Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Allen Drury, A Senate Journal, 1943-1945

In 1959, Allen Drury, a former political journalist, wrote a blockbuster novel called Advise and Consent, set against the background of the US Senate. I checked it out of the library recently as part of my project to read classic novels of US politics. (Suggestions are welcome!) At the same time I discovered that the NU had in its collection, unloved and unappreciated, a book called A Senate Journal (1963), an edited version of Drury's personal journal from when he covered the Senate in the last years of World War II. I picked it up and decided to read it before going on to Advise and Consent.

Well, it has been an odd experience. Drury didn't bother to explain more than a few of the features of American politics, assuming that his readers would have a pretty good idea of the issues and perhaps even the personalities of 20 years earlier. Perhaps that was justified; after all, a surprising number of Senators of that era were still in the Senate during the Vietnam War era when I remember them. (It gives one pause to recollect that!) However, even a reader whose memories stretch back that far, like me, has a hard time coming to grips now with the issues of the early and mid 40s. But the effort has been worthwhile.

One thing that shocked me is the portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt -- not yet the victor of the Second World War, not yet a semi-martyr from dying in office -- as a sneering, superior, untrustworthy man, whose wartime powers and personal attributes are a danger to the Republic. Yes, I can remember jokes about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt (the Hillary Clinton of her time) told by people who still despised them, but it seems like eons ago. Even American aristocrats who want to destroy the remnants of the New Deal by abolishing Social Security don't waste five seconds denouncing FDR or using him to fuel the engines of "conservative" outrage. He's just too remote; Carter (!) and the Clintons are the great "liberal" villains. Indeed, I can't remember the last time anyone mentioned Eleanor. (It's not just living in Canada; I read a lot of American news and opinion.) So obscurity overtakes someone who was hated with a passion by her foes for decades. Specious parallels between Eleanor and Hillary would be so easy, but nobody cares enough to do it. Might as well joke about Mrs. Andrew Jackson.

Reading A Senate Journal takes me right back to a time when many people saw the huge growth of Executive Branch power under Roosevelt as a great danger. The book insofar as it is about the war, is about the domestic management of the wartime economy, and how the transition to a peacetime economy would be handled without catastrophe or a sinister restructuring of the social system. Drury came to Capitol Hill as, or was quickly converted on the Hill to, a defender of Congress and the Senate in particular as constituting the essence of democracy. Roosevelt comes across as a far more sophisticated Huey Long, a man who does his best to bamboozle Congress with the help of his unprincipled legislative collaborators on such issues as the goals of the war and the shape of the peace. And who will be able to exploit both war and peace for their own profit.

Does any of this sound in the least familiar?

Update: An American mother connects Eleanor and Hillary.

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