"Retro Review - Novel -
Advise and Consent (1959)
by Alan Drury"
Jordan S. Bassior
Many will no doubt protest that Advise and Consent, begun sometime in 1951, finished in 1958 and published in 1959, does not really qualify as "science fiction." Yet it takes place in the future from the point of writing, examines and makes predictions regarding the development of both society and technology, and a major element of its plot hinges upon these developments. What makes it unusual is that its author was a Congressional journalist, and hence the aspect of the future he examined was the future of politics.
Around 1967, a Democratic (1) President nominates Robert Leffingwell, a prominent liberal, to be his new Secretary of State. Leffingwell favors a soft approach to the Soviets, and many conservatives fear that he will attempt a disastrous policy of appeasement. This is especially worrisome as America has been falling behind in the Cold War: in particular the Soviets may be about to make the first manned Lunar landing, demonstrating their technological superiority to the United States of America.
A popular movement begins to coalesce around Leffingwell, assisted by a press corps all too willing to think the best of him. Leffingwell is not yet Secretary of State, however, because in the American Constitutional system, the US Senate must first "advise and consent" to the nomination.
The main Senatorial support for Leffingwell comes from Robert Munson, the Senate Majority Leader from Michigan, a decent man who has his doubts about Leffingwell but is willing to stick by the President. The main opposition comes from Seabright Cooley, the septugenarian senior Senator from South Carolina; and Brigham Anderson of Utah, a rising star in the Senate. Both sides manever to bring about or block the nomination.
A minor bureaucrat, Gelman, comes before the committee and claims that Leffingwell was a Communist (2): Gelman belonged to his cell decades ago, along with two other people, one of whom is now dead. Leffingwell and his supporters -- particularly the unscrupulous Senator Fred Van Ackerman of Wyoming, a leftist demagogue -- attack the credibility of Gelman, who is in fact mentally-unstable and has spent time in a psychiatric institution. The counterattack proves successful and it looks as if Leffingwell will indeed be nominated.
Then, Senator Cooley discovers Morton, the third survivor of the cell, and pressures him into contacting Brigham Anderson, the Senator who is openly leading the movement to block Leffingwell. Senator Anderson meets with the President and warns him that he now has proof positive of Leffingwell's Communist past. Anderson urges the President to withdraw the nomination. The President promises to do so and asks for time to consider alternative candidates.
But Brigham Anderson also has a secret in his past. While serving in the Pacific during World War II, Anderson had a homosexual affair (3). And proof of this affair has fallen into the hands of Senator Van Ackerman, who is quite willing to use it to bring Anderson down -- unless Anderson allows the nomination of Leffingwell.
However, Senator Anderson has now become completely convinced that Leffingwell's policies would bring ruin to America. He refuses to back down. Van Ackerman prepares to release the information to the public -- and Anderson commits suicide.
Senator Anderson's death -- and the general knowledge among the Senators of Van Ackerman's responsibility for it -- turn the Senate against Van Ackerman and Leffingwell. Senator Munson leads a unanimous vote of censure against Van Ackerman, and Leffingwell's nomination is defeated. The President nominates the popular Senator Orrin Knox of Illinois for Secretary of State, and Knox is confirmed.
The Soviets land on Luna and claim the whole Moon for themselves. America calls their bluff and launches her own Moon mission. The President dies of a heart attack, and his Vice-President, Harley Hudson, succeeds to the office. President Hudson leaves for Switzerland for an international conference to determine, among other things, the status of the Moon.
The main plot is purely political and the main speculations purely political. Drury argues here that the old American political system, intended to allow a free people to rule itself freely in relative isolation, has been put under serious stress by the demands of defending a global confederation against global threats to freedom, and that much depends on whether or not we can endure the strain.
What would normally have been a mere political squabble is elevated to tragic proportions by the threat of international Communism both within (Leffingwell's seduction by Marxism) and without (the reason why it's so important that Leffingwell not be Secretary of State is the Soviet menace). Leffingwell's nomination would not have meant merely a defeat for the conservative Democrats, but also a risk of war brought about by appeasement -- and remember that Drury's audience, in 1959, was mostly made of people who all too well remembered what had happened in Europe a mere two decades previously.
We also see that under this strain the former civility of our legislative institutions is breaking down. Senator Fred Van Ackerman, a demagogue leading mass rallies against American interests (because doing the right thing is harder and more frightening than simply engaging in wishful thinking) uses not only irrational group-think in public but also outright blackmail in private to attain his ends. He is depicted as an obvious sociopath, but his followers fail to notice this because they are willing to forgive him the most dastardly conduct in the pursuit of what they imagine to be the right ends. (Indeed, they believe that only a Leffingwell nomination can avert the very same war which Anderson and Cooley believe it is likely to cause).
There is a theme in the novel of the young, rising, cocksure and dangerously wrong Young Turks against the wiser but weakening Old Guard here. Seabright Cooley is a veteran of the whole prior 20th century, and it is actually his maneuvering that saves America, but he's also 75 years old -- he obviously won't be able to serve in the Senate very much longer. Fred Van Ackerman has been defeated -- for now (4) -- but both the man and the movement he represents is rising.
This indeed is one of the most strongly-predictive elements of Advise and Consent. In the appearance of members of America's own poltiical elite willing to subvert and destroy the American Constitutional system in their own pursuit of personal power, justifying their actions as "progressive," Drury basically predicted what would happen to the Democratic Party in the 1960's. Leffingwell was of course modeled on real traitors such as Alger Hiss (5); Van Ackerman seems to have been conceived as a left-wing Joseph McCarthy turned (later) Vidkun Quisling, but all too many real ones emerged in the mid-1960's to mid-1970's, the most obvious being Ted Kennedy.
By contrast with this "if this goes on" speculation about the growth of disloyalty among a significant element of our own leadership, and its appeal to wishful thinking amongst the larger loyal populace, the overtly science-fictional element of Advise and Consent -- the Lunar Crisis -- is a peripheral plot element, and in many respects appears tacked on as an afterthought. In particular, there are no characters who are directly involved with either the American or Soviet space programs (though Drury would later write a whole novel, The Throne of Saturn, about the political aspects of a manned Mars landing project).
This puzzled me -- even for a mostly-political novelist this lack of focus on the very event which sharpens the conflict between America and the Soviets which is why the Leffingwell nomination is so important is odd. Then I read that Drury had been creating this novel since 1951 and that it was finished in 1958, and the reason became obvious.
Drury had conceived of the novel as almost purely internal to the US Senate, with the cause of the specific crisis with the Soviets purely a MacGuffin into which any conflict might be plugged. In the early 1950's, this might have been a widening of the Korean War; in the mid-1950's, perhaps a shooting war threatening to break out over revolts in the Warsaw Pact. But by the late 1950's, the issue on the minds of any Americans who took the Soviet threat seriously was the Soviet lead in the space program (6), and so Drury simply postulated that the Soviets maintained this lead and achieved the first manned lunar landing. However, because the space race element came into the story so late, there was no way to integrate it into the main plot of this book -- Drury's thoughts on the matter probably became elements of The Throne of Saturn.
But Is This Really "Science Fiction?"
I would say "yes," though it is a very unusual sort of science fiction, and specifically along the line of "political thrillers" (which I would argue are often also science fiction).
My reason for classifying the main Druryverse (Advise and Consent, A Shade of Difference, Capable of Honor, Preserve and Protect, Come Nineveh Come Tyre, and The Promise of Joy being the five books unarguably in the series) as "science fiction" is that it is very much an alternate history -- not merely from the perspective of 2012 but even from the perspective of the times in which it was written. Not only that, it incorporates an alternate history into its own plot structure -- Come Nineveh Come Tyre shows what happens if Ted Jason succeeds Harley Hudson, and The Promise of Joy if Orrin Knox does instead.
All fiction is to some extent speculative and "alternate history," because it contains elements which are untrue in reality. For instance, if I claim that a character named Jeff Marlstein lived in Apartment 1H at 3726 Sedgwick Ave in the Bronx in the year 1985, I am postulating a divergence from reality: did such an apartment actually exist in 1985? If so, did not some other person live there? This is a minor divergence because we cannot readily perceive how such a difference might affect the larger world.
Political fiction, however, is about the lives and fortunes of prominent people, and as such the more prominent the person the greater the divergence from reality. If I postulate that in the year 1988 my fictitious Jeff Marlstein won the Presidency of the United States of America, serving the term which in Our Time Line was served by George H. W. Bush, then this is obviously going to have effects on history.
Did President Marlstein cut or raise taxes? Did he end the Cold War and if so on what terms? How did he deal with Saddam Hussein? All these questions are ones strongly dependent upon Marlstein's personality, political beliefs, and personal and political allegiences, and we cannot simply assume that he would have done everything exactly the same way as did George H. W. Bush.
If he made different decisions, then our alternate history science fiction explores the effects of these diffefrent decisions. Maybe in this timeline by 1992 America has gone to war with the Soviet Union, or perhaps we let the Russians join NATO. Maybe Saddam Hussein was overthrown, maybe he now dominates the whole Gulf region. The world President Marlstein sees in 1992 will probably not be identical to that which President Bush saw that same year in OTL.
This is even more the case when one is writing in what was originally the "future," which is the case in MANY political novels. The implicit backstory of Advise and Consent is that the unnamed President ran for and won the White House in 1960: in other words, Drury predicted a Democratic Presidential victory in 1960 (which is exactly what happened). But the President of Advise and Consent is not John F. Kennedy, he was not assassinated in 1963 but instead won a second term in 1964, and he dies of a heart attack in 1967 to be succeeded not by Lyndon Baines Johnson but by Harley Hudson. There also does not seem to have been a large-scale Vietnam War.
This actually goes a long way to explain why the society depicted in Advise and Consent's 1967 seems not to have experienced the birth of a Counterculture. Historically, the murder of JFK shocked the teenagers who would become the Counterculture, and the fear of being drafted to fight in Vietnam gave them a strong impetus to rebel against The Establishment (because they felt psychologically better seeing themselves as Noble Rebels rather than Trembling Cowards). With greater political and cultural continuity, the birth of the Counterculture would have been a slower and gentler thing.
One should also be aware that almost every character depicted in the novel comes from the American political elite. This is also true of the few young people. This means that their view on the world and on society is that of a privileged mniorty, not that of the people as a whole. (Though note that most of the Senators probably didn't come from great wealth at birth: Seabright Cooley, for instance, was born into a fairly normal middle-class rural South Carolina family).
One should further be aware that the Counterculture even in Our Time Line did not sweep across the country and instantly transform everyone's perceptions. In the real world of 1967 there were plenty of well-brought-up young women who, like Crystal Danta Knox, would have been proud of the fact that they had waited to have sex until their wedding nights, for instance. Heck, there are still many who feel that way today, just not as many as in 1957 or even 1967.
Regarding the social point I'm sure everyone would be most focused upon today, there was very little social tolerance for homosexuals in Our Time Line's 1967; there might be less in the more sedate 1967 of Advise and Consent. The Stonewall Riots didn't take place until 1969, and even then the general reaction was disgust at the misbehaving homosexuals. It was not until well into the 1980's and 1990's that the popular mood shifted toward acceptance of homosexuality.
Brigham Anderson really would have felt alone and damned, and been consumed with self-loathing in addition to the practical-political aspects of the situation. And, ironically, Anderson wasn't even all that much of a homosexual.
Happily (?) (7), Drury's major technological speculation did not come to pass. American aerospace technology pulled ahead of that of the Soviets, and the Soviets never even got close to launching manned Lunar missions. America carried out the first manned Lunar landing in 1969.
Advise and Consent is a rare and well-executed form of science fiction: the predictive political science fiction novel. It is unusually successful at prediction for this genre, and -- unlike most of its kind -- it is not a military technothiller.
It is also notable as the last book to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction (awarded 1960) and also be the top bestseller of the same year. After this, "literary" fiction would wander off into its own strange little world, too pure and rarefied to concern itself with trivialities such as "audience."
It is both great mainstream and great science fiction, and deserves attention as both.
(1) - Drury refuses to directly identify the party affiliations of his characters: he gets away with this by calling the parties "Majority" and "Minority" (which of course refers simply to their strength in the Senate). However, Seabright Cooley, the senior Senator from South Carolina, is "majority" and would have to be a Democrat to have spent so long in the Senate from a Southern state; Munson is of the same party as Cooley, and of the same party as the President. Therefore, the Democrats hold the White House.
(2) - Though he doesn't seem to have been a very serious one: he belonged to some sort of tiny splinter cell decades ago (the Soviets don't have him in their files of Communist Party membership) and it is far from obvious that he has any loyalty to the Soviet Union). On the other hand, he does lie about his previous affiliation, and from the little he says specifically about his proposed foreign policy, it would indeed have constituted disastrous appeasement, probably leading to future wars.
(3) - It is perhaps difficult to explain to a modern audience just how much this would ruin Anderson's career, even though it was only a brief affair and Anderson is rather obviously at most weakly bisexual: he is strongly attracted to women and has a wife and daughter. It says something for Drury's own tolerance (by 1950's standards) that the sympathetic characters in the novel do not condemn Anderson for this, at most being a bit squicked. (Senator Cooley doesn't want to hear the details, but then again he has his own secret Great Regret, discussed in his backstory).
(4) - In Come Nineveh, Come Tyre (1973)-- the darker of the two Alternate Histories springing from the cliffhanger-ending of Preserve and Protect, Fred Van Ackerman is one of the main architects of the Soviet-backed coup-from-above that leads to the effective covert conquest of the United States by the Soviet Union. One of the glories of a free society is that the losers live to fight another day: the same fact is also one of the weaknesses.
(5) - Hiss, of course, was an active and knowing agent of the Soviet Union, and hence much more of a traitor than the fictitious Leffingwell, who honestly believed that he was trying to bring about world peace and thus protect his country. But Drury made an important point here, which bears repetition: the active traitor may actually be less of a threat than the smug appeaser, because the traitor once revealed is de-fanged, while the appeaser is more likely to arouse sympathy.
(6) - Not just a matter of short-term prestige gains either: there was also the military applications of superior rocket technology in the design of nuclear missiles, and the long-term implications of dominating the future colonization of the Solar System.
(7) - One could make a major case that the scope of the American victory in the Lunar race was bad for humanity as a whole, and even for America in the long run. Because the Soviets never even managed to land anyone on the Moon, we faced no challenge and ultimately abandoned manned Lunar exploration. Furthermore, Soviet sympathizers in the Western media then spun Lunar landings as an irrelevant achievement, in an obvious example of Sour Grapes. It has only been in the last couple of decades that we have seriously returned to planning Lunar missions, and we are still far from launching a renewed manned Lunar program.