Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Good Old Days


I imagine Allen Drury's Advise and Consent was quite a window into politics when it was first published in 1959. Now it's a hefty dose of nostalgia, returning to an era where political machinations from both sides of the aisle operated from a more homogeneous baseline of belief in American values. Perhaps people were shocked by the passions, strategies, secrets, feuds, double-crosses, and faults revealed. In today's political climate, though, it's all rather quaint.

Told in four chapters with a viewpoint shift for each one, the plot's main focus is the nomination of Bob Leffingwell for Secretary of State, and whether the Senate, under the strong influence of Bob Munson, Majority Leader, will confirm his nomination. Against the background of the nascent Space Race, the president is robustly political but physically unwell, the vice president seems mousy and ill-at-ease in his role, and the knives are out for Leffingwell because he's interested in a more flexible policy toward Russia instead of the tradition hardline posture. Some (including the public) think that's just what's needed. Others think it's disloyal and disqualifying. 

It's a little difficult to keep the minor players in order, but the major characters are memorably drawn, with just the right touches of earnestness, guile, cynicism, and charm. The members of the press corps, identified not by their names but by their news organizations (as in, "'Well, I'll be damned,' AP said."), function like a Greek chorus with commentary and counterpoint. Ambassadors, socialites, and family members round out the characters.

Overall this is a terrific--if slightly dated--novel that started slowly with a lot of talk, and then caught me up in the personalities, policies, and politics. I soon found myself longing for the good old days. I remember this America. I hope the best of it is still there.
 
Excerpt:

[The Majority Leader] could not say, looking back, exactly where the blame was to be placed [for the Russians getting ahead]; except that he knew, as he had told an audience in San Francisco only last week, that "it lies on all of us." A universal guilt enshrouded the middle years of the twentieth century in America; and it attached to all who participated in those times. It attached to the fatuous, empty-headed liberals who had made it so easy for the Russians by yielding them so much; it attached to the embittered conservatives who had closed the doors on human love and frozen out all possibility of communication between peoples. It rested on the military, who had been too jealous of one another and too slow, and on the scientists, who had been too self-righteous and irresponsible and smug about shifting the implications of what they did onto someone else, and on the press, which had been too lazy and too compliant in the face of evils foreign and domestic, and on the politicians, who had been too self-interested and not true enough to the destiny of the land they had in keeping, and not least upon the ordinary citizen and his wife, who somehow didn't give quite enough of a damn about their country in spite of all their self-congratulatory airs about how patriotic they were.
    
Note: I read this book to complete my list for the Birth Year Reading Challenge. It also counts for the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge--not that I did very well on it!   

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