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All the Queen’s Men

Published: September 19, 2008
Section: Opinions


This past Sunday morning, sheltering in my quiet Castle garret from the Scottish dampness outside, I opened my computer to the New York Times homepage where, after checking the headlines (mostly hurricane Ike) and scanning the Sunday Book Review, I came across the Times exposé, if I may use that word, of Sarah Palin’s political life. I began to read. Slowly a peculiar thought began to dawn upon me, growing in scope and conviction the more I read: I knew this story, or one strikingly similar: the tale of a politician who had risen by fighting corruption in their own party, who had achieved high-office on a populist platform, but who afterword abandoned those very calls for reform, who put cronies in key positions, and generally used the state to service their personal interest.

I speak, of course, of Governor Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s classic All the King’s Men. Chronicling the political rise of Willie Stark, though that serves as but a meager description of the plot, Warren describes Stark’s transformation from an honest county treasurer into a corrupt, powerful governor. Generally agreed to be based on the reign of the “Kingfish”, Huey Long of Louisiana, though Warren long denied this, the novel elucidates the effects of the exercise of power.

How, you ask, did I come to compare Sarah Palin to Willie Stark? Actually, compared to the New York Times assessment, I don’t go far at all. “Throughout her political career,” the Times writes, “she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance.” Do I still sound so extreme?

But discussing the extent of the indictment sidesteps the issue; how, or does, the analogy fit? Both Palin and Stark came to the fore by attacking the current corrupt political order. Palin went after the chairman of the state oil and gas commission for corruption, making her name known as a foe of entrenched Alaska interests. Stark achieved distinction first as a proponent of honest contractors (any of my fellow Chicagoans should get a good laugh out of that), and later exposing the tactics of the then dominant state machine.

Both Palin and Stark pushed populist measures, Palin by taxing oil and gas companies, Stark by raising taxes on the upper income brackets. Both Palin and Stark retreated from their earlier campaign attitudes; as the Times article observes, “While Ms. Palin took office promising a more open government, her administration has battled to keep information secret.” Palin’s staff deliberately handled official business on private e-mail accounts on the theory that such communications would not be subject to subpoena. Over the course of his campaigns, Willie Stark was transformed from an honest, forthright politician into a typical machine fixer, shielding the criminal acts of the state auditor to enhance his own political power.

Both Willie Stark and Sarah Palin installed particular friends and supporters in state office; Stark made his machine conduit lieutenant governor: as for Ms. Palin, the Times scathingly observes that “The Wasilla High School yearbook archive now doubles as a veritable directory of state government.” Among others, Ms. Palin has appointed former classmates to the posts of legislative director and head of the state economic development office.

I could go on, but to do so would miss the point of this exercise. Being fictional, none of Willie’s crimes amount to a can of beans: his character, however, can offer a great deal of insight. Willie began in politics as the honest treasurer of Mason County, believing people voted on the issues, but during his first, abortive run for governor, the narrator disabuses Willie of the notion, explaining what really hooked the voters:

“What we need is a balanced tax program. Right now the ratio between income tax and total income for the state gives an index that…”

“Yeah,’ I said, ‘I head the speech. But they don’t give a damn about that. Hell, make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em think you’re their weak erring pal, or make ‘em think you’re God-Almighty. Or make ‘em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir ‘em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and they’ll love you and come back for more. […] That’s what they come for. Tell ‘em anything. But for Sweet Jesus’ sake, don’t try to improve their minds.”

It’s a lesson Sarah Palin understands very well. At one debate during her race for the governorship of Alaska, Palin, unprepared, was given a stack of reports just as the session began; the Times describes how Palin “put the pile of reports on the lectern. Asked what she would do about health care policy, she patted the stack and said she would find an answer in the pile of solutions.”

It’s a lesson that carried Willie Stark to unprecedented power in Robert Penn Warren’s novel, and one that at this very moment may yet catapult Sarah Palin to the vice-presidency of the United States.