Advise and Consent

I’ve begun work on the chapter on modern American political narratives, a very rich genre with many fascinating exemplars. One of the modern classics is Allen Drury’s Pulitzer prize winning 1959 novel, and director Otto Preminger’s 1962 film, Advise and Consent. Taking its title from one of the powers of the Senate enumerated in the Constitution, the narrative focuses on confirmation hearings for a fictional Democratic president’s nominee for Secretary of State. At a time when the Senate is beginning its hearings for a nominee to the Supreme Court, the narrative retains its relevance.

While the narrative differs slightly in the novel and the film, I will outline elements common to both. The nominee (played in the movie by Henry Fonda) is a member of the left-wing of the Democratic Party, favoring nuclear arms negotiation with the Soviets. The narrative focuses on the split within the Democratic Party between those senators inclined for reasons of ideology, fear of retribution, or hope of favor to do the president’s bidding, and those inclined on ideological grounds to oppose him. (While the novel predates the era of hawks and doves, the terms are clearly relevant.)

The plot turns on the revelation of skeletons in closets. The nominee was an active member of a Communist cell in the thirties, which he denies under oath. One of the key senatorial opponents of the nomination, at the time of the narrative a seemingly happily-married family man, had a homosexual affair during the war. The president’s supporters threaten to blackmail him, which forces him to commit suicide. Ultimately, the Senate does not consent to the nomination. The president, ill throughout the story, then dies of a heart attack. The narrative concludes with the Vice-President, who had been pointedly ignored by the President, taking office, with the suggestion that he will reverse the foreign policy directions of his predecessor.

The narrative is, in effect, a story of two coalitions of head-butting alpha males struggling for dominance, with numerous dirty tricks employed in the battle, and suspense over the ultimate outcome. Preminger’s 1962 film was done in black and white – even by then almost anachronistic – using a documentary style. The settings alternated between some scenes in parks and streets in Washington, and others on the Senate floor, authentically recreated in a Hollywood studio. Preminger’s realism also extended the continuum of time and space, with long unbroken scenes of speeches or meetings. It was very traditional film-making, but it worked then, and still works now.

The novel is a classic example of a narrative style now rarely seen – the omniscient narrator. Drury uses this style to reveal the personal histories and thoughts of the senators he has invented. He also uses it for foreshadowing, building suspense by hinting at what is to come — which he alone knows but, by reading along, we can find out. An example: “in a way most ironic of all, this erratic, unexpected and casually inadvertent connection would turn out to have a most direct bearing on the career of a United States Senator, the future of the American Presidency, and the nomination of Robert A. Leffingwell.” (1962 paperback ed., p.225).

The novel also exemplifies the narrative idea of the inferred author. Reading it, one could infer that the author was someone who was deeply familiar with the Senate – indeed Drury covered the Senate for United Press for seven years – and, from its derogatory and ironic portrayals of the nominee, the President, and his supporters, someone who was hawkishly anti-Communist – which Drury also was. The anti-Communism is laid on thickly, with the most leftist senator declaring to the lobby group COMFORT (Committee on Making Further Offers for a Russian Truce) that “I would rather crawl to Moscow than perish under a bomb” and the nominee for secretary of state declaring to a Senate committee that he would never, under any circumstances, recommend war to the President (pp. 170, 241). The acronym COMFORT, of course, plays off the US Constitution’s definition of treason: giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The President, it is revealed, endorses both perjury and blackmail to achieve his political objectives. The leftist senator turns out to be the mirror-image of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And, for good measure, there is a leftist Supreme Court justice – a thinly-disguised William O. Douglas – playing a willing role in the blackmail plot. (The movie is much more explicit than the novel about outing homosexuality, and can be seen as part of Preminger’s personal battle against censorship).

The repudiation of the nominee and his supporters and death of the President, achieved through the blood of a blackmailed senator, is, from the author’s point of view, a hopeful ending. I do not share that point of view, but I certainly enjoyed the narrative journey to it. For that reason, I consider Advise and Consent, in both its incarnations, a classic.

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