The President of the United States nominates the controversial Robert A. Leffingwell to be Secretary of State, and as that startling news reverberates throughout Washington a powerful politician commits suicide, a Congressional Committee comes up with a surprise witness, there is a vote of censure by the Senate, and the cynicism and selfishness and altruism and loyalty and ambitions of America's public servants are revealed.
At over 600 dense pages, this is not a quick read. The first 100 pages seem especially slow as the characters are introduced and the stage set. This behind-the-scenes look at the Senate may have been more interesting before 50 years of televised politics in general and C-SPAN in particular leached any tantalizing mystery out of Senate subcommittee hearings.
Once the story builds up steam, however, it powers right along. The candidate under consideration, peacenik Bob Leffingwell, has his avid supporters, including the somewhat Machiavellian President who nominated him. But he faces stiff opposition from those who think he will be unable to protect America on the brink of a nuclearized Cold War with an increasingly belligerent Soviet Union determined to send men to the moon to claim it as Soviet territory. While the details of the controversy seem anachronistic now, the underlying issue of diplomacy versus military might is as pertinent today as it was 50 years ago.
What is most interesting is that Drury keeps party politics out of it. He does not name either party, and the battle over Leffingwell’s nomination is all within the President’s own liberal party that holds the majority in the Senate. The minority, presumably conservative, party is relegated to the sidelines.
In the end, Leffingwell’s confirmation comes down to character issues as much as his political opinions. The heart of Drury’s story is that, when an unsavory part of Leffingwell’s past arises, instead of having the Senate’s decision turn on the underlying facts, the controversy centers on how Leffingwell and his supporters, including the President, deal with the facts, and what their conduct reveals about their essential worthiness as national leaders. Again, the details of the scandals involved seem quaint now, but the principal debate over what weight to give to politicians’ personal lives still rages.
Stylistically, Drury follows formal conventions, with third-party narration, traditional dialog format, discretion in all things sexual, and one particularly distracting gimmick in that many characters share the same first names. For instance, the nominee and the Senate Majority leader are both names Robert and both go by Bob. Context usually makes clear which one is under discussion, but it seems odd that no one ever mentions that they have the same name. There are also two Hals, two Toms, and two Johns (but no Mikes, Marks, or Daves). Maybe it is more like real life to duplicate names, but some literary customs are there for a reason.
The writing is a little stuffy, but the tone suits the subject matter and helps raise it above a run-of-the-mill political thriller. A sample passage demonstrates Drury’s intricate style as well as his purpose of thoroughly presenting the Congressional system:
The system had its problems, and it wasn’t exactly perfect, and there was at times much to be desired, and yet – on balance, admitting all its bad points and assessing all the good, there was a vigor and a vitality and a strength that nothing, he suspected, could ever quite overcome, however evil and crafty it might be. There was in this system the enormous vitality of free men, running their own government in their own way. If they were weak at times, it was because they had the freedom to be weak; if they were strong, upon occasion, it was because they had the freedom to be strong; if they were indomitable, when the chips were down, it was because freedom made them so.
Although it takes some endurance to get through such a thicket of prose, the effort is worthwhile, which is why Advise and Consent remains the most popular, perceptive study of Congressional American politics on the shelves.
Also posted on Rose City Reader.
Advise and Consent is a door-stopper of a "novel" (760 pages in the mass market paperback edition that I read) that is concerned with the
While I mostly enjoyed the 1962 Otto Preminger movie (in which Henry Fonda played Leffingwell and Don Murray played Anderson; it also starred Walter Pidgeon, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres and Gene Tierney), which was based on the play that was based on the book, despite some reservations that mostly arise from the time in which it was made, the book -- the book! -- is a windy, prolix, flat, dull, singularly unconvincing bloviation on the glories of the U.S.Senate that is occasionally enlivened by scenes of interest (chiefly some of the political skulduggery, but also how the President is so abrasive, manipulative and double-dealing that he manages to alienate a substantial number of the senators from his own party). No one's political party is ever identified, and the President is never named -- he remains simply "The President" throughout the entire book -- but one can make educated guesses as to the major characters' party affiliation. (Given the time in which it was written and set, the party in majority is doubtless the Republican Party, while the opposition party, led by a wily Southern cliché named Seab [pronounced "Seb"; it's short for "Seabright"] Cooley, played by Charles Laughton in the film, is the Democratic Party, still strong in the South.)
Drury was a former journalist, and one can see how he must've felt as though he was on a busman's holiday, albeit free of the strict limitations to his word count, with Advise and Consent; for the novel to remain readable, however, an editor should've taken him firmly in hand and slashed his manuscript by at least a couple hundred pages. The character development is notable by its absence, the female characters are nearly non-existent and offensive to a modern reader when present, the ethnic stereotypes are so close to racist tropes that there's not a hair's difference between them, and Drury's abuse of the adverb nearly converted me to Graham Greene's abhorrence for same. That the conclusion is so obviously meant to be uplifting is farcical, utterly risible. In short, The West Wing it ain't.
Wikipedia's entry for Advise and Consent reports: "The story is loosely based on the Hiss-Chambers and David Lilienthal controversies, and, according to comments by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Joseph T. Kelliher, on the Leland Olds nomination battle;" Drury also threw in a minor, though significant, character to stand in for Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, although, in the best Red-baiting fashion (Drury was a rabid anti-Communist who favored military confrontation of the Soviet Union), he makes this character's weltanschauung the polar opposite of McCarthy's. (SPOILER ALERT: don't jump to Wikipedia's article if you want the story elements of Advise and Consent to remain a surprise, as it starts making with the spoilers in the very next paragraph.)
Drury published five, count 'em, five sequels to Advise and Consent (two of which -- Come Nineveh, Come Tyre  and The Promise of Joy  -- are alternate endings: two different outcomes spun off from the ambiguous cliffhanger of 1968's Preserve and Protect); I'm happy to report that, contrary to my usual book hoarding practice, I own none of them, and I plan to read none of them. (I do, however, own a copy of Drury's novel about Akhenaten, A God Against the Gods (1976), which I bought before I bought Advise and Consent; it's gonna be a looooong while before I pick that one up, I'm afraid.)
Recommended for Hill staffers and fans of the West Wing/House of Cards.
Advise and Consent is a 1959 political novel by Allen Drury that explores the United States Senate confirmation of controversial Secretary of State nominee Robert
Advise and Consent opens with the announcement of the President of the United State's controversial appointment of Bob Leffingwell as Secretary of State. Right away Drury's language is witty and mischievous as if there is a twinkle in the eye of the storyteller. If you have ever watched "House of Cards" then you know how deviously politics can be played out. Advise and Consent is no different.
The novel tells the story of the nomination of peace-loving diplomat Robert A. Leffingwell to be Secretary of State. Unfolding in “books” from four senators, the story proceeds quickly and in rich, complex detail, aided no doubt by Drury’s intimate knowledge of how the Senate worked based on his experiences as a Washington political reporter. The first edition of Advise and Consent numbered 616 pages and the level of exegesis and dialogue is deep and broad. All layers of the advice and consent process are covered—from gripping hearing testimony to vitriolic floor debates, from the machinations of the White House to the cloakroom deals in the Senate.
Not only does Advise and Consent access the political dynamics of the Senate’s advice and consent to presidential nominations, the novel also delves deeply into the personal stories of the characters who must manage and judge this process. One widowed senator, the majority leader, is intimately involved with a Washington socialite and there is the past of the nominee, who flirted with communism while teaching in Chicago and is forced to confront this aspect of his personal history to secure confirmation. Another senator, a married Mormon from Utah, is blackmailed by a colleague who has discovered the senator’s intimate, sexual relationship with another man while in the army during World War II.
The narrative depth and the richness of the story’s details make it a fascinating read. It provides a panoramic view of Cold War Washington. It is a story that brings together strands of different actual events and real characters to create a composite vision of the U.S. Senate and its workings in the area of advice and consent. The novel was followed by Drury's A Shade of Difference in 1962 and four additional sequels. While Drury's Advise and Consent is arguably the best of its kind (and may have defined the genre) I have enjoyed others like O'Connor's The Last Hurrah and, more recently, Primary Colors.