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Monday, November 9, 2020

Recommended Book #4 - All The King's Men


Politics isn't like debating. It is not - at least most of the time - what it should be: a rational discussion about alternative views of the world. It is a deeply emotional business, which attracts people who have a compulsive need to live at a white hot level of intensity and drama. Actually, come to think of it, it is a bit like debating. No wonder both politics and debating are so compelling.

I know of few better depictions of the political life than Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All The King's Men, which seems more relevant than ever as the Trump era draws to a close. The main character is Willie Stark, based on the populist demagogue Huey Long, who served as Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, and then as Senator from 1932 until his assassination in 1935. Like Long, Willie is a foul mouthed, corrupt, womanising bully (remind you of anyone?); also like Long, he is a popular hero, acclaimed everywhere by his first name, worshipped by his followers for his generous handouts from the public purse. We see Willie, who in the mid-1930s becomes Governor of an unnamed American state - we must assume it is Louisiana - up close and personal through the eyes of the narrator, Jack Burden, who invariably refers to him as ‘The Boss’. Jack has been drawn into Willie’s inner circle as one of his closest courtiers. He is transfixed by Willie’s charisma, and is thrilled by an almost chemical addiction to the unceasing sense of conflict and jeopardy that surrounds the great man. He is at his master’s beck and call twenty four hours a day, ready to bribe those who need bribing, threaten those who need threatening, and dig the dirt on those for whom blackmail is the only solution (as Willie tells him at one point, ‘There’s always something.’).

Willie is a restless, driven character who can never sit still. He barely sleeps and lives on adrenaline, cigarettes and liquor. It feels exhausting to follow him and Jack on their perpetual odyssey to power through crowded diners, emotionally charged mass meetings, and brutal midnight confrontations in (literally) smoke filled rooms. The sub-tropical climate of Louisiana is like an extra character in the book. Heat and humidity are a constant presence, another enemy to be fought with on a daily basis, as sweat soaks through everyone’s clothes like guilt. The intense, febrile atmosphere is magnificently evoked in Penn Warren’s prose, which swerves giddily between sensuous lyricism and clear eyed realism.

Willie becomes a father figure for Jack, whose own father left the family when he was six, to be replaced in his mother’s affections by a series of increasingly unsatisfactory boyfriends. We sense that Jack seeks from Willie the approval that he never had from his own father. This need to make up for something lacking in childhood is all too common a motive for those drawn to the political life; Jeremy Paxman estimates in his book The Political Animal that over half of British Prime Ministers grew up with emotionally or physically absent fathers. Willie is not the only surrogate father in Jack’s life, though. There is also Judge Irwin, a family friend who takes Jack hunting as a boy, and to whom he looks up as a figure of rock like integrity and devotion to public service. Early on in the book Willie and Judge Irwin clash, when the Judge refuses to endorse Willie as a candidate for Senator. We see Jack accompanying Willie to Judge Irwin’s house in the middle of the night to bully and threaten him; the Judge is unmoved and unmoveable. Jack looks on, painfully torn in this battle for his loyalties.

There is another substitute family in Jack’s life. Distanced from his mother from an early age, Jack adopts the Stanton family. Old man Stanton was Willie’s much admired predecessor as Governor, worshipped by his children Anne and Adam, who are Jack’s closest friends from childhood. Anne seems destined to be the love of Jack’s life. Adam becomes a doctor, and, like Judge Irwin, stands for an uncompromising devotion to virtue, driven by a desire to serve the common good rather than by the need to acquire wealth and power.

And yet all they all fall from grace in the end. The book is shot through with a bleak, Southern Calvinist notion of original sin. As Willie comments, in parodically Biblical style, ’Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud’. Willie himself begins as a well meaning but ineffective campaigner against corruption and inefficiency before he is pushed into deviousness and brutality by an early experience of betrayal. Jack starts out wanting to discover the truth, first as a history student, then as a reporter, but ends up using his investigative skills to bring down Willie’s enemies. Governor Stanton turns out to have had a less than perfect record in office, and the shattering of her illusions about her father drives Anne into the arms of Willie both metaphorically and literally, wrecking any hope of her finding happiness with Jack. Adam comes to the bitter conclusion that the only way that a much needed hospital will be built is for him to join Willie’s team, despite his contempt for Willie’s methods. When Willie gives Jack the Oedipal task of finding something on Judge Irwin which will destroy his rival, Jack uncovers a secret which is as damaging to him as it is to the Judge. The last pages are filled with the flapping of chickens coming home to roost in a succession of tragic climaxes, some of them violent.

All the King’s Men is not without its flaws. Jack’s internal monologue can at times veer towards a rather lush, overwritten romanticism. The racial politics is very much of the novel’s time and place, and will make a contemporary reader feel uncomfortable: the ’n’ word is used freely and without apology by all and sundry, and the only function of non-white characters is to open doors or pour drinks. However, despite the characters’ and the novel’s failings, this is anything but a cynical book. Rather, All The King’s Men dramatises the one, eternally recurring dilemma of politics down the ages, and doubtless into the future; when and where and how much do you compromise? Which matters more, purity or power? Willie is not an unmitigated monster; Penn Warren is too skilful a writer for that. There still lurks behind all that he does a sense that he truly wants to make people’s lives better. As he confides to Jack, ‘You got to make good out of bad. That’s all there is to make it with.’ But how much bad? For how much good? That is the question all politicians have had to wrestle with, from Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar onwards.

All The King’s Men is a long way from a glib anti-politics satire of the lazy ‘They’re All the Same’ variety. It is a much more interesting and much truer book than that. Its characters are intensely human, possessed by complex, contradictory desires, mixed of venality and heroism, of high idealism and low pragmatism, driven by both a noble sense of duty and their own restless, inescapable demons. As, it is important to remember, is almost everyone in politics. Even Joe Biden. Even, perhaps, Donald Trump.

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