SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Robert Penn Warren published All the King’s Men in 1946. It was awarded a Pulitzer Price and turned in three short years into one of the most important films that Hollywood produced in the years just after the war.
All the King’s Men, they say, is a lightly fictionalized account of the rise of the “Kingfish,” Huey Long, the populist demagogue who served as governor of Louisiana. Indeed, his dramatic career came to an end while Warren was teaching at Louisiana State in Baton Rouge, from 1932-35. Except, of course, All the King’s Men isn’t really about Huey Long. It’s about Willie Stark, a man who finds a beguiling way to rise to power and who finds that power is a means and an ends both. Willie is not a great man, not by any measure, though he has some talents. Willie is a political natural who knows how to show one face to the public, while his other, his true and deformed face is kept obscured. But those who come close enough to Willie, those who cross Willie, get to see the hideous face as well. It may indeed be the last thing they see.
Willie Stark is a very corrupt man. But he rose to power by gaining a false reputation as a clean politician. Let’s recall how it worked. Willie was the County Treasurer of Mason County, and he made the political mistake of favoring the low bid on a school construction project, a bid that would involve hiring Blacks to work on the construction crews. Willie had become as County Treasurer because he was supported by the Chairman of the County Commission, Dolph Pillsbury. But the stir Willie caused by supporting the low bid for a school construction project, a bid not supported by the Chairman and the rest of the County Commission, cost his wife Lucy her teaching job. She was fired. Without the support of his patron, Willie lost his position when he was defeated in his bid for re-election.
After Willie’s loss at the polls, the Commission awarded the school contract to a high bidder, who proceeded to cut corners and use inferior materials in the construction. During a fire drill at the school, the emergency escape collapsed, killing three children in the accident. This led to Willie’s political resurrection. Suddenly he was seen as a politician who stood for honesty and against corruption. As one of the grieving parents cried at the funeral, “Oh, God, I am punished for accepting iniquity and voting against an honest man.” But in fact Willie was black as pitch. He was just as interested in corrupt contracts as his predecessors. But he understood that smearing his adversaries and being portrayed in the press as an honest and clean political leader were the keys to a successful career in politics. With them he could go anywhere.
But it’s just politics. And what is politics for? To gain power, to hold it, to regale oneself in the warmth and glow of that power. And power is dirt. We’re all dirt.
Dirt’s a funny thing, come to think of it, there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe except what’s under water, and that’s dirt too. It’s dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain’t a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt.
Willie Stark believes in enriching himself from the coffers of the people. The people want that, else they never would have put Willie in the statehouse. He believes that no contract should ever be awarded that wasn’t brokered by his former chief of staff or by one of his campaign advisors. He believes that no major legal engagement should ever be awarded unless his son the lawyer profits from it by a cut of the action. He believes that those who draw from his largesse must fill his coffers at election time. This is the natural order of things.
Willie Stark is a Bible thumper. He believes that gambling leads to hell and damnation. And that’s the reason why Willie came to power on the back of gambling interests, and why he does his damnedest to put all their gambling competitors out of business.
Willie Stark believes that vengeance belongs to him. He believes that the criminal justice system is nothing more than a tool by which he deals out blows to those who stand in his way. If a politician crosses him, or stands in his way, why, he’ll have the man beaten on the floor of the legislature. Or better yet, prosecuted and sentenced to prison for seven years and four months. And he won’t leave anything to chance either. After all, Willie Stark controls the prosecutors and he controls the courts and judges. They all answer to his call. And the prosecutors and judges who get out of line can find themselves removed or prosecuted, all if it suits poor Willie. And if anger arises as a result, why, that anger will all be focused on his faithful marionettes, like the attorney general. But that hardly matters. After all, he’s decided he’ll make his son attorney general next. It’ll be the a Stark Dynasty. And why shouldn’t he do it? Willie is a natural leader and he’s only doing God’s justice. Because that’s Willie’s justice. Willie viewed all these two-bit players as straw for his bricks. It was their lot in life:
You got to use what you’ve got. You got to use fellows like Byram, and Tiny Duffy, and that scum down in the Legislature. You can’t make bricks without straw, and most of the time all the straw you got is secondhand straw from the cowpen. And if you think you can make it any different, you’re crazy as a hoot owl.
And Willie’s tale is chronicled by a newspaper columnist, Jack Burden. He’s more than a simple journalist, we learn. He is a historian.
And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe. And we love truth.
I thought Willie Stark was the tale of Huey Long. But now I know I’m mistaken. Warren wasn’t writing of things he observed in Baton Rouge in the thirties. He was writing about things to come. I have seen Willie Stark. He’s alive today. He’s a governor down south, and not in Louisiana.
And Warren lived in Fairfield, a stone’s throw from where I write these words now. The perfect vantage point from which to observe the machinations of Willie. They’re in the papers every day now; papers that present a hagiography, but not the true inner tale of Willie Stark. No, the journalists have betrayed their calling. The truth will be left for the historians.
But the essence of Willie Stark is to be found in every generation. It is a test for people and society. And the first test is simple: can you recognize Willie when you see him?
The creation of man whom God in his foreknowledge knew doomed to sin was the awful index of God’s omnipotence. For it would have been a thing of trifling and contemptible ease for Perfection to create mere perfection. To do so would, to speak truth, be not creation but extension. Separateness is identity and the only way for God to create, truly create, man was to make him separate from God Himself, and to be separate from God is to be sinful. The creation of evil is therefore the index of God’s glory and His power. That had to be so that the creation of good might be the index of man’s glory and power. But by God’s help. By His help and in His wisdom.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Estimated percentage of New Hampshire’s bat population that died in 2010:
A horticulturalist in Florida announced a new low-carb potato.
In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.”