Nearly three years ago I was sitting with Wade Munday and we were discussing books that changed and formed us. This was a time in my life that I barely had a pot to piss in, was extremely homesick and was asking myself what the hell I had done moving to Nashville.
For my birthday, he gave me a copy of one of his favorite books, “All The King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren. It meant a lot to him and he would talk about Jack Burden when we’d sit down and visit, which people still do.
I had read it when I was a kid and didn’t care much about the world around me when it came to politics. I was smitten with lofty ideas of being in love, writing the great American novel and all the mythical notions of my life being very much like what I saw in the movies. In other words, I skimmed through it, wrote a paper and eased along.
That was 30 years ago. A lot can change in three minutes, three days and three years but you look at three decades and that’s where the mind wanders and changes colors from black and white to a kaleidoscope of so many hues that one cannot breathe due to sheer wonder that life changes colors.
So, the only gift I got that year of being undeniably broke was a copy of “All The King’s Men” from Wade Munday and I treasured it. I didn’t read it immediately. Sometimes I have to do things my way, and so I consumed it this weekend again, this time reading and feeling every word of it knowing for some odd reason that this was the book I needed to read now.
“Politics is a matter of choices, and a man doesn’t set up the choices himself. And there is always a price to make a choice. You know that. You’ve made a choice, and you know how much it cost you. There is always a price.”
This is a story of two men, one brought to ruin by power (Willie Stark/Talos was not a bad man in the beginning and the end of the novel if you recall) yet he learned due to corruption set against him on how to manipulate emotions and work within a corrupt world. He was smart and became the bully that ultimately bullied him in the beginning of the book. He was the original literary figure that realized weapons of mass distraction. Jack Burden was the cynic, the one that had to realize that responsibility is extremely important, that you cannot sit on the sidelines while pigs are being slopped and not get some of that on even your best suit.
I’m not here to write about the book, which if you haven’t read you should. I’m here to talk about when we look through the lens of history we can see that nothing changes much. The fight between rural and urban political settings is still very real in this state. Could there be another Willie Stark/Talos in 2013 where a man can rise above politically without serious money? Burden was a newspaper man whose ambivalence toward the events around him left him in an amoral place and it was his history and cynicism that ultimately brought some redemption. The Great Twitch that Burden writes about is nothing more than an excuse to be uninvolved and to wash his hands of his and Stark/Talos’ abominable behavior in justifying corruption in the governor’s office.
And in the end of the day, there were no happy endings.
“If you want him to do it, you’ve got to change the picture of the world inside his head.”
Stark/Talos words resonated with a voting population because poverty was rampant and people were treated in many ways as cattle. Willie knew that and when he realized that they needed to hear words that rang like a church bell. The people who loved and supported his populism wanted only to see cool, clear water, and they didn’t want to know about the sharks and stingrays that swim under the surface.
“I suppose that Willie had his natural quota of ordinary suspicion and caginess, but those things tend to evaporate when what people tell you is what you want to hear.”
Not a lot has changed, I’m afraid. It’s the word soup that gets us in the end. Idealism is a wonderful thing but the bottom line is that reality is always swimming under the surface. Stark/Talos/Huey P. Long preached the political gospel with fire and brimstone. Today, a mild-mannered non-committal business executive speaks in measured tones about running a state like a business and hiring his buddies to “take care of business” but fails to mention Tennessee had the largest budget this year in state history.
And so many of us have found Jack Burden’s cynicism and cover ourselves up like it’s a blanket that will protect us until it’s too late.