Oct. 20, 2016
Gage Skidmore

Lee on Literature | Hillary Clinton and Huey Long

Get insights to hate toward Clinton from 1946 novel based on Louisiana politician

October 18, 2016, 12:00 am

Despite more experience in the highest levels of government than any other presidential candidate in modern history and a composed demeanor amidst increasingly absurd (and sexist) assaults, why do some folks still hate Hillary Clinton? The answer is found in Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book All the King’s Men (1946). 

All the King’s Men, a work of fiction, closely recounts the true story of Louisiana’s progressive Democratic political icon, Huey P Long. As a governor, a senator, and then a presidential candidate, Huey Long rose to dictatorial levels of power during the 1920s and 1930s by creating a political machine within the state of Louisiana, along with an outsized persona. Although Long greatly improved the roads, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure of Louisiana, which brought a backward state into the 20th century economy, “the Kingfish” was also a ruthless powerbroker with an overextended hand in every state transaction. Huey Long was assassinated in 1935.

Jack Burden narrates the historical fiction All the King’s Men. Burden is a close aide to the Long character (“Willie Stark”) who provides exposition, reflection and insight into Stark’s acts and motivations. A former reporter, Jack is a detached confidant, an idealist who finds many faults with Willie Stark’s realism. Yet as the book progresses, Burden gains several insights into Stark’s soul, along with an epiphany regarding his own passive nature.

Burden’s first insight is that Willie Stark is a political pragmatist. “What is good and right does not get things done in politics,” the governor notes. “Dirt” is a constant of political life. When Willie Stark revisits the ramshackle farm of his childhood, he reports, “I bet I slopped 500 head of hogs out of this trough ... 10,000 gallons of swill.” Stark’s personal philosophy regarding sin is that “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.” In short, humans are inherently corrupt. This is especially true in politics, where bribes, favoritism and back alley pressure are the practical tools for accomplishment in Willie Stark’s mind. Hillary Clinton demonstrates this same practical resignation toward corruption through her documented dealings within the Democratic Party backroom and the Goldman Sachs boardroom. Agendas are accomplished in big government with an ugly grease, a principal reason why some strongly dislike Clinton.

A dangerously progressive agenda is another link between Willie Stark, Huey Long, and Hillary Clinton. In the novel, Willie Stark’s core platform was composed of the following:

Every child shall have a complete education; no aged or infirm person shall beg for bread; no poor man’s land or house shall be taxed; the rich man and the great companies that draw wealth from this state shall pay a fair share; you shall not be deprived of hope.

Clinton’s 2016 platform mirrors this progressive Democratic agenda of the 1930s. As Willie Stark delivers these promises, he also raises taxes to pay for them, which begins a vicious cycle: promises, more taxes, more promises, and more taxes. Within a short time, the government grows to control nearly every facet of Louisiana life, with every job, road, hospital, school, judgeship, and government appointment requiring Willie Stark’s blessing. This “state intrusion” is a fundamental fear of Hillary haters, an anxiety that the government (and its principal agents) will usurp too much power over the average citizen’s life.

Ego is the third source of Hillary hate. As Willie Stark’s power and influence grow to near-absolute levels in Louisiana, he balks at bribes or schemes for enhancing personal wealth, which perplexes narrator Jack Burden. “The boss is not interested in money,” Burden concludes. “He is interested in Willie.” By the end of Willie’s run, he is much more concerned about his legacy, motivated by persona and legend, about making a mark with modern hospitals—which, in the end, are projects motivated by pure ego. Clinton admits to a similar conflict: "I've had to deal and struggle with a lot of these issues about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification, all of the human questions that all of us deal with. But when you put yourself out into the public arena, I think it is incumbent upon you to be as self-conscious as possible.”

In the end, Willie Stark’s ego even crosses Jack Burden though an illicit affair with Burden’s longtime love, Anne Stanton. This betrayal leads to Stark’s assassination. Yet Burden learns an important lesson through catastrophe about the power of “the twitch.” In short, he realizes that dissociating from practical evils of politics and life, living pure idealism, engenders a false balance. 

At times, one must engage egos, politics and the dirt—act with an animalistic twitch of life—a lesson for 2016 Americans who feel too disgusted to vote.

Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over 13 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels.  This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature.


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