The phrase “the politics of personal destruction” entered the American lexicon during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Since 1998, it has become conventional wisdom that we are living through a uniquely vicious and polarized political period, a time when opponents no longer want to defeat each other, but to annihilate each other. Pundits speak of red and blue states as if a new Civil War was raging. Rumors and slanders that would once have been confined to the fringe -- such as the idea that President Obama is faking his birth certificate, or is secretly a Muslim -- enter mainstream discourse.
One of the most commonly named symptoms of the breakdown of political civility is the polarization in the Senate. Once a chamber full of gentlemen and statesmen, the story goes, the Senate is today as bitterly partisan as the House. And the combination of Senate tradition with extreme politics is said to be producing an unprecedented gridlock. Senators place indefinite holds on presidential nominees. Most notably, the filibuster, once a rarely used piece of political theater, has become routine, meaning that 60 votes are now required to pass any major legislation in the Senate -- a supermajority that the Democrats briefly attained in 2009, and used to pass the Affordable Care Act.
It is all a long way from the world depicted in Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller “Advise and Consent,” which was published in 1959. That novel shows that “the politics of personal destruction” are hardly a product of our own times. On the contrary, it tells the story of a virtuous senator driven to suicide by the scandal-mongering of his opponents.
Yet Drury also depicts the Senate as a place of high ideals, jealous of its honor, where party divisions matter less than principles and friendships. Drury is in love with Washington, in a way that seems antique today, with politicians of all parties running as enemies of “the Beltway.” Drury loves to describe how a Senate quorum is called, what goes on at a Georgetown party, even how the Tidal Basin looks when the cherry blossoms come out.
The plot of “Advise and Consent” centers on the president’s nomination of Robert Leffingwell to be secretary of state, and the novel follows four main characters and a host of subsidiary ones as they fight to confirm or defeat the nominee. In Leffingwell, a patrician liberal who got his start in politics as a New Dealer, there are strong echoes of Alger Hiss, whose career was similar. Soon enough the nominee is plunged into a confrontation with a Whittaker Chambers figure out of his past, who accuses him of having once been part of a Communist cell.
Drury effectively weights the novel against Leffingwell, painting him as a wishy-washy peacenik who will jeopardize America’s resolve to fight back against Soviet aggression. The closest thing in the novel to an outright villain is Senator Fred Van Ackerman, a young, fire-breathing liberal who rallies support for Leffingwell by giving speeches of the better-dead-than-Red variety: Drury takes care to paint him as a demagogue verging on a psychotic.
On the other hand, Leffingwell’s chief opponent, Seabright Cooley, is a long-serving Dixiecrat in the Strom Thurmond mold, who may be a racist and spoilsman, but whose heart is always shown to be in the right place. The spectrum of opinion mirrors that of the Democratic Party in the 1950s, but Drury goes out of his way not to use party labels. He writes only of “the majority party” and “the minority party,” a token of his belief that in the Senate, partisanship matters much less than principle and personal relationships.
Through a series of contrivances, the fate of the nomination comes to rest on the shoulders of Utah Senator Brigham Anderson, a widely admired young politician with a dangerous secret. Years earlier, during World War II, he had a gay love affair with a fellow soldier. Today, we are accustomed to thinking of the 1950s as the great age of repression and homophobia, but in “Advise and Consent” we find a best-selling novel that treats homosexuality with total sympathy, reserving all its condemnation for the gay-baiting politicians who would use it to destroy Anderson.
Threatened with exposure unless he gives up his opposition to Leffingwell, Anderson commits suicide, becoming a martyr to prejudice and to the honor of the Senate. (Drury based this plot on the real-life case of Lester Hunt, who committed suicide in his Senate office in 1954, after political opponents threatened to publicize his son’s arrest for soliciting a male prostitute.)
The driving force behind the blackmail of Anderson, it turns out, is the president himself. An unnamed figure who resembles the elusive Franklin Roosevelt more than the straightforward Dwight Eisenhower, the president is depicted in an ambiguous light that reflects Drury’s conflicted attitude toward power itself. Watching the president in action, the humble, Harry Truman-like vice president reflects: “This, he supposed, was greatness -- this ineffable combination of sincerity, insincerity, straightforwardness, duplicity, determination, adaptability and sheer downright guts. Thank God he wasn’t great, he told himself with a surge of innocent relief.”
In another novel, the destruction of Anderson would be all you needed to know about the price of power and the ruthlessness of the powerful. Even Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark doesn’t do anything quite so loathsome. Yet Drury allows the senators of “Advise and Consent” a chance to reassert their basic decency and integrity, and to show another face of American politics: principled, nonpartisan and solely dedicated to the nation’s welfare. Van Ackerman, the persecutor of Anderson, is censured and effectively cast out of the Senate.
When the Leffingwell nomination finally comes up for a vote, the majority leader instructs his followers to vote their conscience, not the party line. “The system had its problems, and it wasn’t exactly perfect,” Drury writes, “yet...there was a vigor and a vitality and a strength that nothing, he suspected, could ever quite overcome, no matter how evil and crafty it might be.”
And in the novel’s last sequence, both parties and all branches of government rally together in the face of a threatening message from the Soviet Union, which -- in this post-Sputnik, pre-Apollo novel -- is supposed to have just landed the first man on the moon. Politics stops at the water’s edge, yet another old truth of American politics that today sounds antiquated, if not hypocritical.
“Advise and Consent” concludes with a paean to “a few scraps of things, the memory of a meeting in Philadelphia, a speech at Gettysburg,” and other icons of American myth. Today, the noble individuals who populate Drury’s Senate seem similarly mythical -- relics of a bygone age that we will not recapture, no matter how much we miss it.
(Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author of “Why Trilling Matters.” The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 5 of his series on classic political novels.)
Today’s highlights: the editors on the messy Medicare debate and on rejuvenating India’s economic miracle; Jonathan Alter on Paul Ryan’s gift to Democrats; Caroline Baum on why conservatives don’t mind meddling in private affairs; Ezra Klein on how Ryan could be Democrats’ worst nightmare; Jonathan Mahler on the U.S. popularity of European soccer; Russell G. Ryan on giving the Securities and Exchange Commission too much power.
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