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Willie is an American hero, and he seems to be living the American dream. He studies night after night for years to educate himself when he can't afford to finish college, and eventually becomes governor of his state. As governor he builds schools, roads, hospitals, and jobs. He fights racism, corruption, poverty, and inequality. He stands up for the little guy and fights oppression with truth.
So why does he have such a bad reputation? Why do so many write him off as a corrupt politician? Maybe it's because the "truth" that Willie uses to fight oppression is often in the form of dirty secrets from someone's past. He uses these secrets to blackmail his opponents into doing what he wants. So Willie has a bit of a dark side to him. That said, let's take a deeper look at his character.
This line from David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" reminds us so much of Willie. One compelling way to understand Willie is through his own rise and fall. What Willie wants doesn't change over the course of the novel, but how he gets it does.
So what does Willie want? He wants to change his society. He wants to rip it out of the backwards chains that bind it and all the people in it. He wants food and clothing for the poor and free medical care for all. He is interested in highways, schools, and hospitals. That's why he spends huge chunks of his pre-governor time reading up on history and law. What Willie learns is that good intentions are not enough. If he can't reach the hearts of the people in his state, it doesn't matter what he wants.
Jack first learns of Willie when he's sent by his Chronicle editor to "see who the hell that fellow Stark is who thinks he's Jesus Christ" (2.2) cleansing Mason City of corruption. When Jack meets Willie for the second time, he describes the Starks' house as "the one-man leper colony of Mason City" (2.104). Then he says, "The leper was sitting in his room" (2.105). Because Willie is trying to expose corruption behind the schoolhouse contract, he is an outcast in his community.
Even after the schoolhouse corruption is made public and Willie is no longer a leper, when Tiny recruits him to run for Governor, Willie is still completely clueless regarding how to connect with the people of his state. In a sense, it is Jack who shows him how. Jack feeds him so much liquor that Willie forgets his inhibitions and channels all the frustration and anger of the people when he speaks publicly. The result? Incredibly powerful speeches.
There is a significant downside to Willie's newfound public speaking process: he becomes an instant alcoholic. His drinking is linked to his ability to reach the people, and do other less savory things that he feels are necessary in order to help the people. This brings us to why Willie is often seen as a villain, which is a confusing aspect of the novel. To understand this issue, it's helpful to remember that Willie is a fictional character in a fictional world. Although the Willie is based on Huey Long, and the setting is based on Louisiana, this is not history.
In Willie's world, the only way to get ahead in politics is by playing dirty. If he wants to get that new school or road built properly, or support companies that give opportunities to African-Americans, he has to get his hands dirty.
Drinking allows Willie to forget that he doesn't like blackmailing people. Once drunk, he focuses on doing everything possible to help the people in his state get what they need, and conveniently forgets the unsavory methods he uses. And let's not forget that it is the dirty, corrupt acts of Willie that enable him to accomplish some good deeds – building schools and hospitals, and fighting for those whose voices have been stomped down by others. In a way, he becomes an "end justifies the means" kind of a guy, and will do almost anything to get his way politically. Since he blackmails his political opponents with the truth, and with the intention of helping the people of his state, he justifies his corrupt actions.
Drinking also helps him keep up the weighty Biblical language that he injects into his speeches, language which makes him so effective with his audience. Willie's Biblical overtones go back to his very first speech. He tells the crowd that he would know the truth if Sadie "hadn't been honest enough to tell the foul truth which stinks in the nostril's of the Most High!" Then he actually compares himself to Christ, by saying that Tiny Duffy is "Judas Iscariot, the lickspittle, the nose-wiper" (2.455).
Yet, Willie doesn't really believe strongly in religion, as we learn when Willie and Lucy are waiting to hear if Tom will be all right. Lucy keeps repeating that Tom will be OK, "God willing," and Willie keeps disagreeing with her, saying that Tom will be OK because he's "tough" (9.299-300). Willie's real god is the god of "tough."
We don't think Jack has any romance during the entire time he works for Willie. Why? Willie has claimed all the women. And the women have sure claimed him, too. His wife, Lucy, continues loving him in spite of his infidelities. Sadie and Anne have a similar story; both women think there's nobody in the world like Willie, and both believe Willie will eventually leave Lucy. Each woman is also convinced that he will eventually marry her.
We don't ever see Willie interact intimately with any of these women. We can't, because our narrator, Jack, doesn't. What goes on with Willie and these women behind closed doors is secret information, even to Jack.
To Willie's lovers, his appeal is likely his power, audacity, and principles. Yes, principles. Twisted principles, but principles nonetheless. Willie truly wants to see conditions improve for the people in his community. He is fighting for real equality among people. He's a wild ball of energy burning through history to save the American dream.
Interestingly, the very fact that Willie has multiple indiscreet love affairs is part of his appeal to the (male) voting public. They like that he can maintain his marriage, several affairs, and run a state at the same time. To them, this is evidence of real skill and that he's fit to lead.
The human side of Willie comes to light when we think of his relationship with his son, Tom. When Tom is injured on the field, Willie waits not only until the game is over, but until he's talked to the players before heading over to see Tom. But it's not because he's callous or doesn't care about his son. In fact, it's just the opposite.
Tom dying or becoming seriously injured probably rank among Willie's worst fears. In an attempt to suppress these fears, he practices something like Jack's idealism. (See Jack's "Character Analysis" for more.) If he acts like everything is OK, that means everything in his world is OK. He maintains this idealism to the last possible moment – when Adam informs him that Tom's spinal cord is crushed, and that he'll be pretty much "a baby" forever.
After this painful moment, Willie uses Tom's death to continue his corruption cleanup and hopefully salvage his deal with Adam. Now that Tom is dead, Willie feels he can renege on his deal with Gummy, and say "no" to extortion. Ironically, Willie pursues a strategy of corruption the majority of the time in order to rid the world of corruption. That he wants a system without corruption, and chooses the uncorrupt path at a crucial moment, is ultimately what gets him killed.