This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
On Aug. 28, 1959 a book reviewer had nothing but the highest praise for a newspaperman’s first novel: “It may be a long time before a better one comes along.”
Allen Stuart Drury was born in Houston during the First World War and grew up in a small California town. After earning his degree in journalism from Stanford, the cub reporter’s first job was on a weekly paper, where in 1940 he won a national award for editorial writing.
After military service in World War II, Drury moved to Washington, D.C. During the next decade, he covered Capitol Hill for United Press, Pathfinder Magazine and the Washington Evening Star before joining the Washington bureau of the New York Times in 1954.
For seven long years, Drury worked in secret on an epic tale. Then one day in 1958 he shoved a cardboard box containing the first draft into the hands of a fellow Times staffer with the modest announcement “I’ve written a novel.”
“I groaned silently,” Russell Baker remembered many years later.
“I took it home, ate, fixed a drink, sat down and with a heavy heart reached into this box for a fistful of manuscript. Good Lord! You couldn’t put the thing down!”
The newspaperman took readers on a 616-page magical mystery tour of Cold War Washington giving them a behind-the-scenes peek at politics in the raw. For his title he borrowed a phrase from a sentence in the Constitution: “The Senate shall advise and consent to the president’s nominations to the cabinet.”
Unlike other novels with a Washington setting written before and since, Advise and Consent was not a fictionalized version of actual events. Drury, who took life and politics very seriously, used a plausible plot and believable characters to explore issues with staying power and to put human nature under the microscope.
Here’s Advise and Consent in a nutshell: The president nominates Robert A. Leffingwell, a polished but arrogant liberal, as secretary of state much to the dismay of an old southern senator from the conservative wing of his own party. Convinced Leffingwell is soft on the Soviets, if not a subversive himself, Sen. Seabright Cooley moves heaven and earth to block his confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
When Brigham Anderson, an idealistic young senator from Utah, makes up his mind to cast the decisive vote against Leffingwell, a columnist digs up a hidden homosexual encounter from his past. Anderson cannot live with the scandal and commits suicide.
Drury did not let his high opinion of the senate as an institution stand in the way of exposing cynicism in the cloakroom. In a revealing exchange that pulls back the curtain, the majority leader tells the head of the opposition, “I’ll have to give the papers a statement charging an unprincipled, underhanded coalition against the people’s interests, you know.” “Go ahead,” the second senator says with a shrug. “We’ve all survived that one before.”
Like a man who still eats sausage after seeing it made, Drury loved Washington warts and all. “It is a city of temporaries, a city of just-arriveds and only-visitings, built on the shifting sands of politics, filled with people passing through. They go home…but hurry back to their lodestones and their star, their self-hypnotized, self-mesmerized, self-enamored, self-propelling, wonderful city they cannot live away from or live without.”
The phenomenal success of Advise and Consent was due in part to perfect timing because it happened to hit bookstores during the presidential campaign of 1960, which revived public interest in the political process. A priceless piece of free publicity was a photograph of candidates Kennedy and Nixon looking at a copy together.
Advise and Consent stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for a record 102 weeks and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was made into a Broadway play and a motion picture directed by Otto Preminger and starring Henry Fonda as Leffingwell, Charles Laughton as Sen. Cooley and Don Murray as Sen. Anderson.
Drury quit The Times and never worked another day for a newspaper. He became political correspondent for Reader’s Digest, a high-profile position that provided a steady income, and went right to work on his next novel.
In 1964 Drury bought a house with a breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay. The early riser wrote in the mornings and spent his afternoons researching and editing.
A bachelor who lived alone his entire life, Drury put a premium on privacy. According to a nephew, one of the few people ever to get close to him, “Quality time with Al meant you read your book while he read his.”
Allan Drury wrote 18 more novels as well five works of nonfiction on subjects as diverse as ancient Egypt and the Nixon White House. But none compared to his first book. In 1995, three years before the author died on his 80th birthday, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich included Advise and Consent on a must-read list for new Republican congressmen.
Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.