ALLEN DRURY, 1918-1998
Remembering Advise and Consent
Sep 21, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 02 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
The year was 1961 -- an incredible time for a sixteen-year-old kid to be a magazine intern in Washington, D.C.
At old Griffith Stadium, I saw Roger Maris hit a home run on his way past Babe Ruth's record. I watched John Kennedy masterfully toy with reporters at a presidential news conference. Once, during a convention at the Mayflower Hotel, a teenage campaign worker confided to me that she had shared intimate moments with newly elected Texas senator John Tower.
Then one day, I met (in truth I should say exchanged greetings with) actor Charles Laughton as he exited an elevator on the Senate side of the Capitol. He was in Washington that summer to do the movie version of Allen Drury's novel Advise and Consent. At the time, I considered that moment easily the high point of the summer.
Allen Drury died on September 2, at the age of eighty. Looking back thirty-seven years, I find it difficult to explain -- to a generation that has never heard of Laughton or Drury or maybe even of Advise and Consent -- exactly why that sixteen-year-old I used to be felt so elated. The aging, rotund Laughton was no Tom Cruise. The part he played was hardly the stuff of a 1990s hero. Or even a 1980s hero. In the film, he played old Seab Cooley, the wily southern senator who would orchestrate the defeat of "elitist" (as in, soft on communism) Robert Leffing-well's nomination to be secretary of state.
But at the time this was hot stuff -- and nothing was hotter than Advise and Consent, the novel that Drury wrote while he covered the Senate in the 1950s for the New York Times. To many of us, the book represented the enticing allure of the Washington power game that would keep us in and around Washington for a lifetime. Peggy Noonan noted in her memoir What I Saw at the Revolution that every baby boomer in the Reagan White House had read Advise and Consent and at least one other of Drury's novels: "We had read them in the '60s, when we were young, and they were part of the reason we were here."
Published in 1960, Advise and Consent remained on the bestseller list for 103 weeks -- an astonishing longevity record. Drury won a Pulitzer prize and in the process gave birth to the modern Washington novel. A seemingly endless succession of novels followed the ground plowed by Advise and Consent, culminating in 1974 with Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men (which may or may not have been non-fiction).
Today we have C-SPAN and MSNBC and Rush Limbaugh, and it's difficult to remember there was a time when the nation functioned without a non-stop focus on Washington. This is one reason that Drury's work was extraordinary. It may have been a slow read, but it was terrifically insightful -- and watching crafty old Seab Cooley bring down the beloved liberal icon Bob Leffing-well was another factor in making this book so magnificent to so many of us. As Drury put it, "Bob Leffing-well could mobilize the Washington press corps on his side on any given issue. . . . A protective screen of press adulation hung between him and large portions of the public. . . . Certain phrases [had come to be attached to him]: 'a truly liberal mind . . . a profound and perceptive approach to the problems of government.'" In fact, the only thing Drury disliked more than a wimpy, soft-line politician was a liberal columnist. By the end of the novel, even Leffing-well's liberal admirers could not save him.
The hard Left, in turn, hated Allen Drury. Pamela Hansford Johnson once wrote in the New Statesman that Advise and Consent is "politically repellent and artistically null with a steady hysterical undertone."
It would be nice to be able to blame some kind of conspiracy of the Left for the fact that Drury never wrote another novel that approached the significance of Advise and Consent. But though he did retain a hard-core following, it can be argued that the eighteen novels and the five works of nonfiction he produced in the four decades between the publication of his one classic and his death deserve to remain, for the most part, little noticed nor long remembered.
Of course, in the years following Advise and Consent, the nation endured everything from Vietnam to Watergate before it learned from the Reagan Revolution the profoundest of lessons about Washington: Government is not the solution. Government is the problem. As the critic Terry Teachout observed in a superb piece on Drury a few years back, "Drury is doing business at the same old stand. Unfortunately for him, the highway has moved."
Still, Advise and Consent remains a great popular novel. The Seab Cooleys that Drury revered may no longer populate Congress, but their blow-dried successors would do well to dust off the grand old book and reacquaint themselves with the consequences of equivocation and moral relativism. There they might find a solution to their quandary over what to do about Bill Clinton.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson retired as editor in chief of Reader's Digest in 1996.