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Idea of the Senate |

Allen Drury, 1963
Book jacket of A Senate Journal

Allen Drury first came to the Senate during the Second World War as a United Press reporter. A graduate of Stanford University, Drury had served as editor of two small California newspapers before he enlisted in the U.S. Army, but a back injury cut short his military service. Since many of the regular Washington correspondents had gone overseas as war correspondents or combatants, their available jobs lured the young Californian to Washington. Awestruck at covering the United States Senate, Drury started a journal of his observations in the form of letters that he sent home to his family.

Drury’s journal begins on the afternoon of November 21, 1943, when the young reporter disembarked at Union Station and got his initial glimpse of the Capitol dome. He was there, he explained, to see what he could see and to appraise it as best he could. The next morning he went to the House and Senate press galleries and from the start he noticed the differences between the two bodies, beginning with the guards at the door. The police outside the House gallery were “informal, hasty, unconcerned,” slapping his coat and pockets and waving him through. The police on the Senate side made gallery visitors stand in line, spread their coats on a table, and in general acted more officious. The atmosphere within the chambers would also contrast sharply.

That December, the United Press assigned Drury to its Senate staff, which he accepted gratefully as the best break for a newspaper reporter. Down below were many nationally familiar figures: Robert Taft, the cool, intellectual conservative leader from Ohio; Alben Barkley, the yarn-spinning majority leader from Kentucky; Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., then a young patrician senator from Massachusetts; and Allen Ellender, a short, swarthy, awkwardly gesturing senator from Louisiana.

Day by day Drury watched them at work—and in those days, before jet transportation allowed senators to return to their home states each weekend, it was not uncommon for the Senate to be in session every weekday and for senators to work part of Saturdays as well. Drury witnessed his share of filibusters and of political posturing, but he also came to respect the legislative efforts of senators who appreciated that they were contributing to the war effort and went about their work seriously and with little show.

These journal entries Drury kept gave him an opportunity to add some of the colorful anecdotes and personal assessments that straightforward wire service reporting did not allow. As he explained in 1963, when he published A Senate Journal, 1943-1945:

A Senate Journal, 1943-1945

I began, at once and deliberately, to keep a diary of the Hill; partly to send to my family, partly because I had hopes that it might eventually be of some slight assistance in making my fellow countrymen better acquainted with Congress and particularly with the Senate. There is a vast area of casual ignorance concerning this lively and appealing body. Its members in their deliberations do a great deal to decide your future and mine, and that of our country and of our world. Who are they? . . . What are they like? How do they look, how do they act, what is their institutional slant on things? And over and beyond the special emphasis of the days here recorded, the days of the War Senate on its way to becoming the Peace Senate, how does the Senate function from day to day? What is this Congress?. . .

This is your Senate I am writing about. These are the 100 men and women (96 of them before the admission of Alaska and Hawaii) whom you have elected to represent you in “the greatest deliberative body on earth.” That is what they call it, and after twenty years’ close acquaintance, that is what I call it too.

You will find them very human, and you can thank God they are. You will find that they consume a lot of time arguing, and you can thank God they do. You will find that the way they do things is occasionally brilliant but often slow and uncertain, and you can thank God that it is. Because all these things mean that they are just like the rest of us, and you can thank God for that, too.

That is their greatness and their strength; that is what makes your Congress what it is, the most powerful guarantor of human liberties free men have devised.

You put them there, and as long as they are there you’re going to remain free, because they don’t like to be pushed around any more than you do.

This is comforting to know. 1

As he explained in later entries, it became clear to Drury that wartime relations between the Senate and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had become severely strained. Congress had granted the president extraordinary powers that enabled him to focus on military and diplomatic matters with little concern about congressional sensibilities. President Roosevelt by that time had spent an unprecedented decade in the White House and had become, in Drury’s words, “the most powerful man on earth.” Bottled up emotions eventually burst into public confrontation, to which Drury enjoyed a front-row view.

In February 1944, President Roosevelt vetoed a tax bill that he believed did not go far enough to fund the enormous expenditures of the war. Roosevelt wanted the current generation to shoulder as much of the cost of the war as possible and not rely on war bonds to shift the burden to future generations. Congress, which had to answer to the taxpayers at the ballot box, crafted a smaller tax increase than the president requested, but one that majority leader Barkley assured the president was the best he could expect. Barkley, who had labored long to craft the compromise bill, was astonished when the president vetoed it, and angered over the veto message that called it a tax bill for the greedy, not the needy. As Drury and other reporters watched from the press gallery, Barkley stood at the majority leader’s desk to break with the president he had so loyally served. Senator Barkley called on his colleagues to override the veto and then dramatically resigned as Democratic leader. The next day the Democratic Conference met and unanimously reelected Barkley in a show of solidarity

Despite these animosities, President Roosevelt went on to win an unprecedented fourth term, and in April 1945 Allen Drury recorded the genuine shock and sorrow in the Senate over the president’s sudden death. After a hectic day, Drury and other reporters retreated to the National Press Building, where they read the day’s stories that they had filed and realized they still could not believe the news. Drury’s attention in his journal shifted to the new president, the vice president and former senator from Missouri, Harry Truman, a seemingly average man who now assumed terrifying responsibility. That Truman more than rose to the occasion confirmed to Drury that the Senate he watched was occupied by men and women who exhibited qualities of human frailties and strength. They consumed a lot of time arguing, and the way they operated was often slow and uncertain, but occasionally brilliant, because “they are just like the rest of us,” which was the essence of representative democracy.

When the war ended in 1945, the regular reporters came home and Allen Drury lost his perch in the Senate press gallery. He became national editor of a magazine called Pathfinder, aimed at small-town America, and wrote a Washington column for several newspapers in California. In 1953 he joined the staff of the Washington Evening Star, and the next year was hired by the prestigious Washington bureau of the New York Times. In the meantime, Drury had started a novel for which he “cannibalized” his Senate journal, turning the real senators and events into a fictional yarn of politics and intrigue that he published in 1959 as Advise and Consent. He dedicated the book to “the distinguished and able gentlemen without whose existence, example and eccentricities this book could have been neither conceived nor written: The Senate of the United States.”

No novel better captured Washington, D.C., in general or the U.S. Senate in particular. When a photographer snapped a picture of the two presidential frontrunners, Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, looking over the book together at an airport, the publisher ran it as an advertisement with the caption: “Everyone is reading Advise and Consent.” Drury’s novel became a Book of the Month Club selection and spent a record-breaking 102 weeks on the New York Times’ Best Seller List. It won a Pulitzer Prize, and by 1962 Otto Preminger had turned it into a star-studded Hollywood movie.

In the wake of this phenomenal success, Allen Drury retired from journalism to devote his life to writing books. He also returned to the journal notes that he had kept for those two fateful years at the end of the Second World War. He regretted that he did not continue keeping a diary to continue “cannibalizing” for other novels, but he was proud of the quality of the original notes and of his assessments of the senators of that era. In 1963 he published them as A Senate Journal, 1943-1945, this time dedicating the book to the staff of the congressional press galleries on whom he had depended so greatly as a Senate reporter. The journal, he explained, had been his attempt to write down what he saw and heard “in a time of testing,” when senators grappled with immense issues of war and peace and competed with one of the most powerful presidents of the United States. He tried to capture the “fascinating amalgam that is life on the Hill,” the easy-going intimacy between senators and reporters, the days in the press gallery that varied abruptly from slow to hectic, the debates in the chamber as seen from the galleries, the hours spent waiting outside closed committee room doors, the interviews with senators both famous and obscure, and most of all “the exciting sense of being at the storm center of the government.”

What makes A Senate Journal a classic account of the United States Senate is its sense of humanity. Allen Drury mixed a bit of idealistic hero worship with critical sharp-eyed reporting, but ultimately he recognized that the Senate was a composite of its members, who in turn were a reflection of the states that elected them. To later visitors to the Capitol who would follow him, Drury advised: “Don’t underestimate politicians; they didn’t get where they are without abilities. With some exceptions, they are earnest, worried, overworked people who have a lot to recommend them. They wouldn’t have gotten to Washington if they didn’t.”

Further Reading:

Drury, Allen. Advise and Consent. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1959.

Drury, Allen. A Senate Journal, 1943-1945. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

Ritchie, Donald A.“Drury, Allen Stuart.” In The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Kenneth T. Jackson, et al, eds. New York: Thomson Gale, 2002, 5:168-69.

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1. Allen Drury, A Senate Journal, 1943-1945 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963) 1, 3-4.