Study Guide

All the King's Men Politics

By Robert Penn Warren

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Town from the waist up, country from the waste down. Get both votes. (2.65)

All the King's Men is full of pithy witticisms like this. They give it the flavor and feel of the time and place. This passage also points to the importance of appearance in the political arena.

It was a piece of luck for Willie. (2.143)

No one can accuse Jack Burden of not speaking plainly. Still, this is a rather brutal and cynical statement. If that schoolhouse fire escape hadn't collapsed, we might not even be reading this book. The tragedy is what propels Willie toward Boss-dom.

"Friends, read-necks, suckers and fellow hicks."(2.477)

Willie's speeches are certainly colorful. It's one thing to tell the crowd you are one of them, but it's another thing to get them to believe you. A huge part of Willie's talent is getting people to believe. Part of why he is so successful is because he really believes it himself.

"Get down here to the Capitol at ten o'clock. The Boss wants to see you."

"The who?" I said.(2.285-86)

Oh that fateful call. Jack is about to begin, in earnest, the political career he unwittingly began years ago when he covered the schoolhouse situation for The Chronicle. The fact that Jack was the one to tell Willie's story in those days might be why Willie thinks of him now.

"Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something." (4.3)

This phrase really sticks with Jack, and quotes it throughout the novel. It's also in some ways the key to Willie's success. He's essentially saying that a person can't go through life without doing something that can be used against him or her in the future. It's a version of "all men are created equal."

I have been this afternoon to see Governor Stanton and told him how I have been thrown out of my job like a dog after all these years because that man Irwin was bribed to let up the suit […]. (5.347)

This is from the 1915 suicide letter of Mortimer Littlepaugh. It is a precious historical document, which becomes the political tool that both wreaks havoc and exposes truth. It's also a record of some very dirty politics.

[Jack:] "Governor Stark wants you to be director of the new hospital and medical center." (6.71)

Though this quickly escalates to a political situation, initially it is not. Willie wants Adam to run the hospital because Adam is the best. But Adam and others think Willie is using him as a political tool.

[Willie:] "I told you to dig on Irwin. What did you get?" (8.222)

When the Boss has nowhere left to turn, with regard to the Sibyl Frey situation, he turns to Judge Irwin. This shows how politics can become inextricably linked to the personal lives of Jack, Willie, and the Judge.

[Willie:] "And I – I had to buy, the sons of b****es made me buy!" (9.69)

It's a point of pride for Willie to never have to bribe anybody. He certainly prefers blackmail. With the Judge dead, Willie doesn't have any competing dirt to counteract the dirt on Tom. So he has to resort to filthy lucre. This is the beginning of the end of the politics in this novel.

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