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All the King's Men

Robert Penn Warren

Chapter 2

Chapter 1

Chapter 3

Summary

Jack Burden remembers the years during which Willie Stark rose to power. While Willie was Mason County Treasurer, he became embroiled in a controversy over the building contract for the new school. The head of the city council awarded the contract to the business partner of one of his relatives, no doubt receiving a healthy kickback for doing so. The political machine attempted to run this contract over Willie, but Willie insisted that the contract be awarded to the lowest bidder. The local big-shots responded by spreading the story that the lowest bidder would import black labor to construct the building, and, Mason County being redneck country, the people sided against Willie, who was trounced in the next election. Jack Burden covered all this in the Chronicle, which sided with Willie.

After he was beaten out of office, Willie worked on his father's farm, hit the law books at night, and eventually passed the state bar exam. He set up his own law practice. Then one day during a fire drill at the new school, a fire escape collapsed due to faulty construction and three students died. At the funeral, one of the bereaved fathers stood by Willie and cried aloud that he had been punished for voting against an honest man. After that, Willie was a local hero.

During the next gubernatorial election, in which Harrison ran against MacMurfee, the vote was pretty evenly divided between city-dwellers, who supported Harrison, and country folk, who supported MacMurfee. The Harrison camp decided to split the MacMurfee vote by secretly setting up another candidate who could draw some of MacMurfee's support in the country. They settled on Willie. One day Harrison's man, Tiny Duffy, visited Willie in Mason City and convinced him that he was God's choice to run for governor. Willie wanted the office desperately, and so he believed him.

Willie stumped the state, and Jack Burden covered his campaign for the Chronicle. Willie was a terrible candidate. His speeches were full of facts and figures; he never stirred the emotions of the crowd. Eventually Sadie Burke, who was with the Harrison camp and followed Willie's campaign, revealed to Willie that he had been set up. Enraged, Willie gulped down a whole bottle of whiskey and passed out in Jack Burden's room. The next day, he struggled to make it to his campaign barbecue in the city of Upton. To help Willie overcome his hangover, Jack had to fill him full of whiskey again. At the barbecue, the furious, drunken Willie gave the crowd a fire-and-brimstone speech in which he declared that he had been set up, that he was just a hick like everyone else in the crowd, and that he was withdrawing from the race to support MacMurfee. But if MacMurfee didn't deliver for the little people, Willie admonished the hearers to nail him to the door. Willie said that if they passed him the hammer he'd nail him to the door himself. Tiny Duffy tried to stop the speech, but fell off the stage.

Willie stumped for MacMurfee, who won the election. Afterwards, Willie returned to his law practice, at which he made a great deal of money and won some high- profile cases. Jack didn't see Willie again until the next election, when the political battlefield had changed: Willie now owned the Democratic Party. Jack quit his job at the Chronicle because the paper was forcing him to support MacMurfee in his column, and slumped into a depression. He spent all his time sleeping and piddling around--he called the period "the Great Sleep," and said it had happened twice before, once just before he walked away from his doctoral dissertation in American History, and once after Lois divorced him. During the Great Sleep Jack occasionally visited Adam Stanton, took Anne Stanton to dinner a few times, and visited his father, who now spent all his time handing out religious fliers. At some point during this time Willie was elected governor.

One morning Jack received a phone call from Sadie Burke, saying that the Boss wanted to see him the next morning at ten. Jack asked who the Boss was, and she replied, "Willie Stark, Governor Stark, or don't you read the papers?" Jack went to see Willie, who offered him a job for $3,600 a year. Jack asked Willie who he would be working for--Willie or the state. Willie said he would be working for him, not the state. Jack wondered how Willie could afford to pay him $3,600 a year when the governorship only paid $5,000. But then he remembered the money Willie had made as a lawyer. He accepted the job, and the next night he went to have dinner at the Governor's mansion.

Commentary

This chapter takes a leap backward in time, covering the events that took place between Jack and Willie's first meeting at Slade's in 1922 and Jack going to work for Willie shortly after his election to the governorship. The chapter serves two important functions: it shows Willie's painful transformation from idealistic farm boy to savvy political tycoon, and it illustrates the political process as it functioned in Willie's state during the 1920s and '30s.

Jack makes it clear throughout this chapter that something inside Willie has always spurred him to reach for greatness. Willie naturally accepts the role of political hero that is cast upon him by the citizens of Mason County following the school fire-escape tragedy; and when Tiny Duffy and Harrison's men come to dupe him into running for governor as a dummy candidate, Willie is easily persuaded that he is God's chosen man. Even when he is a patsy for the Harrison gang, Willie throws himself wholeheartedly into his campaign, practicing his dull statistical speech over and over again. Jack repeatedly describes the incessant sound of Willie's footsteps as he paced through his hotel room reading his speech. And when Willie learns he has been duped, he describes to Jack what it was like to lay awake at night yearning to be elected governor.

The fundamental change in Willie's understanding occurs after he learns he has been tricked. He drinks himself unconscious, and then the next day delivers a fiery speech at the Upton picnic, making a fool of Tiny Duffy and utterly captivating the crowd. When MacMurfee is elected largely because of Willie's help, Willie realizes that politics is not a game of ideals, it is a game of willpower and manipulation. With this revelation, he bends his will to the task of learning the game, and emerges as the most powerful figure in state politics. Willie begins the chapter in Jack's mind as "Cousin Willie from the country," a gullible, likable, insignificant hick. He ends the chapter as Jack's employer. This chapter shows Willie's transformation from Cousin Willie from the country into the figure of the Boss.

This chapter also very plainly illustrates the corrupt business of Southern politics in the 1920s and '30s. Willie is only elected County Treasurer in the first place because he is related to Dolph Pillsbury, the political boss of Mason County. The initial controversy in which Willie becomes embroiled is over a building contract--Pillsbury wants to throw it to a man who will give him a kickback, and Willie tries to refuse. (This is significant because of the importance of the hospital building contract later in the novel.) The system of graft, blackmail, bribery, and trickery--as is amply demonstrated by the Harrison gang's dummy campaign for Willie--is the motor of state politics in All the King's Men. It is a system to which Willie is initially opposed, but which he is ultimately forced to master.

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