The Insider

Allen Drury exposed the folkways of Cold War Washington in Advise and Consent. He went on to publish two dozen more books and died writing about what he may have loved best: Stanford.

January/February 1999

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The Insider

Photo: George Tames/New York Times

"I've written a novel," Allen Drury told his New York Times colleague Russell Baker one day in 1958, pushing a cardboard box into Baker's hands. Stacked inside was a draft of Advise and Consent erratically typed on legal-sized paper. "I groaned silently," Baker wrote in early September, just after Drury's death, "the way you groan when a friend who has never written more than a postcard asks you to read this book he's been working on and tell him what you think. What lies I would be compelled to tell poor Allen…. I took it home, ate, fixed a drink, sat down and with a heavy heart reached into the box for a fistful of manuscript. Good Lord! You couldn't put the thing down!"

Baker was just the first. Advise and Consent, a sprawling, 600-page cultural vivisection of Cold War Washington, climbed atop the best-seller lists -- and stayed there for an unprecedented 93 weeks. It won Drury the Pulitzer Prize and became a film and Broadway play. Its appeal was clear. Drury took readers on an extraordinary tour of the capital's hitherto-unexplored folkways: there were duplicitous senators, fey ambassadors, wily hostesses and, at the center of the drama, a dovish nominee for secretary of state with an alleged history of Communist associations.

At century's end, with Washington's follies on 24-hour display, it is difficult to recall that the city once seemed impossibly inaccessible, a marbled world where lawmakers all talked like Daniel Webster. But Cold War Washington did seem that way, and it was Drury's fiction that brought the place to vivid life, using a confirmation battle to explore dark corners of ambition, sex, blackmail and, in the end, statesmanship.

Drury, '39, went on to write 19 more novels over the next 40 years, along with five books of nonfiction on subjects ranging from ancient Egypt to the Nixon White House. After he died of heart failure on September 2 -- his 80th birthday -- the New York Times called him "the quintessential Washington novelist . . . in the tradition of Galsworthy, Dickens and Thackeray, and not incidentally, of Henry Adams." Drury spent the last decade of his life writing a semiautobiographical trilogy about a generation of Stanford men during and after World War II. The first of those novels, Toward What Bright Glory, is essentially Drury's memoir of his college years. It was published in 1990 and is dedicated: "To Stanford, which nurtured us and sent us forth to war and troubled peace." The second, Into What Far Harbor, came three years later. The last, Public Men, arrived in bookstores last fall, a few weeks after Drury's death.

Advise and Consent, though, was his most famous -- and enduring -- work, not least because of Otto Preminger's fine film version. (Drury was a marketing pioneer, too: the paperback version was among the first to be promoted with the release of a movie.) Drury took as his text this line from the Constitution: the president shall nominate Cabinet officers "by and with the advice and consent of the Senate." Working early in the mornings and after hours, Drury, then a reporter covering the Senate for James Reston's New York Times Washington bureau, deftly created an entire fictional universe. His achievement recalls Hawthorne's assessment of Anthony Trollope, whose "novels [are] solid, substantial, written on the strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale and just as real as if some giant had hewned a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business and not suspecting that they were being made a show of."

Drury knew his terrain. After serving in the Army during World War II, he moved to Washington, where he covered Capitol Hill for United Press, Pathfinder Magazine and the Washington Evening Star before joining the Times in 1954. In Advise and Consent, he conjures the capital with grace and insight. "Like a city in dreams," he writes in the early pages of the novel, "it is a city of temporaries, a city of just-arriveds and only-visitings, built on the shifting sands of politics, filled with people just passing through. They may stay 50 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. Someday soon they will be going home. They do go home, but it is only for visits, or for a brief span of staying-away; and once the visits or the brief spans are over ('It's so nice to get away from Washington, it's so inbred; so nice to get out in the country and find out what people are really thinking') they hurry back to their lodestone and their star, their self-hypnotized, self-mesmerized, self-enamored, self-propelling, wonderful city they cannot live away from or, once it has claimed them, live without. Washington takes them like a lover and they are lost."

Truer words about the capital's natives have rarely been written. The novel opens in the Senate Majority Leader's apartment at the Sheraton-Park Hotel. The president has named Robert A. Leffingwell, an aloof intellectual with a boffo press, to be secretary of state. Munson, a senator of the president's party, is irritated that the Old Man, as he calls the president, hasn't alerted him to the appointment. Leffingwell, who is thought by some to be all-too-willing to accommodate the Soviets, has many friends -- and many enemies. Munson knows it's his job to get the nomination through, but he is quickly flummoxed.

Drury's characters, lining up for and against Leffingwell, are wonderfully drawn. There's Seab Cooley, a harrumphing but clever old Southern senator; Brigham Anderson, a fresh-faced young star from Utah; Orrin Knox, a steady senior senator from Illinois.

In the Senate hearings, Leffingwell is brilliant and haughty, at once deferential to the senators and arrogant. Confronted with charges of a long-ago underground Communist association, he lies under oath -- and, like Alger Hiss, is found out. Fighting for his political life, Leffingwell successfully smears his accuser. But as the intrigue unfolds, there is mystery and tragedy. Anderson decides to oppose the nominee; as a result, a columnist hints, in print, of a homosexual fling in Anderson's past. ("This is a cruel town when you get on the wrong side of it," the editor of the Washington Post muses.) Anguished, the young senator shoots himself, a victim of a larger ideological struggle that twists and turns toward a gripping conclusion.

The plot holds up well all these years later, and it is worth noting that Drury took an essentially conservative view of the Cold War, which was a bit unusual among the press corps of that era. But perhaps the little asides along the way are the novel's most memorable touches. Munson receives assurances of support from two senators. Though he disagrees with their reasons for endorsing his man, he can't afford to point that out: he is, Drury notes, "quite content to accept their votes without quibbling over motives, the first and most valuable lesson he learned in Washington and the one he never forgets."

On the line to his minority counterpart -- a man who vows to oppose Leffingwell -- Munson shows us the classic Beltway two-step: "I'll have to give the papers a statement charging an unprincipled, underhanded coalition against the people's interests, you know," Munson says. The other senator doesn't hesitate for a second: "Go ahead and charge, Robert. We've all survived that one before."

Drury's take on the city's social currents is salty -- and on the mark: "Of course, that was the thing about Washington, really; you didn't have to be born to anything, you could just buy your way in. 'Any bitch with a million bucks, a nice house, a good caterer, and the nerve of a grand larcenist can become a social success in Washington,' people said cattily, and indeed it was entirely true."

Once Drury started writing novels, he didn't stop. He quit the New York Times to become political correspondent for Reader's Digest -- and to produce more books. He published six sequels to Advise and Consent. Though none enjoyed the huge success of the original, they were solidly popular. In 1964, Drury moved to Tiburon, Calif., where he wrote from a home that had breathtaking views of Mount Tamalpais and the San Francisco Bay. He rose early and worked in the mornings on an Olivetti portable; afternoons were reserved for reading and editing. A meticulous researcher, he would fill out a three-by-five card for every bit of history, obscure fact or snippet of conversation that might be useful. Though he had many friends, he lived alone, never married and was intensely private. "Quality time with Al meant you read your book while he read his," jokes nephew Kenneth Killiany.

Drury died writing about what he may have loved best: Stanford. "It's the only place he ever felt at home," says Killiany. The trilogy on the World War II generation's coming of age is an unabashedly sentimental evocation of the men and women of the American Century -- and the days when ordinary people routinely did extraordinary things. One scene in particular captures the spirit of the novels, which aspire to be rather like Herman Wouk's The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Drury paints this picture of the end of innocence, when Hitler's armies invaded Poland. Willie Wilson, a senior in that terrible September of 1939, is picnicking with friends when they hear the news over the radio.

"Tears came into his eyes, and all the happy days rushed through his heart going somewhere, somewhere, lost, gone, irretrievable, leaving him stranded on this distant hill while far below the red-tiled roofs of the University shimmered in the sun. Ah, you wonderful place, he thought, you good times and dear friends! What will they do to us, in their pride and their anger? Where will they send us drifting, on the darkening flood of the years? Toward what bright glory? Into what far harbor?"

Drury, like Wouk, chose storytelling to convey the tensions and triumphs of our complicated century. He rarely set a foot wrong, particularly when it came to explaining the creatures along the Potomac. Here is the rest of his marvelous description of our ruling class in Washington: "They come, they stay, they make their mark, writing big or little on their times, in the strange, fantastic, fascinating city that mirrors so faithfully their strange, fantastic, fascinating land in which there are few absolute wrongs or absolute rights, few all-blacks or all-whites, few dead-certain positives that won't be changed tomorrow; their wonderful, mixed-up, blundering, stumbling, hopeful land in which evil men do good things and good men do evil in a way of life and government so complex and delicately balanced that only Americans can understand it and often they are baffled."

Baffled, perhaps, but we surely grasp more than we might have without Allen Drury's art and his achievement.

Jon Meacham, a Newsweek managing editor, lives in New York.

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