Political hack turned apparatchik Jack Burden, narrates the rise and fall of “The Boss”, depression era Louisiana Governor and demagogue, Willie Stark. The roman à clef par excellence.
“All the King’s Men” is quite simply the best dramatic exploration of the political experience in any medium. While it’s most famously known as a thinly veiled fictionalisation of the political career of real life 1930s Louisiana Governor, Huey “The Kingfish” Long, ATKM is much more than more than a curiosity of political history. In fact, its themes are so timeless and its execution so perfect that ATKM is arguably a more rewarding when read in today’s political environment than when it was released more than 50 years ago.
A Pulitzer Prize winning novel that was adapted into a Best Picture Academy Award winner, the genius of ATKM is that it is a fully realised success at both the politico-historico-philosophical level as well as the level of the individual characters. Robert Penn Warren once claimed that ATKM was “never intended to be a book about politics” and he’s right. ATKM is a book about people. People with the same emotional baggage, complex personal relationships and rich emotional palates as anyone else. But also people who happen to be living and working in a political environment and are expressing their ambitions, insecurities and passions within this context. By treating his characters as people first and political actors second, Warren is able to produce a much more realistic and insightful exploration of the political experience than someone who had set out to write “about politics”. In this sense, ATKM reminded me more of “To Kill a Mockingbird” than the more obvious political analogues (eg “Primary Colors”, “Power Without Glory” etc). Yes, it has a “big picture” message, but the core of the novel, what makes it a classic, is a lyrically written, nuanced character examination.
That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Warren’s perceptiveness about the political process. ATKM rings very true to my experience of professional politics. ATKM portrays politics in all of its glorious idealism, compromises, corruption and malevolence but without the cynicism or naivety that generally undermines the realism of most of the political fiction I’ve seen (whether literary, TV, or Film). A big part of the realism of ATKM’s politics is a result of Warren insisting that all of the facets of politics, good and bad, are recognisable to varying degrees in each of the actors. Warren doesn’t offer any judgement of the actions of his characters other than to show that they have consequences that are frequently equally morally complex.
ATKM contains a wealth of home spun aphorisms and anecdotes from the Whatever It Takes school of political practice.
The most famous aphorism is Willie Stark’s classic invocation of ‘the ends justify the means’:
“You got to make good out of bad. That’s all there is to make it with.”
But there are many, many more.
At one point, Willie Stark describes one of his key political operatives, Tiny Duffy thus:
“The beauty about Tiny is that nobody can trust him and you know it. You get somebody, somebody can trust maybe, and you got to sit up nights worrying whether you are the somebody. You get Tiny, and you can get a night’s sleep. All you got to do is keep the albumin scared out of his urine.”
In a similar vein, when Stark sends his minions out to smear a seemingly high-minded political rival, he is adamant that he will be equally susceptible to blackmail as any other political actor:
“Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”
In another memorable passage, Stark defends his blackmailing of his rivals with ‘dirt’ with a home spun articulation of the ends justify the means:
“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.”
In addition to being a compelling narrative, ATKM is also brilliantly written. It’s the kind of book that leaves you constantly dog earring pages containing extended sections of brilliant prose.
Burden on his first wife:
“As long as I regarded Lois as a beautiful, juicy, soft, vibrant, sweet-smelling, sweet-breathed machine for provoking and satisfying the appetite (and that was the Lois I had married), all was well. But as soon as I began to regard her as a person, trouble began. All would have been well, perhaps, had Lois been struck dumb at puberty. Then no man could have withstood her. But she could talk, and when something talks you sooner or later begin to listen to the sound it makes and begin, even in the face of all other evidence, to regard it as a person. You begin to apply human standards to it, and the human element infects your innocent Eden pleasure in the juicy, sweet-breathed machine. I had loved Lois the machine, the way you love the filet minon or the Georgia peach, but I definitely was not in love with Lois the person. In fact, as the realisation grew that the machine-Lois belong to, and was the instrument of, the person-Lois (or at least to the thing which could talk) the machine-Lois which I had innocently loved began to resemble a beautiful luscious bivalve open and pulsing in the glimmering deep and I some small speck of marine life being drawn remorselessly.”
Burden on his unrequited love:
“It is the way a woman laughs for happiness. They never laugh that way just when they are being polite or at a joke. A woman only laughs that way a few times in her life. A woman only laughs that way when something has touched her way down in the very quick of her being and the happiness just wells out as natural as breath and the first jonquils and mountain brooks. When a woman laughs that way it always does something to you. It does not matter what kind of a face she has got either. You hear that laugh and feel that you have grasped a clean and beautiful truth. You feel that way because that laugh is a revelation. It is a great impersonal sincerity. It is a spray of dewy blossom from the great central stalk of All Being, and the woman’s name and address hasn’t got a damn thing to do with it. Therefore, that laugh cannot be faked. If a woman could learn to fake it she would make Nell Gwyn and Pompadour look like a couple of Campfire Girls wearing bifocals and ground-gripper shows and with bands on their teeth. She could set all society by the ears. For all any man really wants is to hear a woman laugh like that.”
Willie Stark’s father on his uncooperative dog:
“If he was hongry now, we could guile him. But he ain’t hongry. His teeth gone bad.”