The themes of “All the King’s Men” include the issues of idealism versus pragmatism, whether or not the ends can justify the means, and whether or not the truth really sets one free. The reader is forced to confront the notion that people are not all good or bad: “the human contraption is a very complicated contraption and they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of good.” In fact, Jack voices the notion that God would not have made man perfect, that man had to be made imperfect to set him aside from God. The character Willie Stark (based on the real-life politician Huey Long – see below) believes that “everyone had a secret” and understood that he could control people by knowing their secrets and using them to his advantage. Jack Burden always seeks the truth, and it usually causes more trouble than good (for example, the suicide of Judge Irwin). At the end of the book he finally let’s the truth pass when he doesn’t reveal to “Sugar boy” that “Tiny” Duffy was the one who provoked Adam Stanton to assassinate Willie Stark. Stark is powerful and ambitious whereas Burden is impotent in some ways and lacks ambition. This may be why Anne Stanton falls for Stark and never committed herself to Burden earlier in the story: “I lacked some essential confidence in the world and in myself. She came, as time passed, to suspect this fact about me.” Jack’s “burden” is to puzzle out the meaning of things. He finds that human beings are bound together through their imperfections and that life is a force that persists through adversity (the “Great Twitch”): “Life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve.”
Huey Long: The real-life Willie Stark
Huey P. Long was born in Winnfield, Louisiana in 1893. He dropped out of high school and worked as a door-to-door salesman before pursuing and obtaining a degree in law. He was elected to the Louisiana Railroad Commission (later called the Louisiana Public Service Commission) in 1918 and ran for governor in 1923 and 1927. He was elected and began serving as governor of Louisiana in 1928. He called himself the “Kingfish” after a popular radio character. Long pushed through several controversial pieces of legislation his first year in office. He expanded social services, built and improved roads, built hospitals and schools and transferred the tax burden to corporations and the wealthy. He soundly crushed individuals who opposed him by political, social, or financial means. An impeachment attempt was made in 1929 but he not only survived it but went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1931. He initially supported Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1932 but broke with him in 1934 (the cause for the split was unclear) and planned to challenge Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination or run for president on a third party ticket. This move would have presented a difficulty for Roosevelt in that Long may have taken enough votes away from Roosevelt to allow a Republican candidate to be elected. In 1932, Long founded the “Share Our Wealth” National Society at the height of the depression. It was founded on the radical notion of redistributing the wealth of the nation by confiscating the fortunes of wealthy individuals. He was viewed by some as a champion of the people against special interests and reviled by others as a dangerous demagogue who used populist rhetoric to advance his own personal interests. On September 8, 1935, one of the things on the agenda for a special Sunday session of the legislature was to gerrymander the district of one of Long’s political enemies, Judge Benjamin Pavy. As Long walked through the Louisiana State House in Baton Rouge on that day, he was assassinated by a physician named Dr. Carl Weiss, Pavy’s son-in-law. Weiss was immediately shot and killed by Long’s bodyguards. After the shooting, Long said “I wonder why he shot me. I don’t know him.” Long died a few days later. This assassination is considered by some to be the second most controversial (after that of John F. Kennedy) in terms of unanswered questions.