Sunday, July 09, 2017

Scenes From the Swamp

This pearl of wisdom comes, as so many do, from the Bible. It is from Ecclesiastes: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

Truer words were never spoken, especially in connection with the American political culture. Rabid voters who exhorted Donald Trump to "drain the swamp" may not have realized that the swamp really isn't new. Heck, you put that many politicians into a single building, and you're bound to have some pretty unsavory things going on.

And there have been at least 100 elected lawmakers in the Capitol since George Washington's day.

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to political fiction — maybe because there is so little of it and even less that is truly good. That really shouldn't be the case. After all, politicians are still people like you and me — motivated by the same virtues and vices. And a good political novel is about those strengths and weaknesses that we all possess. The people in it just happen to be in political professions.

You'd think there would be more good political fiction than there is. Or at least I would. I mean, they say that prostitution is the world's oldest profession — but the practice of politics has to be a close second. Some people would say there is no difference between the two.

Let's be clear here. I am not referring to novels that explore political themes — I would include such books as "The Grapes of Wrath" and "The Manchurian Candidate" in that category. I'm talking about books that examine the political process from behind the scenes, the legislative maneuverings, that sort of thing.

I recall when I was in college I took a political science course, and my teacher spoke about the Allen Drury series. I was pleased to participate in the conversation, having read all five volumes of the series less than a year before. But then my teacher told us of a 19th–century trilogy by Benjamin Disraeli that essentially did the same thing with the British Parliament. I have wanted to read those books ever since, but I have never found them, not in a bookstore, not even in a library.

If I had been able to read them, I am certain I would have found that they were much like Drury's books. The issues would have been different, but the legislative tactics would have been much the same.

Drury's books were rich in detail and full of compelling portraits of the men and women who walked Washington's corridors of power. The stories and the characters are as relevant today as they were when they were written. I would expect the same of Disraeli's trilogy.

But anyway ...

My mother was the most well–read person I ever knew, and she was aware of my interest in political fiction. As I have observed here before, she introduced me to "Advise and Consent," the first in Drury's series of political novels. Published in 1959, it was about the Senate maneuverings — on both sides — over the president's nomination of a particular individual for secretary of State.

It was a cutthroat atmosphere, one in which a senator's youthful indiscretion — a homosexual relationship — was exploited via blackmail. If that seems implausible today, it wasn't more than 50 years ago.

In the book, the senator (who represented Utah — then, as now, a conservative state) committed suicide in his office.

Drury had extensive experience covering national politics, which lent credibility to his stories. His political novels were fictional, but the plot of "Advise and Consent" was inspired by a true, tragic tale. Five years before "Advise and Consent" was published, Lester Hunt, a Democrat senator from Wyoming, committed suicide in his office.

Some Republican colleagues wanted Hunt to announce that he would not seek re–election and threatened to reveal that his 24–year–old son had been arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer — first such offenses typically were handled quietly in those days. Hunt's son was convicted and fined in 1953, and the story barely made it back to Wyoming; in April 1954 Hunt announced he would seek re–election. The threat to use his son's arrest and conviction against him in the campaign prompted him to abruptly announce that he would not seek re–election after all, ostensibly because he was worried about the impact this would have on his wife's health, then Hunt committed suicide shortly thereafter.

Hunt wasn't the only real–life personality that could be seen in the pages of "Advise and Consent." Many book reviewers observed that the nominee for secretary of State bore a strong resemblance to Alger Hiss.

I don't know if Drury covered the Hunt tragedy or not, but I do know that he was part of the Washington press at the time. Thus he was able to write a story inspired by observations of actual events.

But when he began writing his sequels — the first of which, "A Shade of Difference," was published 55 years ago — Drury started to incorporate more and more supposition. In his books, Drury was constantly asking, "What if?" His answers usually conformed to his conservative philosophy.

"A Shade of Difference" examined the maneuverings between delegations to the United Nations (and, consequently, the problems they caused for the U.S. in its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union) rather than the Congress and racial tension surrounding school integration in the American South. As in real life, issues overlapped in the "Advise and Consent" series.

In that sense, the "Advise and Consent" series was truly the forerunner to the West Wing TV series — especially in its early seasons.

For awhile — largely due to issues with Drury's estate — the books went out of print after his death in 1998. But in recent years the books have been reissued in paperback and eBook editions.

Read 'em while you can. They may become scarce again someday.

Nothing new under the sun.