In Otto Preminger’s 1962 film of Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Advise and Consent, Walter Pidgeon – playing the Senate Majority Leader – tells the fictional president: “that’s a hell of an appointment.”
That must be every majority leader’s lament to every president: “you gave me this nomination to get through the Senate?”
I got to thinking, in light of Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court and the nasty, Internet-driven campaign to raise questions about her sexual orientation – if the old Drury novel, with the same subplot, holds up all these years later. Simple answer: absolutely.
The dust jacket of Advise and Consent – it was published in 1959 – talks about “driving ambition” and “ugly personal jealousies” and the always popular “vicious demagogues.” Sounds like this morning’s headlines. The Senate historian has a wonderful piece on the book that provides some guesses as to who Drury based his characters on and notes that the novel launched his fiction writing career.
How good was the book? Drury’s major competition for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1960 was Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and, this is saying something, the inside account of a Washington, D.C. Senate confirmation fight won out. In literary competitions, as in politics, you are often defined by who you beat.
Writing in Policy Review Roger Kaplan said Advise and Consent is the only book of its genre – the political thriller – worthy of literary acclaim. And NPR’s Scott Simon noted on the 50th anniversary of the novel that he has read and re-read the book since first discovering it when he was 12 years old.
Thomas Mallon’s 50-year look back at the book in the New York Times noted that Drury’s senators in the late 1950’s were dealing with issues of pre-empetive war, the consequences of lying under oath and the notion that the cover up is always worse than the crime. Add the sexual orientation subplot now rearing its ugly head in the Kagan nomination and it is easy to conclude that not much changes in American politics.
I also agree with Peter Bogdanovich that Preminger’s movie, based on the book, just might be the best American political movie ever. It has a great cast, in addition to Pidgeon, that includes Henry Fonda, Don Murray, Peter Lawford, the great Charles Laughton and, brace yourself, Betty White. It is a great film.
Drury’s story, of course, involves a decades-old allegation about sexual orientation. Eventually all the principle characters know what’s going on, as do newspaper reporters, and in 1959 – at least in Advise and Consent – the mere hint of being outted as a homosexual was enough to prompt a suicide of a prominent senator. The whispering about Kagan has already moved to the mainstream with the Associated Press asking if her orientation is anyone’s business. Ultimately that question, and any other you can think of, is for the Senate to determine as part of its Constitutional duty to advise and consent. How the question is handled will say as much about the Senate as it will about the nominee.
Years after his celebrated book was published and after Drury, a Times reporter, had written several other not-so-well received books, he was asked what he made of the Senate that he had long covered and wrote about in fiction and non-fiction books. Drury said: “There’s nothing like it on God’s green earth.” That’s for sure.
Read the book and rent the movie. Think of it as research for the Kagan hearings.