What We Can Learn from ‘Advise and Consent’

TORCH SONG: Several of Drury's novels pay tribute to the Farm. His 'A & C' papers are at the Hoover Institution. Photo: Associated Press

I am old enough to remember when the United States Senate took pride in living up to the nickname the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. I am old enough to remember Republican liberals and Democratic conservatives, old enough to remember when political discord in Washington ended at the close of the workday. Debate by day, détente by night.

That is not the Senate that we have in 2021. That is not the Senate we have had for a couple of decades. The Senate is supposed to be the legislative branch where no one acts rashly; it has become the branch where no one acts, period.

There has developed a biennial ritual in Washington in which departing senators, freed from the shackles of campaigning, deplore the lack of compromise and implore their soon-to-be-former colleagues to restore comity, as if the Senate were a painting that could use some sprucing. Last December, it was Lamar Alexander’s turn.

“You may say the Senate isn’t solving some big problems, and you would be right,” said the Tennessee Republican on the Senate floor. “We’re not even voting on some big problems. . . . Lately, the Senate has been like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing. It’s a real waste of talent.”

The following week, Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, made much the same case. “The Senate is broken, and it’s not working for the American people,” Udall said. “We are becoming better and better political warriors. We’re good at landing a punch, at exposing the hypocrisy and riling each other up, but we’re not fostering our better angels.”

The constant bickering and the obstinacy in refusing to perform its basic functions have left this former Senate intern nostalgic for a time when government legislated. I took myself back to a time when the Senate engine ran on all cylinders. I read Advise and Consent.

‘Throughout a long, prolific career as a newspaperman turned novelist, Drury carried a torch for his alma mater, one that he infused into his fiction from the beginning.’

The 1959 novel by Allen Drury, ’39, portrayed the nomination of a controversial liberal to the office of secretary of state, and depicted the fierce and, as it turned out, deadly struggle within the Senate to confirm him. What started out as a political page-turner became a cultural phenomenon.

Advise and Consent debuted on the New York Times bestseller list in August 1959 and didn’t leave until July 1961, a stay that fell two weeks short of two years. It rose to the top against novels we now consider classics: Exodus, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Doctor Zhivago. One contemporary review compared Advise and Consent’s storytelling to that of Gone with the Wind; Herman Wouk, one of the bestselling novelists of the latter half of the 20th century, mentioned Drury’s name in the same breath as that shrewd observer of Victorian England, Anthony Trollope. Drury won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1960.

I expected a great story, and I got it. What I didn’t expect, didn’t know until I got nearly halfway through the novel, is that throughout a long, prolific career as a newspaperman turned novelist, Drury carried a torch for his alma mater, one that he infused into his fiction from the beginning. One of the main characters in Advise and Consent is Brigham Anderson, at 37 years of age already in his second term and already the senior senator from Utah. The backstory constructed for Brig Anderson included Drury’s thinly disguised love letter to Stanford.

“To him the Farm gave what it gives to all who are lucky enough to do their most serious growing up in that beautiful place: a certain common sense approach to life, a certain equipment, much more important than anything noted in the grade averages, for decent constructive citizenship; an undying love for San Francisco and the Peninsula; a realization that of all the springs on earth none is quite as sweet as the long, lingering, all-enveloping hypnosis of spring in the Santa Clara Valley; above all, a clear perspective and a far view, of men, of issues, and of life.”

I don’t know about you, but I want to go to school there.

The Anderson character is a World War II veteran, a husband, a father and a legislator who, despite his relative youth, already has gained the respect of his older, crustier colleagues. The majority leader gives Anderson’s subcommittee the task of vetting the State nominee, a government veteran whose conciliatory stance toward the Soviets may be more than Senate conservatives can stomach.

Image of the Advise and Consent book cover

In the opening scene, in which the president discusses the nomination with the majority leader, Drury made a point to which he returned over and over throughout a 656-page novel that, in the front of the book, lists 39 major characters.

“A series of names and faces flashed across Bob Munson’s mind—the Minority, good men and true, good friends and good enemies, and brothers in the bond,” Drury wrote.

Munson, the majority leader, is sifting through the Senate roster, looking for votes. Drury chose not to identify the parties in his novel as Democratic and Republican. In a 1961 memorandum he prepared upon presenting his Advise and Consent papers to the Hoover Institution, Drury said he referred simply to the Majority and the Minority to avoid, as he put it, “unnecessary cluttering by automatic prejudices.”

In today’s Senate, where prejudices are automatic, and few, if any, senators cross party lines to vote, the way that Munson and others legislate in Advise and Consent seems like an anthropological footnote from an extinct culture. By one definition, it most certainly is. Drury’s Senate includes one woman—a rarely heard Kansan—and an Asian American man who represents Hawaii. It’s the 1950s. In the Senate of the 117th Congress, sworn in last January, are two openly LGBTQ members, 11 people of color and 24 women.

That’s the problem with nostalgia. You remember only the good stuff. My desire to recall how the Senate worked made it necessary to separate the who of Drury’s Senate from the how. It is the how that is worth mourning.

Drury described American government as “an ever-shifting, ever-changing, ever-new and ever-the-same bargaining between men’s ideals and their ambitions; a very down-to-earth bargaining, in most cases, and yet a bargaining in which the ambitions, in ways that seemed surprising and frequently were quite inadvertent, more often than not wound up serving the purposes of the ideals.”

His senators went to Washington to get things done and they did them, albeit not always prettily. In Drury’s Washington, the senators might thrust and parry on Capitol Hill during daylight, but at night they donned tuxedos and downed cocktails. The common ground may have been easier to find—these were white men with shared values—but they worked to establish it.

“They were very effective, and they got along with each other,” David Brady, a political science professor emeritus and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, says of the Senate of that time. “They lived there. They lived together. They knew each other. They drank together. The fact that liberals and conservatives were within the same party helped facilitate that. There was a lot of conservative coalition voting, joint voting between Democrats in the South and Republicans in the North. But they got legislation done.”

Brady discerns a major difference in today and Drury’s Washington: the lack of trust in modern political discourse.

Drury, who worked for 15 years as a Washington correspondent for the United Press, the Washington Evening Star and the New York Times, among others, made the nomination battle come to life in a way that seemed revolutionary in those pre-CNN times. In one hearing, one senator interrogates the nominee for seven pages, with volleys as riveting as any ever produced by Federer and Nadal. Drury believed the process of governing would be sufficiently riveting to hold the attention of his readers.

A & C,” as Drury referred to it, stemmed from “a desire to show people that this was how their government worked, that it had great strengths and great weaknesses, and that although the weaknesses sometimes seemed to predominate the strengths usually won out. I also wanted to show that their legislators are very human people as subject to the ills and uncertainties of human flesh as all the rest of us.”

About that human flesh, a spoiler alert: In the course of the battle over the nomination, Anderson’s wartime tryst with another serviceman, which had occurred more than a decade earlier, is discovered and weaponized. A chaste photo of the men surfaces; senators on both sides of the nomination must decide whether the future of the nation at the height of the Cold War justifies blackmail. Both sides know the photograph is going to destroy the target, both discuss how it must be torn up and thrown away, and both know they are going to send it along anyway.

“They’re making calculations between power and morality, and most of the time they choose power,” Brady says. That may sound like Washington today, and it may sound like Washington since the dawn of the republic. But Brady discerns a major difference in today and Drury’s Washington: the lack of trust in modern political discourse.

“We’re assuming bad motives on people’s parts,” he says. In Advise and Consent, the senators are “tolerant of the differences, precisely because differences are not based on, ‘You’re evil and I’m good.’ Differences are based on, ‘We both want the same good for the country. We have different ways of going about it.’ That is in the book, and that’s important. That’s gone.”

Hinging the plot of Advise and Consent on the shame attached to a gay relationship may seem quaint at best. The homophobia is a reflection of the era, as are the pay phones and (kids, ask your grandparents) the afternoon newspapers. The story remains a cracking yarn. If nothing else, how the photograph surfaced is a masterstroke of fiction, a series of disconnected events that, when assembled, create a scandal and a tragedy. The principals, Drury wrote, became “linked together in one of those ironic little arrangements devised by fate far more often than logical human beings like to admit.” If you remember that President Bill Clinton’s impeachment depended upon a blue dress that didn’t make it to the cleaners, then Drury’s Jenga tower of a plot seems realistic.

Advise and Consent became a play in 1960 and ran for 212 performances on Broadway. By the time the film began production, official Washington fell over itself to cooperate with director Otto Preminger. Advise and Consent became the first movie to use the Capitol as a set, including the rotunda and the same hearing room where the Army-McCarthy hearings took place. The film attracted a deep roster of Hollywood heavyweights—Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford, Gene Tierney and Betty White.

Drury capitalized upon the wild success of his debut novel with five more based on the same characters. To say that none reached the heights of Advise and Consent is like criticizing Charlotte Brontë for never having written an equal to Jane Eyre. A few years after the publication of Advise and Consent, Drury left Washington and returned to the Bay Area he loved so dearly. Late in life, Drury wrote a trilogy that began with a prewar class at “the University” and concluded at the end of the century. He never identified the school by name, but you don’t have to be a literary detective to unmask it. In the second of the series, titled Into What Far Harbor?, Drury wrote, “Far down Palm Drive he could see the dusty summer green of the Oval, the bright mosaic front of the Memorial Church, the gentle outlines of the Coast Range rising beyond.”

Hmmm, give me a second. . . .

Drury died in 1998 on his 80th birthday, two weeks after completing the final novel in the series and the 20th of his career. Few writers in the modern age have made so successful a transition from political journalist to novelist.

Advise and Consent concludes with a plane flight to Geneva by a new president, the majority leader, the minority leader and the new secretary of state. Drury described them as “old friends from the Senate carrying their country’s hopes.” Nostalgia, it seems, is a powerful seducer.


Ivan Maisel, ’81, is the vice president of editorial and a senior writer at On3.com.