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Advise and Consent

Allen Drury (1959) 

The all-time best seller among Washington political fiction, Advise and Consent remained on the New York Times best seller list for a then-unprecedented 102 weeks. The book, which was produced as a Broadway play and then made into a movie, launched Allen Drury’s career as a novelist. The title of the book comes from Article II, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the Senate the responsibility to advise the president about nominees and the authority to consent to (approve or reject) those nominations.

The book centers on the controversial nomination of the left-leaning Robert Leffingwell to be secretary of state. Conservatives in the Senate mobilize to oppose him. The Senate majority leader, who is not happy with the nomination because the president had failed to consult with him, agrees to lead the fight for Leffingwell’s confirmation. The opposition is led by an interesting cast of characters, including a crusty elderly southern senator. As the confirmation struggle ensues, scandals come to light, including personal peccadilloes and accusations of pro-Communist sympathies. The political machinations and the high stakes of the game make for great drama; much of the action takes place in the Senate Chamber. A stunning string of events leads to the conclusion of the book, leaving the country with a new president and a new secretary of state on the eve of an important meeting with the Soviets.

A few years after publishing Advise and Consent, Drury published his diary, A Senate Journal, which he had kept while covering the Senate during World War II. A Senate Journal provides a road map for Advise and Consent with numerous directional signs. Based on Drury’s observations, one may guess who the author based his fictional senators on: Alben Barkley may be the dashing majority leader; Robert Taft might be the minority leader; Kenneth McKellar may be the southern senator; the overzealous Senator Fred Van Ackerman might be a caricature of Joseph McCarthy; and the tragic Brigham Anderson, who kills himself in his Senate office, reminds us of Senator Lester Hunt of Wyoming, who took his life in the Russell Building in 1954. The president and vice president strongly resemble President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President Harry Truman. The entire incident could be loosely based on the Chambers-Hiss case.

However, the book is not meant to be a roman a clef, and it does not purport to disguise a true story. Drury considered his fictional senators and others as composites, and wove them through successive books. The author was not interested in profiling any one individual but in capturing the whole gallery of stock characters that Washington had seen and would be seeing again.

Otto Preminger made Advise and Consent into a film in 1962 with an all-star cast, including Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon, and Charles Laughton. A lively discussion and synopsis of the film is included in Senator Robert C. Byrd’s book, The Senate 1789-1989: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate. In the chapter entitled ”The Senate in Literature and Film,” Senator Byrd takes a look at a special group of senators who…although widely known in their time…are completely unfamiliar to most current members…a colorful, vibrant, compelling group who captured national attention by thrilling deeds—and misdeeds.”

Much of the filming of Advise and Consent was done on location, in the Capitol, the Russell Senate Office Building, and throughout Washington, D.C. During the filming the now-defunct Washington Star sent artist Lily Spandorf to create on-the-spot drawings to be published in their newspaper. Spandorf produced more than 80 illustrations, depicting both the filming and the relaxed hours of waiting between takes. Her distinctive pen and ink drawings show Preminger and the actors at work in Washington and around the Capitol. Spandorf’s work attracted the attention of Preminger, and at his request her images were on display for the Washington premiere of his film. Spandorf’s drawings, including Garden View of Tregaron, are now part of the Senate’s collection of fine art.

Since Advise and Consent was published, much has happened in the intervening decades that would invite comparisons, but we are ultimately left with the same conclusion—that the Senate and the institutions that drive our government are resilient and balanced to withstand the politics of power. We are left with optimism and faith in the system. During an interview, Drury discussed his unshaken faith in the American political process. When asked what he thought of the Senate today, Drury smiled in his response to St. Petersburg Times reporter Margo Hammond's query: “There’s nothing like it on God’s green earth.”

For a list of other novels by Mr. Drury, consult the Capitol Hill in Fiction bibliography.