Friday, January 23, 2015

A political novel

First published in 1959, Advise and Consent was the first and one of the best political novels I ever read. It whetted my interest in politics. In "The Great Washington Novel" John Miller contends that, in addition to being a good story, it is still relevant:
One of the best descriptions of Washington, D.C., and its permanent political class comes in the second chapter of Advise and Consent, the 1959 novel by Allen Drury: “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. They may stay fifty years, they may love, marry, settle down, build homes, raise families, and die beside the Potomac, but they usually feel, and frequently they will tell you, that they are just here for a little while.” Yet they’re lying to themselves and everyone else, because even when they leave they always “hurry back to their lodestone and their star.” ....

Following a long stretch in which it could be found only in libraries and used-book shops, Advise and Consent has returned in a new edition. It’s amazing that it had slipped out of print for a generation, given its initial run: The novel spent nearly two years on the New York Times bestseller list, won the Pulitzer Prize, and became a popular film starring Henry Fonda and Charles Laughton. ....

Advise and Consent presents an abundance of characters, large and small, depicted in brilliant sketches. Drury writes of a Senate chaplain, for instance, who “was made further insufferable by the fact that he took with great seriousness the title ‘the Hundred-and-First Senator,’ which had been conferred upon him...in an unwise moment by a whimsical feature-writer.” Taken together, these figures bring to life a Washington whose traits we can recognize today. ....

Drury also targets the media. In Advise and Consent, the press functions as a Greek chorus, explaining the action on the stage — but also comes in for the critique of a man who knew its liberal biases well: “It was almost impossible for them to refrain from developing strong opinions, and almost equally impossible for them to keep their opinions from showing.”

The plot centers on the president’s pick for a new secretary of state. He nominates Robert Leffingwell, a man who benefits from “a protective screen of press adulation.” Leffingwell is an appeaser who would rather accommodate Soviet tyranny than confront it. Drury based him loosely on Alger Hiss, and a Whittaker Chambers–like figure emerges to make a controversial claim. Fred Van Ackerman, a brash senator from Wyoming, becomes a left-wing McCarthy, hurling accusations and rallying a group called the Committee on Making Further Offers for a Russian Truce, or COMFORT. .... [more, probably behind a subscription wall]
I once had a seatmate on a plane who had read not only Advise and Consent but all of its many sequels and — just like many Lord of the Rings fans — could discuss every character and plot twist in the entire series.

Miller also quotes from the author's NYT obituary:
When Drury died in 1998, his obituary in the New York Times...recognized that he wrote “in the tradition of Galsworthy, Dickens, and Thackeray” — in other words, he produced long novels full of sharp observations about social and political conditions.