Thursday, 24 November 2016

"Advise and Consent"

I am grateful to Terry Teachout for not only reminding me of Otto Preminger's film but also filling in the background to the book on which it is based.

The title of course comes ultimately from the section of the US constitution outlining the powers of the Senate as a check on an over-weening president. (I am sure that this consideration is going to be much discussed by the experts on both sides of the Atlantic in the months to come in view of the 2016 election result.) The phrase is used in particular of presidential appointments which must be made with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. The verb "advise" is what appears in the Senate rule book.

I do not know the book, but was impressed by the film. Like many interested in politics at the time, this first detailed exploration on screen of the working of the American system fascinated me. It seems that like many iconic movies, it was based on a poorly-written book. The ponderousness of the film which I put down to Preminger's heavy-handed direction was, it seems, inherent in the novel. 

Mr Teachout highlights how quickly the book fell from the public consciousness (so much so that the Liberal Democrats' super-wonk Mark Pack had not heard of it in 2014*.) but also how it has been taken up again by a new generation of political groupies.

Mr Teachout's key point is that we are no longer in a period when any shame would cause a prominent politician to commit suicide, even in the conservative United States.

"Advise and Consent" hinges on the suicide of a married senator whose wartime affair with a serviceman is about to be revealed by a political columnist. It isn’t generally known, but this plot element was loosely based on the real-life story of Lester C. Hunt, a Democratic senator from Wyoming who shot himself in his Capitol office in 1954.
Here’s what happened, according to Hunt’s Wikipedia entry:
Hunt was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, taking office on January 3, 1949. During his tenure in the Senate, Hunt became a bitter enemy of Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and his criticism of McCarthy’s anticommunist tactics marked him as a prime target in the 1954 election.
Leading up to the 1954 election, Republicans held a Senate majority of one vote, and pressured Hunt to resign from the Senate. Republican Senator Styles Bridges warned Hunt that unless he withdrew, Wyoming voters would find out about the arrest of Hunt’s twenty-year-old son for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square in July 1953. After some vacillation, Hunt announced that he would not seek reelection on June 8, 1954. Eleven days later, he shot himself in his Senate office.
One significant detail is missing from this dry account: Hunt’s son was president of the student body of the Episcopal Theological School of Cambridge. That would have upped the humiliation ante considerably in 1954 – but what about now? Can you seriously imagine a senator, or any other public figure, commiting suicide under similar circumstances today? In fact, let’s take it one step further: can you think of any secret so shameful that a contemporary public figure would rather die than face the consequences of its becoming known? I can’t.
Maybe the point on which the plot turns has lost its power, but the political fundamentals are the same. The film may be long, but I advise seeking it out. An incidental pleasure is enjoying the late flowering of such stars of Hollywood's golden age as Lew Ayres, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon and Gene Tierney.

* See the notes to this article. Incidentally, "Fail-Safe" has been returned to late-night TV viewing, I am glad to say. Dr Pack had heard of another key political thriller, Gore Vidal's "The Best Man". I would recommend this work also

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