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Obituary: Allen Drury

ALLEN DRURY was a political commentator turned novelist who achieved instant success with his first work of fiction, Advise and Consent, which was published in 1959 and subsequently made into a film in by Otto Preminger.

Drury was born in 1918, in Houston, Texas, the son of Alden and Flora Drury. He received his BA from Stanford University in 1939, and shortly afterwards became editor of a small weekly newspaper in California, the Tulare Bee. After a year or so he moved to Bakersfield, California and then served briefly in the US Army, before being invalided out with a back injury.

In 1943 he began work as a journalist in the Senate, the institution which, more than any other, was to preoccupy his attention and fire his imagination. He worked firstly as a reporter for United Press International (1943-46) and subsequently as a freelance correspondent. He published an account of his encounters and observations during this period, A Senate Journal, in 1963. From 1947 to 1953 he was national editor of Pathfinder Magazine, and then he resumed political reporting, first for the Washington Evening Star (1953-54) and then as a member of the Senate staff of the New York Times (1954-59).

In the early Fifties - that is, at the height of the McCarthy period - Drury had begun work on the novel which was to become Advise and Consent, but after a couple of chapters he put the book aside and only resumed work on it in 1957. This genesis is perhaps significant, because the novel evokes a disturbing and uneasy political environment, redolent of bad faith, the exposure of youthful indiscretions, and the unscrupulous use of blackmail.

The temptation is to read it as a roman a clef (the trauma of Roosevelt's death and the succession of Harry Truman, as described in A Senate Journal, clearly influenced Drury's portrayal of a dying president and his apparently weak vice-president who unexpectedly rises to the occasion) and the fact that readers and reviewers were tempted to try to unlock its political references perhaps contributed to its immediate success.

However, though not a subtle writer, Drury was canny enough to avoid making his parallels with current or recent political figures too direct. Van Ackerman, for example, the junior senator from Wyoming, is the character who most resembles Joe McCarthy himself but in fact he devotes his twisted energies to campaigning on behalf of a liberal colleague, and advocates a somewhat unconvincing policy of "crawling" towards the dark empire of the Soviet Union.

The novel's title refers to the Senate's responsibility to approve the President's cabinet appointments, in this case the nomination of one Bob Leffingwell as Secretary of State. During the hearings of the foreign affairs subcommittee a youthful commitment to Communism comes to light. Drury doesn't demonise this issue; what makes Leffingwell a threat to the nation is his desire to avoid nuclear war at any price.

The novel explores the whole process of the hearings, providing a remarkably exhaustive (and, at 700 pages, somewhat exhausting) account of its political, ideological and personal ramifications. The plot has a slightly broken- backed quality since the drama of Leffingwell fades away at about the mid-point, to be replaced by that of Brigham Anderson, the chair of the hearings, whose stance against the candidate is undermined when his own youthful secret, in this case a homosexual affair, is brought to light.

Despite the complications of the protagonists' personal lives, and the deviousness of their political stratagems, there is no psychological complexity in the book. The many characters (there's a cast list at the beginning of the novel) simply represent points of view, which are elaborated in pages of rather heavy-handed dialogue, interrupted by lyrical evocations of Washington in various weather conditions, and substantial essays on the background of the principal players. Drury's primary achievement is to reflect the strange combination of idealism and patriotism on the one hand, and cynicism and knavery on the other, which can still be found in the politics of the United States (and of everywhere else, come to that), though it is slightly unnerving to find this paradoxical juxtaposition being handled without irony: " `It is a wonderful country,' the director of the Post said. `It just gets a little mixed up sometimes.' "

Advise and Consent won the Pulitzer Prize and sold more than a million copies. The movie which inevitably followed is crisper and more dramatic than its source (the novel, for example tells us about Brig's homosexual affair as soon as his character is described, whereas in the film it becomes a bombshell) and has Charles Laughton to provide a degree of menace and eccentricity in the character of the southern senator, Seabright Cooley, qualities which are less evident in the book because of Drury's insistence on providing a rational, indeed principled, motivation for even his more reprehensible characters. The film is also considerably less programmatic in political terms which may explain why Drury disliked it, and vowed not to sell subsequent works to Hollywood.

He was, in any case, never to achieve quite this impact again, though he wrote 19 more novels, many of them with a similar political content to (and on the same doorstep scale as) Advise and Consent. Preserve and Protect (1967), for example, continues the constitutional theme, while The Promise of Joy (1975) follows Orrin Knox, the Secretary of State nominated after Leffingwell's fall from grace, into the presidency; characteristically, the title of Drury's final, as yet unpublished, novel is Public Men.

Drury also continued to write journalism, including A Very Strange Society (1967), a study of South Africa based on a research trip he made in 1966. The book is a collage of extracts from newspapers, quotes from official sources, statistical information and the like, alternating with some very penetrating interviews with the movers and shakers of South African society. It provides a fascinating snapshot of the country at that particular historical juncture and Drury doesn't shirk from exposing the paranoia, injustice and absurdity that he comes across. "The gentle currents that caress Afrikaner limbs at 1pm," he says of separate swimming areas, "are laving Bantu bones or - shocking thought - vice versa - at 1.15."

Sadly, he can't resist some cringe-making talk of "White enterprise and Black sloth" when summarising his own position at the end of the book. It is to his credit, nevertheless, that he was a sharp enough observer, in both his journalism and his fiction, to give even readers unsympathetic to his conservative views a sense of the reality of the political world which he explored with such gusto.

Allen Stuart Drury, journalist and novelist: born Houston, Texas 2 September 1918; died Tiburon, California 2 September 1998.