Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Monday, March 01, 2004

The Blogger Side of Drury

NOVEMBER 21, 1943. There was a soft warm haze over the city when I got into Union Station at 4 this afternoon. In it the Capitol loomed up massive and domineering across the Plaza. Behind me as I stood in the doorway looking out the great station echoed with the fretful rendezvous of trains, the murmurous clatter of many feet, the hectic excitements of arrival and departure, while down from on high magnified ten times over came the imperious voices of women calling the place-names of America. Around me in unceasing flood passed the travelers. Daily they come in their thousands and daily the city absorbs them, vomiting forth other thousands to make room. Night and day unceasing, humanity on the move, closing in on this focus of its hopes, desires, ambitions, fears and worries from all over America and all over the earth.

I for one am here to see what I can, and appraise it as best I can; disillusioned like all Americans about their ruling heart, not too certain that it is taking us in any very worthwhile or consistent direction, yet possessed still of some inner faith and certainty of its essential and ultimate purposes. We muddle, we blunder, we fall on our faces, and we survive; how, or by what peculiar grace, no man can say exactly. This is where it is done, however, and this is where I shall watch it, fascinated I know, encouraged perhaps -- perhaps even, now and then, inspired.

NOVEMBER 22, 1943...The House guards are informal, hasty, unconcerned, slap your pockets, slap your coat, and pass you. The Senate police are much more formal, making you get in line, spreading your coat out on a table, challenging servicemen to show their furlough papers or passes, and generally being more officious. It is much easier to get a good seat in the House gallery than it is in the Senate, which does not seem to be any too well constructed from an audience standpoint.

The late Allen Drury was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and a good observer. But I never knew just how good until now.

You see, I got the sudden urge to reread his novels. Since they didn't have them at my branch of the library, I had to go down to the Main one and get them hoiked out of storage in the basement. But the catalog also listed some nonfiction books by the guy, and I decided I might as well check them out, too.

A Senate Journal: 1943-1945 is literally that. Drury had been a newspaperman in California, went into the Army during the war, then got wounded and sent back to the US. He decided to go to DC and try to get hired on there. But one of the first things he did in DC was to go to Capitol Hill and watch the Senate at work. He seems to have fallen in love. Somebody very wise at UPI not only hired him, but assigned him to be their Senate correspondent. Drury went to work, with the kind of delight and fervor I only wish every reporter could have. Meanwhile, he wrote down his impressions and saved them to show his family and friends.

JUNE 6, 1944. D-Day came today, for me at 6:30 in the morning when the office called. "Al," said someone on the desk laconically, "the show is on." Color at the Capitol might be needed, he said; I departed for the Hill forthwith. Subsequently it was decided that I would write none, for indeed there was none to write. Just a beautiful cool morning, the flag rippling in the wind, the sun slanting across the front of the huge old building, a few cars passing early from Union Station, green grass glistening, an air of quiet peace. Elsewhere time hung suspended and young men who would never see another day plunged into hell.

The result is that A Senate Journal reads very much like a political blog from the late days of FDR and the early days of Truman. It's fascinating reading, especially since most of us got very little information in history class about the end of World War II and the beginning of the postwar peace. I had no idea that the power struggle in Advise and Consent between the President and the Senate was based on actual events in 1944. Along the way, all the famous people are pen-sketched with the same skill as in his novels. So I watched in fascinated horror as truly scary legislation was introduced by the administration and then defeated by Senatorial determination, delay, or simple human whim. I found out that Yalta wasn't the beginning of Western concessions of territory to the Soviets, but rather the conclusion of a process. I met Truman when he was running his committee, saw him become vice president and learned that wasn't necessarily a powerless position, and then saw him become president as the nation reeled. Finally, I saw the UN begin.

JULY 27, 1945. For the first time something of the world's agony and its terrible tragedy were brought into the debate today as Walter George, overcome with emotion and the memory of his lost son, spoke for the Charter. It was not one of his best speeches, it didn't hang together very well, it wasn't very well-connected or rounded, but it came from the heart, and it was profoundly moving. There were moments when he was unable to speak at all, when he stood fighting for control at his desk, one hand gripping it tightly, the other tracing nervous patterns over the surface. There were times when he would begin to speak and then have to stop, too choked to go on. There were times when, almost dazed, he repeated himself and wandered in his words. But from Walter George, more than from any other who has spoken to date, there came the reason why it is such a desperate need and such a desperate hope that something, anything, prevent another war. When he had finished Tobey proposed that the Senate rise in silent respect and sympathy. Saltonstall and Hart, both of whom have also lost sons, passed by George's desk to shake his hand.

Like most people of my generation, I've been taught to see World War II in black and white, with a more heroic sort of American than the lesser mortals of our time. There is something immensely reassuring about learning that yesterday's Senate was not really all that different from today's, as well as something frightening about knowing that liberty and justice have always stood a hairsbreadth from tyranny in this land. And yet...and yet, we have not stepped over that hair, because ordinary Americans will not have it, and because even our statesmen have been ordinary Americans. Drury, in his journalism as well as his novels, often paused to sing the wonder and beauty of everyday democracy. I think these anecdotes show us good reason to sing.


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