Willie Stark, Political Animal – All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Willie Stark, Political Animal

            Many people have tried to define what drives a person to act the way he or she does in the world of politics, but have always seemed to fail in providing a solid example. Robert Penn Warren was able to see the error that was commonly made and generated the novel All the King’s Men. Warren addresses many questions in the novel involving the personas of political figures and their companions who seem to cater to the political figure as if he or she is like a god. However, the political figure is not a god, he or she is a political animal who is actively involved in politics in favor of developing society. Willie Stark is the prime example out of the several main characters within the novel that takes on the persona of a political animal. Willie Stark’s character provides a solid foundation in explaining how and why a typical politician might act a certain way on a daily basis and how they may change. Even in the present day, there are political figures that clearly resemble the characteristics of Willie Stark by being populist in public appearance but acting another way behind closed doors, and as if they can control everything.

Willie Stark is a man, like most who try to enter in the political world, wanting to change the invalid system by challenging the status quo. Willie starts his career out as the Mason County treasurer overseeing various day to day operations. When Willie is aware that the J. H. Moore business is receiving the bid to build the new school house instead of the other low bidders, he becomes furious. Dolph Pillsbury, the Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, has a brother-in-law who owned a kiln willing to use cheap convict labor to build the new school house. Pillsbury used his power to silence the building inspector who leaked the information about the bad job performed on the school (Warren 88-90). Willie used his disgust of the blatantly obvious backroom dealing between Pillsbury and Moore to raise awareness of the corruptness of the government officials. He then tried to run against the political machine but lost the election against Pillsbury, until he was able to catch a break.

            Luck can help anyone gain an advantage in life, especially if the individual who is the recipient of luck is highly motivated, and his or her cultural background influences his or her character. According to the Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers, in order for a people to be successful they must have the three elements of motivation, cultural legacy, and luck. Willie Stark had immediate access to the first two elements. He had strong motivation and southern cultural influence which meant he would not take “no” for an answer. The third element of luck would come his way when he began to represent high profile cases that would bring him popularity as a lawyer and lead him to be “the candidate” for the Democratic primary (Warren 145). The sole reason that Willie was able to rise in popularity was due to Jack Burden, a friend and his right-hand man. Jack was able to point out using dull facts actually hurt Willie’s speeches. Willie was unaware that people could not relate to him in the past when he advocated against the corruption of Pillsbury. Therefore, Jack said that if Willie would simply speak in terms that people could understand, they would endorse him. Willie seemed to have taken the criticism to heart. He started to appeal to the populist by speaking in a charismatic manner to capture the constituents’ attention, which would lead to his election as Governor (162).

            It seems to be a common occurrence for people who are newly elected in any position within the political world to start off in the right direction. However, they eventually start to fall victim to the very affairs they campaigned against and hated in the first place, the status quo of corruption. One day Willie was provided with evidence that his state auditor Byram B. White had rigged the taxes for Hamill expecting to get some of the money (200). However, MacMurfee’s supporters in the legislature, who opposed Willie in general, found out about what happened and began to call for the resignation of Byram. Willie, being raised in the south, and also having a strong trait of pride decided to keep his image and not be intimidated. If anyone was going to make Byram quit, it would be Willie giving the order. However, Willie decides to cover for Byram. The reason Willie gave for covering Byram was that he did not want MacMurfee, his rival, to gain leverage over him and think he can toss out any of Willie’s appointees. In response, the legislators advocated the impeachment of Willie. Willie was not intimidated an ounce and sent Jack to gather information to blackmail all the MacMurfee boys into submission while Willie cleared the allegations with the general public by speaking in an enthusiastic and relentless way (Warren 224).

            In a way, Willie is like Erica from the novel The Social Animal by David Brooks, because he is motivated to get what he wants, even if it may seem that he is slowly acquiring the traits that he hated previously. If there is something that needs to be taken care of in order to have his way, Willie would do it. Willie was set on accomplishing his dream of building a free hospital for his people and wanted the best doctor to run it, which was Adam Stanton who despised him. Willie, having a strong arm over people, again sent Jack to do his bidding. Jack, in a sense, uses his connection to Adam as a childhood friend to convince him that sometimes you have to get involved with the wrong people in order to have good come out of it (Warren 356-357). Eventually, Jack came to the conclusion that unless he was to change the image of how Adam viewed the world, he would not help the “Boss” run the medical center. Jack found out that Adam’s father, whom had been governor at an earlier time, had taken a bribe and it was covered up by Judge Irwin (Warren 374). Jack intentional gave Adam’s sister the information he found hoping that when Adam reviewed it his view of the world would change.

            When people are provided evidence or data that shows that their ideals have been wrong all along, they become broken, upset, and sometimes stay in a state of denial. In brings into question that beliefs can become destabilized. Willie understood this concept of human nature; therefore, he naturally knew that in order to get Adam to fully corporate, he also had to talk sense into him on a personal level (Warren 389). Adam took the job. However, Adam was not the only one whose ideal of a person was shattered. Jack and Anne Stanton were at one point in love with one another and he referred to her as having beauty like the Greek marble statues that did not seem to change through time. He then finds out that Anne had been sleeping with the “Boss,” who also was married, and his past views of her are shattered. Willie is manipulating everyone.

            Relationships with people can be a great tool to persuade friends or partners to do things they normally would not do such as performing certain favors, especially if love is involved. Referring back to the novel The Social Animal, it is explained that people tend to hold onto a memory that is profound to the individual and will more than likely subject him or herself to the will of those with authority over them in order to appease them, even if that particular individual has changed. Jack is still romantically obsessed with Anne in the same way Harold was still obsessed with Erica. Even though both female characters have changed so much and could care less about the males who secretly seek their attention, the men still do what is asked of them. Anne eventually came to ask Jack to help clear up some commotion with Adam. Adam was trying to resign due to a crook named Coffee offering him a bribe for the hospital contract to be handed over to Larson which had nothing to do with Willie (Warren 486). Anne made it clear during this time that she was devoted to Willie and loved him. She was asking Jack to help save the hospital for the “Boss” and make Adam reconsider leaving.

            Although some situations can be amended in a timely fashion if one reacts to it quickly, not all situations can be controlled. Willie had to eventually submit to MacMurfee in relation to his son Tom knocking up a girl, which MacMurfee threatened to use against him. Willie at first decided he could control the situation by giving the contract to Larson, one of MacMurfee’s men, in order to keep him quiet. However, the “Boss” quickly changed his mind about the hospital contract and sent Tiny Duffy, his Lieutenant-Governor, to do his bidding (Warren 582). Tiny Duffy was subjected to verbal abuse by the “Boss” throughout his entire career. However, Tiny Duffy finally had enough of the “Boss” pushing him around and decided to tell Sadie, one of the women who had been having an affair with the “Boss.” Sadie was jealous of the affair Anne had with the “Boss” and naturally hated her, even though both women were committing adultery against Willie’s wife. When Sadie got word of it from Tiny Duffy, she told Adam Stanton, Anne’s brother about the affair his sister has been having with the “Boss”. Thus, Willie starts to lose his control.

            The multiple small factors that have been built up overtime seemed to be forming into an uncontrollable situation. Tiny Duffy who suffered at the hand of the “Boss” daily has decided he is not going to be treated like a dog anymore and decides to destroy Willie. Sadie is tired of being tossed aside by the “Boss” as a lover and decides to tell Adam of the ongoing affair. One assumes that Sadie tells Adam hoping that he will quit the hospital and let the “Boss’s” dream crumble. When Adam found out about the affair between his sister and the “Boss,” he scolded Anne because she did not deny it. He thought that his sister got him the job by sleeping with the “Boss,” which pushed him over the edge. Anne then told Jack to find Adam because he is all she had left because the “Boss” was going back to his wife. Then the uncontrollable event came when Jack was trying to explain to the “Boss” what all had taken place, Adam appeared (Warren 597). Adam shot the “Boss” and was then shot and killed by Sugar-Boy. The “Boss” later died, but beforehand told Jack that everything could have been different. After time, Jack found out that Tiny Duffy put the pieces together and essentially killed the “Boss” and his friend Adam. However, Jack understood that he was not going to fall in the trap that Tiny Duffy laid by telling Sugar-Boy who really killed the “Boss,” so that he could shoot him. Jack decided he was above corrupt tendencies.

            Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men thoroughly demonstrates how someone can rise and fall within the political world. Willie Stark was a very populist person and could relate to almost everyone. He used his acquired talent, thanks to the criticism of Jack, to help launch his campaign in a better direction. He started with good intentions to fix the broken system and to give the people the true government they have always wanted. However, when people have power, there are other forces around that may lead them to make bad decisions in order to keep their power. He began to perform corrupt acts such as backroom deals, bribery, and adultery. He acquired a large ego and treated those around him with disrespect and carelessness, which would come back to hurt him in the end. Willie thought he could handle everything but in the end found out that playing with fire can get you burned.

            In general, Robert Penn Warren did a phenomenal job in showing how someone can turn into a political animal. He also points out that people tend to use others to gain an advantage and to speak to people in a way to persuade them that everything that is being done is good for the state or country. However, what the people do not know is what’s going on in the backroom deals and the kickbacks that politicians may be receiving by providing favors to certain partners.

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