The other day I noted the passing of the author, Allen Drury, and I thought that Mr. Drury, as much as anybody, shaped my life. I wonder if I were in college today, would there be anything I could read that would excite me about working as a journalist in Washington?
There was sex in "Advise and Consent," but as our editor David Klein put it, you would hardly know it. Allen Drury, David reminded me, "talks about homosexuality in such careful, subtle language that unless you were reading carefully -- and I mean really carefully -- it was easy to miss what happened. It was all mood and innuendo and delicate hints that only an adult reader would catch."
How sad to reflect on the difference today, "when Congress itself dumps the Starr report on the Internet and we're all awash in the most explicit description imaginable of sex in the White House. It's hard not to think of Allen Drury's book as a symbol of a more civilized time," David said.
I fear that one of the fallouts of this sordid mess is that college students seeking a career as a reporter won't want to go to Washington to specialize in the sex beat. Even after President Clinton and his escapades fade into the mist of the 20th century, Washington reporters will earn their spurs digging up the dirt on Congressional indiscretions and White House dalliances, all the while clucking that they abhor spending their time on these kind of sleazy stories.
Consider how Mr. Drury went about his task. "He was concerned with moral ambiguity," his nephew Kenneth Killiany, told The New York Times "He always called his characters fallible people in difficult situations who were called on to solve great problems."
Wouldn't it have been interesting to see how Mr. Drury would have written about our current situation, where nuances and understatement have not been the literary devices of general preference. Yet as stock market expert Joe Granville used to say, "the obvious is obviously wrong," and we need, quite desperately, Mr. Drury's finely honed talents to lend dignity and gravity to the most depraved subjects. The way we report the goings on in Washington today, things are obviously too obvious.
Allen Drury started out as a newspaperman. He was hired as a Washington reporter for the Times in 1954, but it was not, apparently, a match made in heaven.
"He had a reputation as an elegant writer when he came to the paper," Times columnist Russell Baker wrote. Scotty Reston was then trying to persuade the Times to write plain English, and it was assumed that Allen was brought in to promote this campaign.
"He tried. The results depressed him. In those days, plain English was under suspicion at the Times. Many stories read as if written by a Henry James imitator with a bad hangover. Incomprehensible English was accepted as evidence of the honest, if inarticulate, reporter; plain English bothered people."
Allen Drury wrote his 19 novels in plain but elegant English. "Advise and Consent's" central character, Sen. Brigham Anderson of Utah, is the swing vote and chairman of a committee investigating an Alger Hiss-style fight over the appointment of suspected Communist Bob Leffingwell. As tensions rise, an unscrupulous senator (Fred Van Ackerman) learns that Brig Anderson had a brief fling with another man right after World War II. He blackmails Brig, who kills himself over the scandal.
Would such a plot be considered hopelessly honorable and self-righteous today? Maybe the only good thing coming out of the White House scandals is that sex will no longer be an adequate reason for ending it all.