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Bill Altreuter

It's been a long time since I've read any Allen Drury, although I have a copy of his memoir, "A Senate Journal" on a shelf at home. Even so, it seems to me that what makes "Advise and Consent" work better than most fiction about politics, Gore Vidal included, is that it doesn't try to do too much. It deals with a controversial cabinet appointment, rather than some larger, world-historical question, and is therefore as much about the the members of the institution-- and the institution itself, as it is about larger political issues.

Interesting fiction is about people, generally. Vidal's Burr is good because it is mostly about an interesting character. Vidal gets away with making about quite a bit about Burr, and that's fine. Vidal wants to make a larger point, and that's fine too, but the book is good because the people are interesting, not because of the politics.

Funny to see the picture of Charles Laughton today-- I just watched "Witness for the Prosecution" and was impressed with how really good he is.


What about Democracy by Henry Adams? My father (a Washington journalist, but not covering politics) said it & The Education of Henry Adams were great books, only appreciated by readers over age 50. So I need to try them out .

Last winter, I came across a late Drury, Anna Hastings and a novel by Sally Quinn—both about journalists in Washington and both pretty poor. Was this turn to media personalities in the 1980s a sign of the times?


Bill may be right about it not attempting too much; certainly its sequel, "A Shade of Difference," tries to do a lot more, and that's when caricature rather than character starts to manifest itself in the series. Seab Cooley = Strom Thurmond (or a contemporary -- Richard Russell? John Stennis?); LeRoi whatever = Malcolm X.

I read it as a text for a high school government class (hey, the time was the 1960s and the place was the DC suburbs). Even then it seemed a little romanticized compared to what I was reading on the front pages of the DC papers. I liked it, though.

Chris G.

For some reason I skipped ahead to "Come Nineveh, Come Tyre" after reading "Advise and Consent." It was the first time I read something and got the unsettling sensation that there was something not quite right with the author. I also remember how increasingly bombastic the series got, with a rapid succession of short-termed Presidents and assassinations and has there ever been another mainstream novel series that published two contradictory final books? That struck me as very, very weird.

Gary Farber

I read all those Drury books as a kid, as well. The first was on my parents' bookshelves, and the rest I got from the library in my usual 14-books-a-week or so load.

So all I can do is agree with everything you say.

As it happens, I watched the movie of Advise and Consent for the very first time, though, only about three months or so ago, when it was on TCM. I was particularly struck by how overt the blackmail-over-homosexuality subplot was, including the immensely lurid visit to the gay bar, which seemed to me to be, in its own bigoted way, rather groundbreaking, given how gay themes and plots were so deeply suppressed in the movie versions during the Fifties and earlier of books where they had been quite explicit.

I also think this statement in Mallon's essay is understatment in the exteme: "Drury’s book resembles not so much any Washington novel by Henry Adams or Gore Vidal or Ward Just...." Jeebus, I'd never have thought of comparing Drury to any of those guys! They're all terrific, insightful, writers! Drury wrote potboilers that, as you note, grew ever-increasingly cardboard and rather crazed.

And as pop fiction of the day went, Alistair Maclean, at least before his last handful of novels, although hardly writing literature, really could be quite gripping in his thrillers. Page-turners, as the phrase goes. Drury was more of a page-turner in a wtf? sense.

And the movie of The Best Man, with Cliff Robertson as the Nixon analog, Henry Fonda the Adlai Stevenson figure, and Lee Tracy as the vaguely Trumanesque figure, also comes to mind when I think of political-movies-adapted-from-novels of the era.

Interestingly, although TBM is a good movie, it's not particularly a better movie than Advise and Consent, even though the book is far better than AaC's book. But, different media, different pros and cons, and different execution, of course. And Laughton was what really made AaC as a movie.

Of course, the whole topic of pop political novels of the Sixties makes me also think of Seven Days In May, and Fail-Safe. Political thrillers just haven't been the same since the Cold War, have they?

Gary Farber

"What we have instead are some pretty good potboilers, like Gore Vidal's Washington D.C"

I tend to think of 1876 and Burr as above the level of potboilers, but you may count perhaps count them as historical novels, rather than novels of D.C., and/or you may rate them less than I do.

"Whatever the reason, the outcome may in fact be that Advise and Consent is by accident and default the great American political novel."

That just seems wrong. I don't mean you're necessarily wrong, but that if you're right, that just seems wrong. To be sure, I haven't reread it in decades, but even when I was 12, or whatever exact age I read it at, I was quite aware it was just badly written in many ways.

Bill Altreuter

The great American *political* novel may be a slightly different cat-- "All the Kings Men" qualifies under that slightly broader rubrick, for example. The great American Washington novel is where "Advise and Consent" (a Pulitzer Prize winner, for what it is worth) enters the discussion.


I haven't read Drury's novel, but Preminger's movie isn't at all about politics (something that may or may not be shared with the novel - I don't know). In fact, it's thoroughly anti-political. It's a soap opera, and it's probably even less political than it could have been because people don't realize it's actually a soap opera.

Notice that the movie includes absolutely no coherent discussion of any actual, real political issue. It's all about completely abstract, nonsensical made-up issues that have no connection to life on earth. Maybe the movie's about some kind of Martian politics, because it sure isn't about any sort of identifiable American politics. This is particularly problematic in a movie that purports to be an expose of the real Washington. Notice that the characters don't interact with each other on the basis of their politics - the characters interact with each other on the basis of soap opera motivations (who's having sex with whom, who's been a college buddy of whom, who's trying to show whom up in trivial ways, who dresses like whom, who likes to drink what kind of booze, etc).

The movie, by the way, entirely misrepresents the actuality of American politics. The movie betrays significant amusement and benevolence towards Seab Cooley. But the real-life counterparts of Cooley were among the most negative, and, yes, actively evil, people in the entire history of American politics. (The old Southern Senators were not cuddly rapscallions, but leaders and prime movers behind a violent genocidal apartheid regime that used frequent terrorism against it's own population).

No, the movie's ire is instead directed at Van Ackerman - primarily because Van Ackerman doesn't carry out politics with Cooley's Southern charm.

And, uh, we're supposed to buy that the Senator from Wyoming is a fanatic pro-peace hidden pinko......yes, that's what the Senator from Wyoming is supposed to be. And that the hard-left pinko (who's, as we again need to emphasize, is the sitting Senator from Wyoming, of all places) would use outing a guy out of a closet as a threat.

It's even more bizarre that the movie depicts Van Ackerman's kicking a guy out of a homosexual closet as the most horrid thing ever, while the movie gives sly pats on the head to Seab Cooley, who's main action is to kick a different guy's Communist past out of it's closet. I guess red-baiting is better than gay-baiting as long as you're doing it with Laughton chewing the scenery.


I also read the Advise and Consent series in high school in the 1970's -- I remember that in 1976 I wrote a Drury-style short story about a Senator for my junior writing project. Lance is dead on about Drury's paranoia, and I had the same reaction at the time -- "this guy is completely nuts, but he's a best-selling author".

Bill Altreuter makes a good point about A&C not trying to do too much -- it succeeds in part because Drury is mostly reporting about a social world he knows well and keeping his own politics out of it. He started to go off the rails when the cardboard villains and useful idiots showed up.

I was impressed with the imaginary political world he had constructed that was so different from the politics I knew about -- I'm less impressed now that I know how much of it was drawn from the late 40's. (On my first reading I had no idea that "the President" of A&C was FDR, for example).

The idea of two alternate conclusions to the series is a really interesting one, and helped to encourage in me a lifelong interest in alternate history fiction. But along with the terrible execution of both books, you have the clever enormously powerful Russians of Come Ninieveh, Come Tyre (who among other things screw up the weather for Jason's inauguration and have secret bases all over northern Canada) and the woosy Russians of The Promise of Joy who roll over for Knox when he shows his indomitable will, and these are from a decision point only a few months earlier. The last two books remind me of nothing so much as The Iron Dream by Spinrad, except that the latter is satire.

Yeah, A&C is nowhere the league of All the King's Men or The Last Hurrah as the Great American Political Novel. I agree that there's less competition for Great Washington Political Novel. You can set a book in Baton Rouge or Boston and avoid the big issues, but to put it in Washington means either creating an alternate national/world politics or at least taking a firm position on the real thing. It makes me more impressed with The West Wing, actually.


DaveMB, the one scene in Come Nineveh, Come Tyre at which I chortled with glee was the one in which Walter Dobius and the rest of the press corps were hauled off to St. Elizabeth's or somewhere in black trucks. Dobius's face was pressed against the window glass and he was apparently shrieking, as though he'd suddenly realized the error of his Commie-aiding ways.

I guess I was a media critic even as a teenager.

Chris G.

@DaveMB: Perhaps Drury was anticipating the Green Lantern Doctrine, which holds that sufficient will on the part of an American president is capable of altering the reality of global politics.


While I don't remember Advise and Consent nearly well enough to contribute to this discussion, I just wanted to say that my experience of it -- followed later by my experience of book #3, where I stopped -- was pretty much identical to Lance's. I, too, read it in my early teens and took the first as serious, intelligent, truthful literature that made me all smart about politics, until it became clear that Drury was insane. Which really was, at the time, a letdown.


Contra Burritoboy, though: there is no contradiction between "amusing, cuddly rapscallion" and "prime mover behind violent genocidal apartheid regime", especially given that "genocidal" is a figment of Burritoboy's imagination and that apartheid was widely supported across the entire country (as James Loewen's and Dave Niewert's histories make all too clear).

People have more than one side to them, and it's very easy -- common, in fact -- for even the worst person to be cuddly and amusing to the people he doesn't loathe and want to destroy. Obviously, Drury would have been a better writer and better person to have noticed such contradictions himself, but he was well within the mainstream to take his choice, not Burritoboy's choice, of one-sided caricature.


"People have more than one side to them, and it's very easy -- common, in fact -- for even the worst person to be cuddly and amusing to the people he doesn't loathe and want to destroy."

The problem is that that is NOT how Cooley is presented within Advise and Consent. The movie's true venom is reserved for Van Ackerman, not Cooley. The movie easily could have made the portrayal of Van Ackerman more balanced, but he appears as a sort of wild-eyed maniac lunatic not much short of a serial killer or something. Remember that, in any real world, Van Ackerman's views (at least, insofar as anything in the Martian politics world of Advise and Consent actually correspond to Earth politics) were excellent and sound views - Cooley's national security views are both idiotic and actively evil both in his time and ours.

"Contra Burritoboy, though: there is no contradiction between "amusing, cuddly rapscallion" and "prime mover behind violent genocidal apartheid regime","

But Preminger's movie does not actually create or explore that contradiction - it would have been a vastly greater movie if it did. For example, the true nature of Cooley's imbecilic national security opinions could have been revealed or explored within the movie. Instead, Preminger allows the entire debate to be entirely driven by various forms of nonsense: the ONLY things we see Cooley's flag-waving as contrasted to Pidgeon's bullshit facade of polite talk as contrasted to Leffingwell's cornpone babble as contrasted to Van Ackerman attempting to eat the table. Apparently, everything is EQUALLY BS to Preminger, so let's just enjoy the show!

Preminger promises us that he's going to show us the real Washington, but he lets all his characters preserve their own carefully-constructed facades instead of pushing them harder.

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