July 11 marked the 59th anniversary of the release of “Advise & Consent,” Allen Drury’s Pulitzer-winning political novel about a progressive secretary of state nominee with communist ties.
The book, which was later adapted into a movie, was released to widespread praise. When Drury died in 1998, The Washington Post eulogy suggested that he “gave birth to the modern Washington novel.”
The fiction may be timeless, but when I asked America’s leaders to name their favorite political books, I encountered a literary divide that didn’t necessarily reflect party lines. They just couldn’t get on, well, the same page. Still, the responses show a diversity of literary taste.
Max Weber wrote that politics is work that requires humility and care because the exercise of power over others puts your own soul at risk. No work of fiction better captures this danger than “All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren. Its central characters, Governor Willie Stark and his aide Jack Burden, each make their own calculations of whether the ends justify the means — and whether their ends are just. They and many of the supporting characters are complex and compelling — neither all good nor all bad, capable of both cruelty and kindness, vengeance and remorse.
Although I have decidedly more faith in the nobility of public service and the power of politics to improve people’s lives than the picture Warren presents, I still think it is the finest American political novel. Its lessons are as relevant today as they were when it was published more than 70 years ago.
Allen Drury’s “Advise & Consent.” This book captures the pattern of legislative fights with a president so brilliantly that I reread it in August 1990 when I thought President Bush was going to break his word and propose raising taxes. It was remarkably helpful.
“The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins” by Kirstin Downey. As the first woman appointed to the United States Cabinet and the leader responsible for Social Security, Frances Perkins is one of my personal heroes. Kirstin Downey’s wonderful book shares Perkins’s extraordinary story of courage and conviction, helping inspire the next generation of women leaders as she does.
How about “The Manchurian Candidate” [by Richard Condon]? It is a good read and shows that the Russians have always tried to get involved in our elections.
“The Last Hurrah” by Edwin O’Connor, which was written in 1956. It is the wonderfully told story of the last campaign of Frank Skeffington, a wise and wily old mayor and political boss who unexpectedly loses to a handsome, vapid young neophyte at the dawning of a television age the old pol simply didn’t understand. I first read it when I was a student at the University of Chicago, in the waning years of Richard J. Daley’s tenure as the longtime mayor and undisputed boss of the Chicago Democratic machine, so it had particular resonance for me.
David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest,” a compelling, cautionary narrative of the exceedingly bright, highly accomplished individuals of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who shaped the American policies that got the United States mired in the Vietnam War — certainly one of the defining works on the war.
Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” — a debate between master and slave, emperor and subject, stoic and epicurean — gives a 21st century elected official a perspective one rarely hears: dust to dust.
“The Last Hurrah” by Edwin O’Connor depicts the humanity, reality and toughness of old-style ethnic, machine politics, which, with all its faults, understood people and what they wanted.
“The Gay Place,” written by Lyndon Johnson’s former speechwriter Billy Lee Brammer. It consists of three novellas, all featuring the character of Governor Arthur Fenstemaker, who closely resembles LBJ, with all his wiles, cunning and political artistry. The flawed heroes of each novella are played by and against him. The novel transcends the Texas landscape and reveals the universal truths of our political process. I am joined in this view by Gore Vidal, Willie Morris and David Halberstam.
“All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren may be the greatest political novel of all time. This compelling story of the rise and fall of a charismatic populist and the reporter who covers him provides a timely insight into both the political process and how the flaws in human nature can be exploited.
“Seven Days in May” [by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel], a Cold War classic about an attempted military coup in America. A dark and cautionary tale, this novel is a powerful portrait of a highly polarized Washington. Could it really happen? Read the book.
Professor Graham Allison, essentially the founder of the Harvard Kennedy School, called “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” [by Edmund Morris] the “best biography of the 20th century. That’s a bold claim, but I have yet to find one better.
I’m a big fan of “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren, which depicts a larger-than-life Louisiana politician who goes from idealist to corrupt governor. The progression of Willie Stark — who echoes real-life Governor Huey Long — in a downward moral spiral demonstrates how, in politics and life, small compromises of character can add up. The manner of delivery, whether you read it on an iPad or a paper copy, may have changed, but the temptations and lessons on its pages remain the same.
My choice? The Congressional Record. Motions to adjourn! Motions to recommit! Motions to rise and motions to table. A real page-turner.