by Allen Drury. Garden City, NewYork: Doubleday, 1959. Limited editions currently available. 616pp. Paper. ISBN: 9780380010073.
Reviewed by Trevor Parry-Giles, Department of Communication, University of Maryland. Email: tpg[at]umd.edu.
There is something inherently dramatic, something immediately monumental, about the manner in which the United States fills many of the positions of its government. Elections, of course, pit candidates against one another and are filled with drama and action. But the constitutionally prescribed appointments process, for cabinet officials and justices of the Supreme Court among other national officers, also gives rise to narratives and drama that make this fascinating process the stuff of both history and fiction. These events involve colorful characters, dramatic plots filled with tragedy and comedy, and a narrative arc that is clearly defined and routinized to enhance audience comfort and familiarity.
Few fictional treatments of the constitutional appointments process rise to the stature and heft of Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel ADVISE AND CONSENT.
Re-reading ADVISE AND CONSENT (and watching the 1962 Otto Preminger movie by the same name), after a span of several years, and in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War and 9/11, I was immediately struck by how dated this immense novel is and how stuck in the 1950s and 1960s this story remains. In many ways, Advise & Consent would be a fine reading in Cold War history courses or in courses that seek to explain the nature of Cold War politics. As an insight, though, into the nature of the appointments process as currently practiced, it remains locked in its time and would undoubtedly be lost on many contemporary students.
Published in 1959 at the height of the Cold War and in the twilight of the Eisenhower administration, ADVISE AND CONSENT 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. It’s all here.
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 who hosts the must-go-to parties in D.C. [*318] There’s 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. ADVISE AND CONSENT is so complete that ninety of Drury’s fictional Senate’s one hundred members are mentioned in the story. The novel involves all the branches of the federal government and the vast diplomatic corps. It is a panoramic view of Cold War Washington. Moreover, as independent library consultant David Bratman notes, while ADVISE AND CONSENT is not a roman-a-clef, 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.
Ultimately, the aged president in ADVISE AND CONSENT dies unexpectedly, and true to the suspenseful nature of the tale, the new president (a mild-mannered functionary) opts for a new nominee—one of the senators deeply involved in the confirmation process itself. Coming to a quick and dynamic ending, the novel’s conclusion is somewhat convoluted. But it’s still loads of fun as good political novels should be, giving readers a real sense of the pushes and pulls of power in a highly charged, compelling crucible of political intrigue.
As a possible course reading to explain the advice and consent process, the novel’s strengths are also its most complicating weaknesses for contemporary students. The book’s length and depth of detail are what make it a marvelous novel, but may have the effect of reducing student interest and trying their patience. As an insight into Cold War politics and with its rich depictions of political life in 1950s Washington, ADVISE AND CONSENT is unparalleled, but may also be quite remote and irrelevant for students preoccupied with text messaging, iTunes, and wars against Islamic terrorists, not Russian communists.
Fortunately, there are more timely treatments of the advice and consent process for those wanting to use fiction as a teaching tool to explain this complicated function of government. Richard North Patterson’s 2000 novel PROTECT AND DEFEND is a rich and fascinating discussion of the advice and consent process for a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Patterson’s Kennedyesque president Kerry Kilcannon (a character in several of his novels) nominates a single, liberal, complicated woman to be the Chief Justice—Caroline Masters. Aspects of this novel are somewhat convoluted, as when the sitting Chief Justice collapses at the new president’s inauguration ceremony. Patterson nonetheless deftly weaves together contemporary questions of gender, abortion-rights, partisan politics, political ethics, and confirmation drama.
Beyond novels, there are also several examples of fictionalized treatments of confirmation politics exist in other mediated forms that are readily [*319] available. One of the best of these is the NBC drama THE WEST WING which featured, over its seven year run, two notable plots about the confirmation process. In the first season, several episodes involved the nomination of the first Latino justice of the Supreme Court while in its fifth season, the show featured a plotline about the elevation of the first female Chief Justice. What makes THE WEST WING’S depictions of confirmation politics so interesting is that they generally involve the executive branch, as opposed to Drury’s extensive focus on the Senate in ADVISE AND CONSENT. The same focus on the presidency’s confrontation with confirmation politics also is found on COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF, ABC’s short-lived series about the first female president forced to nominate an individual to be vice-president who would face confirmation hearings in both the House and the Senate. Not that long ago, classroom instructors would have to rely on decaying videotapes recorded from home VHS machines to introduce this material in a course. With the proliferation of television series on DVD, those inconveniences are not exigent any longer—both THE WEST WING and COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF are widely available for rental and quite affordable to purchase. One should also be able to find a television docudrama entitled STRANGE JUSTICE, a 1999 adaptation of the book by the same name that chronicles the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court and the charges of sexual harassment leveled against him by Anita Hill.
Also readily available is one of the best filmic treatments of confirmation politics—THE CONTENDER. From 2000, this fine film, directed by Rod Lurie (who was also responsible for producing COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF) provides a gritty and timely depiction of the confirmation struggles of a woman senator nominated to be Vice-President. What makes the film unique, aside from the gendered dimensions of the plot, is that it shows the political machinations of confirmation politics in both the White House and in Congress, and compellingly displays the interactions between these branches of government. Unlike ADVISE AND CONSENT, with its heavy emphasis on the Senate, and unlike THE WEST WING and COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF, with their specific emphasis on the presidency, THE CONTENDER highlights interaction and political negotiation, the interplay between presidents and members of Congress, and the exercise of power politics to achieve particular political goals.
In the end, regardless of which text one uses, selecting fiction to generate discussion and to teach about the confirmation process in American politics can bring into stark relief critical aspects of this process that might be less obvious in academic or textbooks treatments of the same process. With fiction’s ready appeal for undergraduate and graduate students, there is little doubt of the utility and effectiveness of this approach to teaching the confirmation process in this way.
ABC, COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF, 2005-2006. [*320]
Bratman, David. THE FICTIONAL SENATE OF ALLEN DRURY’S ADVISE AND CONSENT, http://home.earthlink.net/~dbratman/drury.html (December 2006).
Dickerson, Ernest R., Director. STRANGE JUSTICE, 1999.
Lurie, Rod, Director.THE CONTENDER. 2000.
NBC, THE WEST WING, 1999-2006.
Patterson, Richard Norton. PROTECT AND DEFEND. New York: Knopf, 2000.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Trevor Parry-Giles.