Bar News - September 20, 2013
Opinion: Representations: Politics Today: More Money, Less Intrigue?
By: Michael Davidow
The name Styles Bridges isn’t heard much anymore. In his day, however, which stretched from the Great Depression to the dawn of the Space Age, this governor and senator from New Hampshire occasionally attracted the interest of our entire nation. He contended for the presidency itself in 1940; his strident isolationism and later anti-communism made him a fitting symbol for the entire Republican right wing. But it was his conduct during one minor episode that took place in the 1950’s that made its mark in both literature and film.
The son of a fellow senator had been arrested in a Washington park on a morals charge; for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer. The police were willing to be lenient towards this young first-time offender. They wanted to drop the matter. But as contemporary newspaper reporters made known, Bridges and another senator then contacted the investigating officer, threatening his job unless he prosecuted. That happened, and a criminal conviction followed. A fine of $100 was imposed. Scandal loomed for that young man’s family. And after that, the defendant’s father, Lester Hunt, Democrat of Wyoming, shot himself to death in his own Senate office, rather than see his son’s tragedy publicized during that upcoming election season.
While Bridges denied guilt in this matter, he never successfully defended himself against the charge that he had used this young man’s homosexuality as a way to smear his left-leaning colleague. In the face of withering criticism of his role in Hunt’s suicide, he obtained an affidavit from the police officer involved, but that finely-worded and legalistic document only served to throw his conduct into even more serious doubt. And he later declined to speak of the matter to the journalist who had uncovered it.
Another journalist named Allen Drury wove this story into his blockbuster novel, Advise and Consent, first published in 1959. Advise and Consent (which riffed on other Washington scandals as well) stayed on the bestseller list for 93 weeks. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1960, besting a book by Saul Bellow. Both Richard Nixon and John Kennedy were seen reading it during their campaigns. A stage play based on it followed soon thereafter. And Otto Preminger made a film from it in 1962, starring Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Burgess Meredith, and Gene Tierney (it was a talky affair, but Fonda is fun to watch, and it was Laughton’s last role, besides).
The book itself wins few points for style, nor for its characters or tangled plot. It became popular for its insider quality, instead; it purported to show the truth about how Washington in general and the United States Senate in particular actually functioned. And as such, it has become almost hopelessly dated, because the working tone of politics has changed so much in the past 50 years. You can’t write about Washington anymore without writing about money, basically. Raising it, spending it, ultimately loving it. Washington used to be a small town, known for its hot summers, slow pace, and cherry blossoms. Now, it’s a sprawling city, known for its luxury automobiles, expense-account restaurants, and tee-shirted tourists looking for cherry blossoms.
We can still take some useful things from Drury’s pages, though.
For one thing, we can always stand to be reminded that character matters more than anything, in public life as well as private. People who devalue human life can be found in many different arenas, and they never fail to bring destruction in their wake.
For another thing, we can reflect on the importance of the stories we tell each other. At the height of the cold war, when our survival as a nation seemed to hover in the balance (far more truly than during our present “war on terror”), a novel about pure politics held our country rapt for two full years. Today we prefer military stories, stories about heroes, stories about good and evil. Perhaps money has made politics into such a sideshow, we’re no longer interested in what happens to the people we send to Washington. We assume they’re gone for good. We assume they’ve moved on.
And finally, we can use this particular story as a reminder of our state’s true history. We like to think of New Hampshire as a land of yankee pragmatism and rock-ribbed conservatism. Our past belies that. And our older practitioners might even remember when our laws were written in the Eagle Hotel, across from the State House in Concord, where the railroad men and the racetrack touts did the work that our legislature passed to them; where the urban ethnics of Nashua and Manchester were despised as dangerous radicals; and where men like Styles Bridges, New Hampshire’s original McCarthyite, first gained and expressed their arrogance in power.
Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising.