Skip to main content

Willie Stark and the Long, Thinning Shadow of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

American Politics and the New Populism

Every man a king, every man a king,
You can be a millionaire …

—from a campaign song for Huey Long

Huey Long, the controversial senator from Louisiana, remains the poster child for small-p populism. Less a sharply defined political movement, as was the Populist Movement of the 1890s, small-p populism is a sensibility, one that, amazingly enough, now gets equal time on both sides of the aisle: Democrats appeal to voters with promises that they will defend average people from the “special interests” and the greed of corporate America, even though, in the new “investor class,” about half of all households own stock; and Republicans proudly portray George W. Bush as a man who shares the values of ordinary folk and can best protect them from terrorism. Better yet, Bush likes country music, often slips into cowboy boots, and can hang out at NASCAR races without looking out of place. That’s a tough order for the blue-blazer-and-gray-slacks-bedecked John Kerry to match.

At this point I can imagine some political science types muttering, “Is this what the new populism comes to? Apparel?” Possibly, at least if one takes a countercultural icon like Bob Dylan seriously. He once quipped that what the times changed was what one wore: tie-dyes, bell-bottoms, and granny glasses. The “suits,” then and now, had very different wardrobe closets. Still, I would not like to restrict the new populism in such a radically simplistic way because the plain truth is that the term populism has evolved into an elastic, and thus largely meaningless, term; if everyone is a populist, what, pray tell, does the term mean, and how does it help us to distinguish one candidate from another?

Nonetheless, I would argue that we are still under the mythos of populism, whether it be the relatively mild form promulgated by an aging William Jennings Bryan, who crossed verbal swords in the mid-1920s with Clarence Darrow over teaching Darwin in public schools, or the no-holds-barred demagoguery of the Huey Long who knew how to whip ragtag Louisiana crowds into a frenzy and how to put his stamp—many thought of it as fascist—onto American politics during the Great Depression.

First, a few words about Bryan. Earlier in his life, he was a capital-P Populist, the man who opposed the gold standard (“I will not be crucified on a cross of gold!” he thundered) and who was nominated three times for the presidency. Bryan is probably best known today as the sad fundamentalist who argues ineffectually for creationism in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s 1960 play, Inherit the Wind. As Lawrence and Lee would have it, Bryan comes off as a self-righteous blowhard who finds himself overmatched when he meets up with Clarence Darrow during the famous 1925 monkey trial. Before our very eyes Bryan goes from populist hero to goat, good for little more than an easy laugh.

To their credit, the writers of Inherit the Wind tried hard to dramatize the conflict between science and faith and, indeed, to give both sides a fair shake. But science clearly wins the day, if not the historical verdict, and Bryan is only eulogized because he suffers a stroke and dies. Meanwhile, the beat still goes on in one school board meeting after another as one side argues on behalf of evolution while the other thunders about creationism. New small-p populists may not give a hoot either way, but they know that “theory” is a fighting word for those who aren’t sure about how the term is used in a scientific discussion. For them, it means a notion that somebody named Darwin once had and that is not at all proven. Hence, it is merely a “theory,” something that the elites (and the atheists) want to impose on their God-fearing kids.

I mention Bryan and Darrow because no self-respecting populist wants to be numbered in the Darrow crowd. This can be troublesome, given the fact that both Bush and Kerry were undergraduates at Yale University, even if Bush—at least in the jokes made about him—did not attend all that many classes. He had, as rumor likes to put it, something of a four-year hangover. The result is that ordinary folk, those who may be the first ones in their families to attend a community college, do not hold being a Yalie against him. The same may not be true, however, for John Kerry, who would look as odd in an off-roader as another Massachusetts politician, Michael Dukakis, did in a tank.

Now let me turn once again to Huey Long. We are some seven decades from the days when a larger-than-life Huey Long led the LSU marching band down the field during half-time extravaganzas and roughly the same number of years since crooners did their best to warble “Every man a king …” without giving the slightest hint that they were suppressing a giggle. For the truth is, camp, as Susan Sontag once famously explained, works against the cultural grain; to “camp it up” requires, among other things, sophistication, “attitude,” and a certain self-conscious style. All these would surface much later in the national consciousness. Meanwhile, Long was unembarrassed about the corn he fed to the crowds. Put him in clown makeup and floppy shoes and few voters saw him as the threat to democracy he surely was.

Long’s claims were as simplistic as they were scarily effective: he sided with the suffering masses against the uncaring swells. But even more to the point, Long turned “lookin’ out for the folks” (the mantra currently favored by Fox news analyst Bill O’Reilly) into a justification for corruption on a staggering scale. He had an instinctive feel for what would play among folks living just this side of despair, and he had the charisma, or, if you prefer, the sheer chutzpah, to pull it off.

Thus I have chosen Huey Long to begin my ruminations about the current electoral season and what to make of the odd fact that every candidate, whether it be Democrats seeking their party’s nomination or incumbent George W. Bush, finally runs as a “populist.” Given everything that surrounds the life of Huey Long, it is hardly surprising that historians, biographers, and political analysts have spilled oceans of ink trying to pluck out the heart of his mystery, and even less surprising that they have not succeeded. That’s why I decided—more years ago than I care to say—to put my faith in literature, believing, along with Sir Philip Sidney, that it gives us a better history, a richer philosophy, and, yes, a savvier politics. Why so? Because poets, playwrights, and fiction writers see the complicated grids of social interaction from an aesthetic distance and through the prisms of literary myth.

For me, the man with the best visceral understanding of Huey Long was Robert Penn Warren, an old-fashioned man of letters long before the term came surrounded by sneer quotes. Along with Cleanth Brooks, Warren’s insistence on meticulous close reading changed the way that literature classes were taught from roughly the mid-1940s until the late 1960s. The New Criticism, as their critical school was called, had a long run—that is, until postmodernism and identity politics consigned it to the ash heap.

What made the New Criticism “new” was its opposition to the “old.” No longer did students concentrate on an author’s biography or time period, as was too often the case when literary historians and scholarly edition types ruled the roost; instead, they were trained to focus on the ways that tension, irony, and ambivalence operated in the work at hand.

Rather than an expectation that students could bloody well read a poem or novel on their own (what they needed were scholarly facts about the eighteenth-century mind or what Dickens had for breakfast on the day he began to compose David Copperfield), the best of the New Critics taught their students how to unpack paragraphs, lines, and sometimes even a single word. Some undergraduates resisted what they thought of as much ado about nothing because, for them, “hidden meanings” remained, to their frustration, hidden. Others, however, flourished in a cultural milieu that turned reading serious literature into something akin to praying in a church.

All the King’s Men (1946) is a variation of the Socratic question: “How should a good man live?” Politically correct readers may have won the battle that changes the question into “How should a good person live?” but the alteration does little to help us address, much less answer, Socrates’s concerns. In the case of Warren’s novel, what it wants to know is, “How can a politician do good?”—that is, of course, after such a politician has managed to get elected in the first place.

Politics is the art of compromise, and at its best, politics inches social justice forward as we continue to close the gap between our principles and our practice. However appealing it might be to imagine a politician campaigning on my previous sentence, nothing also could be more unrealistic. Such a candidate would surely lose (unless we are talking about a Frank Capra film), and worse, he or she would be drummed out of the hall.

That’s exactly what happens to cousin Willie the rube when he runs for office by rattling off facts and figures: “Now, friends, if you will bear with me patiently for a few minutes, I will give you the figures”—and give them the figures he did, for Willie is a holy, albeit soft-spoken, missionary. But Jack Burden, Willie’s friend and the novel’s protagonist-narrator, knows that too much talk about a balanced tax program will put the crowd into a collective coma: “You tell ‘em too much. Just tell ‘em you’re going to soak the fat boys, and forget the rest of the tax stuff.”

The 2004 election will likely revolve around the economy, with jobs lost by outsourcing them overseas and prices skyrocketing at the gas pump. The key issues. Once again, James Carvell, President Clinton’s adviser/strategist had it dead right when he plastered campaign offices with signs saying, “It’s the economy, stupid!” It still is.

In addition, voters will have a chance to express their views about who can best lead America in dangerous times. At this point it is worth harkening back to the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 and reflecting on how television, a notoriously “cool” medium (to use Marshall McLuhan’s phrase), is a very different one from the “hot” world of Huey Long’s stump speeches. A five o’clock shadow turned out to be Nixon’s death knell; the camera made him seem sinister, while Kennedy came off as the cool-as-a-cucumber patrician.

My son, a history professor, tells me that his students break into laughter whenever he shows them clips of Huey Long strutting his stuff. “Were these antics really effective?” they ask, not believing that anybody would take this guy seriously. Granted, I’m always uncomfortable trying to unpack what student opinion signifies, but their embarrassed laughter is sparked, at least in part, by a sense of how grainy that world is—and therefore, how distant from theirs. None of the images being shown to them belongs in a world of MTV, much less of the high-speed Internet and video games.

Such disparate populists as William Jennings Bryan, the barnstormer, and Father Coughlin, the radio-based hate monger, would have seemed equally ludicrous to the students who gave images of Huey Long the raspberries. Indeed, it wasn’t until Governor George Wallace ran as an Independent Party candidate during the 1968 presidential elections that a populist was able to show any number of successors how to turn being a Washington “outsider” into a qualification for high office. Other woolly independents (Ross Perot, Ralph Nader) followed, and always crowing the same general argument—that the two-party system continues to fail “the people.” In Wallace’s case, the media coverage that had been so important during the Civil Rights movement now worked for the former segregationist—so much so that he became the sixth most admired man in America, just below the Pope.

There was a time when politicians were not surrounded by advance teams and roadies, as they are now. True enough, Willie Stark has Jack Burden, his all-important confidant and dirt-digger; Sadie Burke, political strategist extraordinaire; and Sugar Boy, his fast-on-the-trigger bodyguard, but that’s about all. In roughly the same way that candidates for high office come equipped with speechwriters (this was not always the case, as I told a much-impressed student who wondered who wrote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; Willie, it is worth mentioning, also writes his own speeches), they also make sure to have a good media consultant on the staff. On the plus side, when the war in Iraq was “officially” over (sorry about the sneer quotes, but most people would now agree that they belong), George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier sporting a flight suit. At the time, it seemed a nice touch, a photo op made all the more effective because he looked so military, so esprit de corps.

In the months that followed, however, the once socko idea became something of an embarrassment, as winning the peace became much more complicated—and much more deadly—than Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had imagined, and when pundits began comparing the war records of John Kerry and George W. Bush. Soon, ironies piled atop ironies because it was Kerry, not Bush, who had served bravely in Vietnam while Bush had a cushy post in the Texas Air Force Guard, where, as far as we know, he never flew a single training mission.

What may matter, when the dust settles and Kerry’s war record becomes mired in controversy, is the lingering, (nonverbal) picture of Bush in the flight suit, looking mighty swell and confident. Middle Americans can relate to that image much more than they can imagine the patrician John Kerry in the same setting. Ultimately, none of this may matter, not only because politics changes every day but also because populism has become a fickle, largely fair-weather friend. My hunch is that the rise and fall of Howard Dean’s candidacy will be studied long after the 2004 election is over, because here was a populist candidate who used the Internet to raise money and spread his populist, anti-war message. However, when he imploded “on camera,” as it were, after his ignominious Iowa defeat, with shirtsleeves rolled, fists clenched, and an indecipherable shout (“Eeeeeee!”) thundering out of his mouth, Dean instantly became a bottom-feeder.

Damage control was impossible. The Dean campaign staff could not prevent the devastating image of their boss being rebroadcast hundreds of times during the next week. Late-night comedians used it as fodder, something that any politician must rightly worry about. Vice President Dan Quayle, for example, paid the ultimate (late show) price for misspelling “potato”; he became a “potatoe” laughingstock. And Dean joined his ranks as the image of the out-of-control psychopath.

Such are the perils of trying to be a regular guy in the television era. Bill Clinton took out his sax on MTV and even took on a foolishly inappropriate question about his preference for underwear; later, he would find many more details of his private life revealed in the Kenneth Starr Report and then analyzed by a wide variety of Washington talking heads.

Warren’s novel, by contrast, limns an age where throwing one’s lot with the struggling masses meant something. For Willie Stark, however, the trick is to get himself elected, and given his bumbling—and, yes, boring—honesty, that won’t be easy. What Jack Burden has to do is unleash Willie’s inner power, which, given Warren’s literary imagination, means that he must merge the Dr. Frankenstein who creates his monster with the Marlow who grapples with Kurtz’s dying words, “The horror! The horror!” Willie learns a great deal from Jack over the course of the novel, but perhaps nothing hits the political nail on the head more than the eye-opening cold-water shower that Jack gives him about hitting average folks where they live:

    make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em think you’re their weak erring pal, or make ‘em think you’re God Almighty. Or make ‘em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir ‘em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and they’ll love you and come back for more… . [M]ake ‘em feel alive again. That’s what they came for. Tell ‘em anything. But sweet Jesus don’t try to improve their minds.

But give Willie a peek at the hard, unflinching truth about himself as the consummate sucker who got played and about what politics in America comes to, and voilà, he metamorphoses himself into Willie Stark, a force of nature who stands, in Warren’s symbolic tapestry, for the “stark reality.” In Willie’s no-nonsense politics, what matters is the dirt one can use to broker deals or to silence opponents. As his home-styled Presbyterian theology would have it, there’s “something” on everyone, because men go from “the stench of the didie to the stench of the shroud” as fallen creatures—and Jack Burden, historian turned gumshoe, knows how to find out where the bodies are buried.

The twists and turns of Warren’s plot move us ever closer to the ironies that operate just beneath the surface. Two myths are particularly important: one is the tragedy of Oedipus, a man who set out to find the murderer of the king and free the land from drought. As each piece of the puzzle falls eerily into place, Oedipus discovers not only that the man he has been looking for is none other than himself, but also that, as the man who killed his father and married his mother, he is the most reviled of men. In the world of Sophoclean tragedy, no mitigating circumstances are accepted, nor are there 12-step programs to boost a tragic hero’s sagging self-esteem. “Insight” comes when Oedipus dashes out his eyes and he sees himself for the first time. Where there had once been hubris (pride)—”I’ll find the murderer of the king”—now there is humility. We look upon the spectacle and experience a catharsis made from equal measures of pity and fear: we admire Oedipus because of his persistence but, by the same token, we do not want to be him.

Jack Burden is the narrative consciousness of a tale that bears more than a few resemblances to earlier works, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Indeed, Jack suffers from a blocked heart that is caused by what both Sophocles and Sigmund Freud would call an Oedipus complex: he listens as his surrogate father describes how to “lead” a duck when hunting, only to find out much later not only that the spotless Judge Irwin is a man who had once acted immorally but also that this man was in truth his father.

Willie’s low view of humankind is thus seemingly confirmed, but Warren will not allow cynicism to have the last word. Freed from the “burden” of history (once again, Warren cannot quite resist telegraphing his punches), Jack can make his separate peace and move toward the future. Willie’s dying words, “It might have been all different … You got to believe that,” plead for empathy and Jack gives it to him, despite the evidence. Willie genuinely thought he could keep track of the deals he made and the people he made them with, and even more important, he insisted to himself that “good” could be fashioned out of “bad.”

About the latter he is tragically wrong. The ends do not justify the means, not then and not now. Why? Because politics of every stripe gets stuck in the “means,” which become ever more bloodthirsty, as noble ends recede into the horizon. With a snip here, a tuck there, much of this could be applied to George W. Bush, a man who, thus far, has had an incredible run of luck but who may find that luck disappearing as the war in Iraq continues to unravel.

Contemporary readers have a difficult time understanding the tragic temperament, one that allows Jack to “believe” that the grand hospital Willie wanted to build (and without a smidgeon of compromised concrete to boot) might well have happened if it were not for … just as Jack also knows better—that Willie’s political life began when he exposed the watered-down concrete of an elementary school and ended with the bad deals he was forced to make so that his hospital could move from dream to reality.

To save the waste land, a Grail Knight must pass certain tests of character. In Warren’s novel, the hospital stands as an emblem that will heal the sick society, but the philandering Willie is hardly a modern-day version of the pure Lancelot. He rages at all that has been stacked against him, and in those moments he reminds us of Lear insisting that he is a “man more sinned against than sinning” as he storms his way across the heath. Modernist literature is often about fragmentation (arguably the most influential example is T. S. Eliot’s epical poem The Waste Land [1922]). Often depicted, as in the cases of Eliot and Warren, in elegiac tones. It is clearly one of Warren’s models.

If Warren fashions his novel, at least in part, from the great literature that preceded him (yet another trait of High Modernism), he also tries hard to distance his novel from its roots in Louisiana politics and the larger-than-life Huey Long. It is not that the novel is “placeless” (towns have names—Mason City, Burden’s Landing, etc.—and significance), but, rather, that a one-to-one correspondence between Louisiana and the unnamed state in Warren’s novel or, for that matter, the same correspondence between Huey Long and character Willie Stark is beside the point.

That said, let me confess that it is hard for me to imagine a time when college students will read the novel without learning at least something about Huey Long. I suppose this will happen in a few decades, and a part of me will be glad. After all, that’s precisely what Warren wanted. On the other hand, I also worry that very few college students will be assigned this novel (too long, too difficult, too too), so any prolonged discussion about the blurring line between art and life now seems moot.

What is not moot, however, is what Warren’s novel can, and should, continue to teach us. All the King’s Men is not only the best serious novel about politics ever written in America, but also a triumph of the High Modernist imagination. As the plot line unrolls, we are forced to confront a world in which that which must happen, cannot; and, conversely, that which cannot happen, must. What I’ve described is nothing more nor less than tragedy, our most religious genre because it insists that suffering leads to insight and bloodshed to purification.

Willie’s upside-down theology reminds us that the Bible is one of the props, along with Shakespeare, that hold up classic American literature. One thinks of the Puritan theocracy under the unflinching gaze of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or of Ahab raging at the whale in a work like Moby-Dick. The other abiding prop is Shakespeare: Willie’s ranting reminds us of Lear, and Shakespearean threads—including a very bad performance at one point—punctuate Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As they say, that was then, this is now—a time when I am no longer as confident as I once was that the Bible and Shakespeare are the glue that holds serious literature together, or even that most students have had the Bible and Shakespeare read them, rather than the other way around. Far be it from me to add my name to those who would like nothing more than to dance on the novel’s grave (I’ve heard these people carry on since at least the early 1960s), but it seems clear enough that novels per se no longer matter as they once did. It may be that people browsing their way through a Barnes & Noble bookstore are more interested in memoir, history, or biography, or it may be that serious fiction is going through a bad patch. What I do know is that postmodernist writers such as Thomas Pynchon (V) and Don DeLillo (White Noise) are hardly starving. Their novels revolve around conspiracy theory and paranoia. If the world is fragmented (“destabilized” is the more with-it term), then that is a cause for celebration rather than for regret; and as for a tragic temperament, it no longer makes sense to those who prefer the playful.

About postmodernism there is only one pocket of general agreement—namely, that it is (perhaps purposefully) hard to pin down and that the best—some would say the only—place to start is to see the differences that separate it from modernism. All the King’s Men is an unashamedly modernist work, one that casts a clear, unflinching eye on American politics. Much of what it sees is a critique of populist demagogues such as Willie Stark, but the novel also insists that there was something noble about his all-consuming wish to help, indeed, to uplift, the downtrodden masses.

When Jack Burden fuses the boss’s story with his own, the result is not the cynicism one might expect in a postmodernist novel but, rather, a reaffirmation of his original faith in politics. As Hugh Miller, the former squeaky-clean attorney general under Governor Stark, once told him, “History is blind, but man is not.” Man is fated to understand and to be responsible, no matter how inevitable history seems or how pitiless the sky overhead appears. So it hardly seems surprising when Jack tells us that if and when Hugh Miller decides to get back into politics, he’ll be along to hold his coat.

Handicapping the 2004 elections is a task for others, but my hunch, for what it’s worth, is that the winner will be the man average voters can relate to and trust. If too many of these “average voters” (there probably isn’t any such thing) don’t have jobs or feel that the words Iraq and Vietnam are becoming interchangeable, Kerry might just pull off an upset. On the other hand, if he stumbles or flat runs out of cash, the tipping point may be the sheer number of ads (negative, positive, no matter) that Bush can run. Either way, the adrenaline-pumping message Jack Burden regularly got from a rotary dial phone—”You gotta get over here. All hell is breaking loose!”—continues to be a political reality, albeit now conducted on cell phones and over fax machines. Technology changes, but, at bottom, politics doesn’t; it worms its way into the blood.

And yet, in the same way that Tip O’Neill once insisted that “All politics is local,” I would further argue that all politics is finally a version of populism, whether it be old-style or brand spanking new. No one in this year’s Democratic field could match Senator John Edwards’s oratorical skills, especially when he got rolling about “the two Americas.” Who, pray tell, could be opposed to bringing these two (unequal) constituencies together? Certainly not the others in the Democrat field and, I suspect, not even President Bush.

Huey Long’s campaign song was a wishful dream, like the lyrics of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”; but reworded to read “Every politician a populist, every politician a populist, / You can be a millionaire,” it has the ring of truth.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading