Sixty years ago Alan Drury published Advise and Consent, perhaps the most famous political potboiler ever written. The novel spent 102 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and inspired Otto Preminger’s 1962 film with its all-star ensemble cast headed by Henry Fonda. I recently watched the film and read selections from the book. The Red-baiting and homosexual suicide, steamy plot engines in 1959, seem a bit dated. Yet if Mr. Drury penned his drama today, he would have no trouble concocting a convincing cocktail of comparable political hyperbole and private scandal. Fabricated border crises, trade wars, nuclear jingoism, and #MeToo revelations can easily compete with any scandals of the grey-suited 50’s. Plot details aside, the tenor, the message of Advice and Consent are spot on today.
A century before Drury, Charles Dickens synthesized the duality of human nature into literature’s most famous opening line. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens summarized that truth in 1859, seventy-five years after the story he tells. It held for Mr. Drury in 1959, and holds for us still today. Eighteenth century London and Paris were wealthy beyond previous imagination; 1950’s America eclipsed that affluence by a wide margin; while most of us in 2019 live far grander still. Yet, each wave of increased comfort and material wealth washes on the shore of increased anxiety and expanding human disparity.
Part of Mr. Drury’s genius comes from assembling a huge array of characters, both inside and out American culture. Politicians scramble within our nation’s web of fragile checks and balances, some for noble purpose, others for private gain, while the outsiders often understand America better than the mice running the treadmill. The French Ambassador quips to the British Ambassador: “I do not know which way this American animal is going to jump, you know? He is scared and he is lazy; it is a fateful combination.” No in-house operative could ever acknowledge our cozy 1950’s superiority, or our arrogance today, as accurately as keen eyes from beyond.
Mr. Drury also writes terrific passages about our moral and political decay; passages equally apt today. “… he had seen America rise and rise and rise, some sort of golden legend to her own people, some sort of impossible fantasy to others to be hated or loved according to their own cupidity, envy, and greed, or lack of it; rise and rise and rise and rise—and then, in the sudden burst of Soviet science … the golden legend crumbled, overnight the fall began, the heart went out of it, a too complacent and uncaring people awoke to find themselves naked with the winds of the world howling around their ears, the impossible merry-go-round slowed down. Now, the reaction was on … a time of worry and confusions and uncertainty.”
I find odd comfort in A Tale of Two Cities and Advice and Consent; the comfort that we have seen this all before, we will see it again, and somehow we will survive. But it is a brittle assurance. A time will come when we won’t survive, when we contort our systems so out of shape that revolution, genocide, apocalypse, even extinction prevail. When we humans turn the best of times into the worst of times.