Mimsy Review: Advise & Consent
There was in this system the enormous vitality of free men, running their own government in their own way. If they were weak, at times, it was because they had the freedom to be weak; if they were strong, upon occasion, it was because they had the freedom to be strong; if they were indomitable, when the chips were down, it was because freedom made them so.
This Senatorial procedural could be straight from Dumas, and the themes hidden in the action are timeless.
And the writing truly is brilliant. I will not reproduce it here, because it would be too much of a spoiler, but the ending of Brigham Anderson’s Book (the story is divided into four “books”, one for each of the Senators who make up the main characters) is hauntingly beautiful. I read it several times, and had to rest before going on to the final section.
There were many nights I stayed up far too late because I just couldn’t put it down.
Interestingly given recent news, one of the underlying conflicts is, when are immoral past deeds hypocritical and when are they irrelevant? The real underlying theme is, how best to serve? What does it mean for a necessarily flawed person to be a servant of the people?
The basic idea is that rising star Robert J. Leffingwell has been nominated for Secretary of State after the previous Secretary announced his resignation. Leffingwell is a modern man, he thinks we’ve been too hard-line with the Soviets—the book was published in 1959 and appears to take place in the sixties—and that is why they’ve been too hard-line with us. He recognizes that there are no winners in a nuclear war and wishes to avoid a nuclear war at all costs.
But the argument devolves into the very modern one that there is no choice between appeasement and war, there is nothing in between conducive to a lasting peace and the betterment of mankind.
“… They cry surrender or they cry war; they try to prevent us from discussing the other possibilities that still exist, the only possibilities, it seems to me, of ever achieving that genuine peace they are always yapping about.”
The fictional Senator from the sixties who said this could have been discussing President Obama’s arguments about Iran.
Interestingly, the book, written while Eisenhower was president, got some things right and some things wrong. The White House is in the second term of Republican President Eisenhower’s successor, who was a Democrat—just as happened in real life. The Senate Majority Leader, also a major character, is Democrat as well. In the elections of 1958, likely while this book was being written, Democrats drastically increased their control of the Senate and the House. So extrapolating a Democrat as President was probably not a stretch.
There’s a very small subplot involving the space race, which was a big deal at the time, and the race to the moon. I won’t spoil it too much, but he makes the assumption that the Soviet Union and the United States are relatively evenly matched. But in reality, the Soviet Union never did land on the moon. On the other hand, the differences in how the Soviet Union and the United States announced their successes matched reality quite well.
The book really does have a Three Musketeers quality to it, an astounding feat given that it is no action and all talk. It’s a Senatorial procedural, for crying out loud! Some of the biggest moments are when the characters use some arcane senate rule to get their way. One of them had to be telegraphed well ahead of time.
But this, it could be straight from Dumas:
Seab had managed to draw first blood, it was true, but the director of the ODM had a very fast recovery time, and when he took the stand he had already regained any composure he might have lost in the Senator’s unexpected and pointedly challenging greeting. This lean-faced, dignified, graying, perceptive man exposed to his countrymen in the fateful moment when he moved to the ofttimes terrifying isolation of the congressional witness stand looked ready for anything.—p. 206
“Those are sentiments which do you credit,” he said, “and we are pleased to have them. Were nominations a matter of principles enunciated and hopes expressed, were the word sufficient and the deed of lesser import, many and many a hearing such as this could end at just this point with some such sentiment as you have just expressed.”—p. 208
“Seab” is Seabright Cooley, a bitter old hawkish southern Democrat who was a real warrior for the left in his youth, serving under Wilson and FDR, corrupted by his time in the Senate. Drury was so smooth in his description of Seab’s youth, treating it as a triumph of will, that I did not realize Seab was bitter until I had time to reflect, and yet it is painfully obvious that he is a bitter old man—friendly enough, as any successful politician needs to be, but everything he says is tinged with sarcasm or bitterness.
If you want to enjoy possibly the only Senatorial procedural thriller ever written, and almost certainly the best, I cannot recommend this 800 page novel highly enough.
Advise & Consent
Recommendation: Read now
If you enjoyed Advise & Consent…
If you enjoy The Dream of Poor Bazin, you might also be interested in Intellectuals and Society, Scoop, The First Casualty, For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko, Call Northside 777, The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time, The Tyranny of Clichés, All the President’s Men, World Chancelleries, Liberal Fascism, The Elements of Journalism, Letters to a Young Journalist, Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting, The Vintage Mencken, Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism, A Matter of Opinion, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (TV Series), Front Row at the White House, The Prince of Darkness, The Vision of the Anointed, The Powers That Be, and The Dream of Poor Bazin (Official Site).
If you enjoy Washington, DC, you might also be interested in Netflix lobbies Washington, Google lobbies press, Washington Goes to War, Parliament of Whores, Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting, and Echo House.