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All The King’s Men
By Robert Penn Waren
Throughout All The King’s Men, the reader is a helpless passenger on the treacherous train ride of events accompanying the political career of the great man and astonishingly successful politician Willie Stark. Although Willie has remarkable political success, he is endowed with similar vices as those individuals that partake in the field of politics. The responsibility and power placed upon Willie’s shoulders become a temptress of depravity, causing Willie’s transmogrification over the course of the novel. Willie’s corruption and degeneracy increase with the duration of his tenure as governor, while Willie simultaneously becomes more comfortable with his previously unrecognized wants and desires.
Before his term as governor, Willie was what one would call an ignorant country boy; untutored in the ways of sophistication, and with little or no savoir faire. In front of his peers, Willie declines a beer in favor of orange pop in obedience to the will of Lucy(p 17). Willie’s refusal to accept the proffered beer with deference to Lucy’s inclinations, despite the resulting conflict with Duffy, further display Willie’s naiveté and immaculate morals. These morals are confirmed additionally, by Willie’s efforts to bring in the most advantageous bargain for the taxpayers of Mason County on the construction of a new schoolhouse. Willie makes great personal sacrifices in order to inform the public of how they are being swindled, and of the corruption occurring behind closed doors.
Willie tried to get the Mason County Messenger to print something, but they wouldn’t. Then he wrote up a long statement of the case as he saw it about the bids, and tried to get the Messenger to print it on handbills in their job-printing shop, paid for, but they wouldn’t do it. So Willie had to go to the city to get the work done…Willie toted them around himself, over town, from house to house…When he had worked out Mason City, he went over to Tyree…and then he called on the crossroads settlements.
Willie’s approach to the issues of obeying his wife and his bureaucratic duty to the Mason City taxpayers are the inverse of his approach to equivalent matters as governor. Willie’s ignorant existence ends abruptly, ushering forth a new era of cleverness, when he is set up by McMurfee to eliminate the competition in a gubernatorial race. Willie’s revelation of his position as McMurfee’s “sap” causes Willie to go on a drinking binge, thereby betraying the ideals he ascribed to previously. After this landmark occurrence, Willie is changed forever.
Willie becomes governor of his state with much hoopla and celebration, but at what cost to his character and principles? Willie’s administration is soon tainted by scandal as he partakes in an illicit relationship with his “secretary” Sadie. The affair is exemplary of Willie’s abasement to his previous model standards. Also in the self debasement category, is Willie’s consistent indulgence in alcohol. This indulgence would have been unthinkable with the Willie of five years previous. The final step off of the plank of decency and into the gloomy waters of corruption, occurs with the Byram B. White scandal. In spite of the acceptance that Byram’s realty kickbacks scheme were illegal and deserved of punishment, Willie chooses sweep Byram’s transgressions under the rug at the cost of his own and his administration’s integrity. At this point in Willie’s occupation of the governorship, he is comfortable with making such corrupt decisions in the interests of preserving a positive public image, as opposed to when he was a lowly County Treasurer. With McMurfee’s men in the legislature calling for Willie’s impeachment for the Byram B. White cover up, Willie sinks to even lower depths. Blackmail is the double edged sword that Willie not only wields against his McMurfee’s men, but also against himself, as he thrives on the corruption he spawns.
In Willie’s final time as governor, he is frequently leveraging his opponents with blackmail, no longer lives with or speaks to his wife due to the numerous affairs he has or is engaged in, is drunk more often than sober, and contaminates his one “clean” project; his free hospital. The free hospital was Willie’s last hope of redemption in his mind for it was to be Willie’s mark upon society. Conceived in evil by Willie, but
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