles Laughton. Yet "Advise and Consent" has never achieved the status of "All the King's Men," Robert Penn Warren's portrait of a Huey Long-like Southern governor that is universally regarded as the great political novel of American fiction.
But Drury's book is still influential. Three years ago House Speaker Newt Gingrich thought enough of it to include it on a reading list handed out to Republican freshmen.
More important, it refocused Americans' attention on their government as a setting for morality plays now acted out almost nightly on movie and television screens as well as on the printed page.
From "Primary Colors" to "Wag the Dog," they all trace their ancestry to Allen Drury's first novel, which ended:
So they rode on, old friends from the Senate together carrying their country's hopes, while below America sped away, the kindly, pleasant, greening land about to learn whether history still had a place for a nation so strangely composed of great ideals and uneasy compromise as she.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company