Old book teaches perils of power

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

Used paperback book stores smell like cigarettes and coffee, the boiled essence of a schoolhouse cloakroom and the back alley behind a restaurant. If you lick one of the books — and you shouldn’t — I suspect it would taste salty. This is merely a hypothesis.

It was at just such a store in the Mesabi Iron Range town of Virginia where I purchased a dog-eared copy of “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren in 1997. That summer I worked nights on long weekend shifts and spent my weekdays driving around the Range looking for quiet places to read. This is how I found my favorite book, a story that has lived in my head ever since.

“All the King’s Men,” published in 1946, introduces a charismatic Depression-era governor in an unnamed Deep South state. Despite the literary ruse, the state is almost certainly Louisiana. Further, the fictional governor Willie Stark bears many similarities to Gov. Huey P. Long, a beloved and feared demagogue who rose to power during the 1920s and ‘30s.

But, by Warren’s own insistence, the work is no biography. Any comparison with Long becomes less significant as decades pass. In fact, the novel provides timeless exploration of human nature in the stew of politics. Warren’s epic still resonates even as modern campaigns overflow with social media, dark money, and unceasing negative ads — technological advancements that are no such thing.

I know this because lines from the book keep visiting me as the 2020 campaign wears on. I see characters from the book on my television screen, but also within myself: dueling interpretations of right and wrong. Some say this election is the most important in U.S. history. “All the King’s Men” suggests that political conflict merely reflects the perpetual contest in every human soul.

Willie Stark, a straight-arrow country lawyer, aims to root out corruption in the state. When bad cement from a crooked contract kills some school children, political bosses convince Stark to run for governor. But he’s just cannon fodder, elevated to draw rural votes away from their biggest opponent. He doesn’t know that, though. He gives earnest speeches to disinterested crowds until his advisor, the novel’s thoughtful, aptly-named narrator Jack Burden, gives him fateful advise:

“Just tell ’em you’re gonna soak the fat boys and forget the rest of the tax stuff,” Jack tells him. “Willie, make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em mad, even mad at you. Stir them up and they’ll love it and come back for more, but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t try to improve their minds.”

When Stark realizes how he’s being used, he steps up to a new crowd and gives a fiery speech (the best I’ve ever read in a fictional story). He drops out of the race, but returns in two years and swamps all his opponents at once. From that point Burden explains there was no party, only Willie.

As the years pass Stark uses his office to do good, but also to consolidate power. No one — not the legislature, press, or courts — can touch him. Here, Burden begins to doubt Stark’s tactics, but Willie snaps at him.

“Politics is a matter of choices, and a man doesn’t set up the choices himself,” Stark tells Burden. “And there is always a price to make a choice. You know that. You’ve made a choice, and you know how much it cost you. There is always a price.”

Stark means that all good costs something bad. He paves roads, builds schools, and promises the greatest free hospital that money can buy. All of these things do great good for the people who elected him, paid for by his enemies under his lash. But his methods involve blackmail, intimidation and cruelty against people who’s only real crime was getting in the way.

In the end, Stark pays for his choices, as do other characters. Sin brings blood and suffering. Burden, who very nearly succumbs to nihilism, ultimately sees the purpose of a life, and the value of true goodness. It is this lesson we could all stand to learn as the zero sum game of Election 2020 rumbles to its untold conclusion.

You can’t stand idly by. As Willie Stark gains power, justifying corruption as a necessary tool in doing public good, he brings his staff and supporters with him. Each rationalizes their role in the machine, believing that there is no helping those crushed under the wheels.

There are many ways to do nothing. You can embed your hopes with distant political gladiators, hoping that a Willie Stark can do what you can’t. You can bury yourself in Netflix or the bar scene, escaping as Burden tries to do by driving out West. Yes, you can even convince yourself that nothing matters. But these all provide false escape from the reality of life. “For whatever you live is life,” writes Warren, in Burden’s voice.

As Jack Burden concludes:

“… soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”

There is no escaping the truth. We must live with the consequences of our choices which will long survive us.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.