A&E: Panou’s Paper Panel

“If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re probably running for President” is an old Southern saying I believe many Americans relate to. After all, what has a President done for you recently? Yet, I don’t go as far to hate the presidency as others do. If we look deep into American history, I can understand why such hatred runs deep in the American South. It is this distrust that is revealed in the near-forgotten political classic “All the King’s Men” written by Robert Penn Warren in 1946.

By the 1970s, Southerners lived in some of the greatest poverty in the Western Hemisphere. Plagued by unemployment, lack of job opportunities, poor education and abandoned by the Democratic Party, Southerners threw their power behind the voice of the ultra-conservative, anti-government Republican Party. They sought a new means of the expression of their personal liberties, one not found in their traditionally liberal politics.

But it wasn’t always this way. Warren’s classic political novel tells the tale of Willie Stark through the eyes of Jack Burden, two highly corrupt and powerful men in the Louisiana of the 1920s and 1930s. Stark – loosely based on the progressive Huey Long of the same time and stature – captivates his fellow Southerners with his fiery speech-giving, liberal economics and hatred of the Southern aristocracy. Through Burden’s eyes, we see that Stark is just as corrupt and horrid as any other politician.

Robert Penn Warren, Kentucky born, saw the promise of a beautiful American drama in the likes of Huey Long. Warren’s portrayal of Long through Willie Stark combines the powers of idealism and populism with Long’s endless lust and struggle for power. He does this in such a way that confuses me, or maybe just in a way that is supposed to make me think. Long, who degraded Louisiana with his corruption, built roads, schools and literally electrified his country with his fiery politics. Likewise, Warren writes that Stark “(makes) the trains run on time.”

So, do the ends justify the means? This is one question that Warren poses through this novel. Stark transfers considerable political power to his constituency, yet he is characterized in such a way that makes him appear fascist and unconcerned with his peoples’ well-being and only interested in the fortification and strengthening of his own power.

To make this broader, I believe that Warren’s underlying questions have an inherent value for all Americans: How sure are you that the government is your friend?