Drury Sets a Novel of Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Advise and Consent was the first major novel of the twentieth century to be set in Washington, D.C. Its mix of scandal and intrigue, along with its close examination of the inner workings of the U.S. Senate, set the pattern for the modern political novel.

Summary of Event

In 1959, Allen Drury, a longtime congressional reporter for The New York Times, published Advise and Consent, a novel about the inner workings of the U.S. Senate. Only the third major American novel to be set in Washington, D.C., the book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature Pulitzer Prizes;literature in 1960 and was a runaway best seller; it was adapted Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];Advise and Consent for a 1962 film of the same name directed by Otto Preminger Preminger, Otto . Drury’s mix of salacious secret conspiracy and minute analysis of procedure inspired many subsequent works about Washington politics, including five more novels by Drury with many of the same characters. Advise and Consent (Drury)
[kw]Drury Sets a Novel of Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C. (1959)
[kw]Novel of Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C., Drury Sets a (1959)
[kw]Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C., Drury Sets a Novel of (1959)
[kw]Washington, D.C., Drury Sets a Novel of Political Intrigue in (1959)
Advise and Consent (Drury)
[g]North America;1959: Drury Sets a Novel of Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C.[05990]
[g]United States;1959: Drury Sets a Novel of Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C.[05990]
[c]Literature;1959: Drury Sets a Novel of Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C.[05990]
[c]Cold War;1959: Drury Sets a Novel of Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C.[05990]
[c]Government and politics;1959: Drury Sets a Novel of Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C.[05990]
[c]Political science;1959: Drury Sets a Novel of Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C.[05990]
[c]Crime and scandal;1959: Drury Sets a Novel of Political Intrigue in Washington, D.C.[05990]
Drury, Allen
Hunt, Lester Callaway
McCarthy, Joseph[Maccarthy, Joseph]
Hiss, Alger

Prior to Advise and Consent, the only two American novels to be set in Washington, D.C. were The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-day (1873) by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner and Democracy: An American Novel (1880) by Henry Adams. When Drury’s novel appeared in 1959, not only did it represent a new way of examining federal politics; it also captured a particular moment in American history when political action seemed more important than ever to the average person.

In 1959, the Soviet Union was viewed as a major threat to the safety of the United States and to American interests throughout the world. This perceived threat was heightened with the launch of the first Sputnik satellite in October, 1957. Various “red scares,” dating back to the 1920’s but emerging most particularly in the mid-1950’s with Senator Joseph McCarthy, also were still fresh in the public’s imagination. Drury’s novel internalizes these elements, and presents a view of the U.S. Senate that, while not entirely perfect, is ultimately optimistic about the state of the nation, its lawmakers, and the future of the United States.

Many of the novel’s characters are clearly based on real-life counterparts contemporaneous with its publication. The novel concerns the confirmation battle in the Senate over the president’s nominee for secretary of state, Robert Leffingwell. Leffingwell enjoys a favorable reputation with the press and many Americans, though many view him as an appeaser of the Soviets. His confirmation hearings, and many other details, indicate that his character was clearly inspired by Alger Hiss, an official in the state department who had been accused of being a communist by Whittaker Chambers and who was eventually sent to prison for perjury. The Leffingwell character is a former communist who perjures himself in Senate hearings.

Other characters that are clearly drawn from Drury’s reporting experience in the Senate in the 1940’s and 1950’s include Fred Van Ackerman, a bombastic and unstable character with many McCarthy-like features, who led a notorious campaign in the early 1950’s to unearth and prosecute those he claimed were communists in government service. Like McCarthy, Van Ackerman is regarded as a loose cannon by his senatorial colleagues, and he is eventually censured by the full Senate for his actions.

Finally, perhaps the most sympathetic character in the book, Brigham Anderson, shares several characteristics with Senator Lester Callaway Hunt, who committed suicide in his Senate office in 1954 because of a threat by his political opponents to reveal that his son had been arrested for soliciting male prostitution if he did not remove himself from consideration for re-election. Anderson is the chair of the subcommittee considering Leffingwell’s nomination, and when he receives information that proves Leffingwell is a liar, he is pressured to push the nomination through by the president and the Senate majority leader (who have a photograph of him with a fellow World War II soldier in the Pacific, with whom Anderson had a brief love affair). In response, Anderson sends a letter revealing all he knows to a colleague and shoots himself in the head in his office.

Because all these news events were still relatively fresh in the minds of readers, Advise and Consent inspired a great deal of speculation as to how many of the details in the novel were true, and which senators and other politicians were analogous to or inspirations for which characters. The book also exploits Cold War fears of the Soviet Union and nuclear annihilation: It depicts the Soviet ambassador as a thoroughly unpleasant man, making no secret of his government’s desire to destroy the United States and all it stands for. In the novel the Soviet Union successfully lands a rocket on the Moon and claims it in the name of its government. The United States responds with its own rocket, and declares its willingness to go to war with the Soviets if necessary to defend U.S. interests in space.

No novel before that of Drury had examined the workings of government in such minute detail, or with more realism Realism;literature . Most of the characters embody both good and bad characteristics, and the various deals, accommodations, and compromises they make with other lawmakers and themselves to accomplish the business of government are nuanced and realistic. However, even though the book posits a Senate—and a world—in which good does not always triumph (or triumphs at great personal cost to those who uphold high ideals), readers are left with an impression of the United States and its institutions as ultimately sound and reliable in a menacing world.

After 1959, Drury published many other novels and works of nonfiction, including five more books with the characters introduced in Advise and Consent. However, he never again achieved the level of success he found with his first novel. Though a member of the Washington press corps for many years, the novel has a highly negative view of the press and its partisanship.


Advise and Consent’s publication in 1959 marked a new era in the popular press and in the publishing of novels of political intrigue. Novels set in Washington, D.C. remained popular throughout the remaining years of the twentieth century, and they continue to sell into the twenty-first.

Characters inspired by politicians in the news, events inspired by current international and domestic crises, minute scrutiny of procedure and process in governmental bodies, intrigue based around scandals of a sexual nature, and complex characters with mixed motivations have remained staples of the genre. The increased interest in national government and its machinations sparked—and some say exploited by—the book has also remained strong, as seen in many late twentieth century manifestations in literature and film, as well as twenty-four-hour news channels, political talk shows, and live coverage of Congress on C-SPAN.

Drury is not regarded by most critics as a major literary figure, and Advise and Consent is not a masterwork of literature. Nevertheless, the novel is significant for its prescient inauguration of a unique American literary form. Advise and Consent (Drury)

Further Reading

  • Kaplan, Roger. “Allen Drury and the Washington Novel.” Policy Review 97 (October-November, 1999): 67-72. A retrospective analysis of Drury’s major work and his writing’s impact on modern fiction exploring Washington politics.
  • Kemme, Tom. Political Fiction, the Spirit of the Age, and Allen Drury. Bowling Green, Ky.: Bowling Green State University Press, 1987. Analyzes in great detail Drury’s political philosophy and its impact on Advise and Consent, as well as his other works, particularly the five additional novels following the characters introduced in Advise and Consent. Examines Drury’s critical reception in light of his conservative politics.
  • Ringle, Ken. “Allen Drury, Father of the D.C. Drama.” The Washington Post, September 4, 1998, D-1. Summary of Drury’s national literary and political influences, tracing the impact Advise and Consent has had on twentieth century popular culture.

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