Sarah Palin and All the King’s Men


crawfordThe political world seems to be agog over Sarah Palin these days, with Joel Klein of Time and  David Broder of The Washington Post, two columnists I respect, telling us to take her very seriously.  This has got me thinking of fictional populists, especially Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946), one of our country’s great political novels.

So what light does Warren’s masterpiece shed on Palin?

Both Stark and Palin set themselves up against the power establishment.  Willie Stark’s signature statement, “Gimme that axe,” is a metaphorical promise to cut out the corruption in the state capital.  “Going rogue” is how Palin frames herself  in the title of her book, and she is making Republican as well as Democratic leaders nervous.

Both Stark and Palin have the common everyman touch.  Voters see their frustrations articulated in the us-against-them stances and pour their dreams into them.

There are even some similarities between Willie’s first run for office and Palin’s vice presidential bid.  Both come to see themselves as used by the people that selected them.  Stark is employed to split the vote in a three-way race so that the establishment candidate can win, while Palin was used to pull in right-wing voters unenthusiastic about John McCain.  Stark, when he finally realizes what is happening, pulls out of the race and starts campaigning against the party favorite and for the third candidate.   Palin didn’t pull out but she fought attempts by her McCain handlers to corral her.  By the end of the campaign, it wasn’t clear who was using who, and she even wanted to give an election night concession speech that would help launch the next stage of her political career (McCain vetoed the idea).

There are differences, however.  Stark has to find his populist voice and, in fact, starts off a bit more like Obama than Palin, lecturing voters with charts and graphs.  He also slaves over law books to get his degree.  Palin, by contrast, seems a natural populist and is also averse to studying.  Furthermore, unlike Stark, she stepped away from power, resigning as Governor of Alaska (although some have seen this as a step toward the White House). 

She also is unlike Willie in her failure to attract Jack Burden types, Burden being the narrator of All the King’s Men.  Burden is an idealist who sees in Willie an opportunity to cut through Louisiana’s entrenched corruption and cronyism.  He would not be drawn to Stark if he did not see substance there, even though it is substance that becomes corrupted as the novel proceeds.

The problem with not having counselors such as Jack Burden is that they help provide the developed ideas one needs if one is to be taken seriously.  Palin may be right to avoid insider powerbrokers, but if she has serious political aspirations, she needs to draw upon serious thinkers.

Of course, Palin is from a different era than Stark and she has a model in George W. Bush, also famously incurious.  (On the other hand, Bush drew on neoconservative think tanks for many of his policy positions.)  In our age of celebrity politics, maybe the game has changed.  In his Time article Klein talks about the ability of style to entirely trump substance.

Klein may be overly pessimistic here.  Other politicians who have sounded the populist note have been willing to put in substantial work.  These include Ronald Reagan (governor of California and then radio show commentator, where he worked out many of his ideas), Bill Clinton (Rhodes scholar, Arkansas governor, and head of the Democratic Leadership Council), and Barack Obama (community organizer who learned in Chicago neighborhoods the challenges and possibilities of grassroots activism).  As a result of such preparation, these men were able to hold their own in the formidable ups and downs of presidential campaigns.

Palin, by contrast, seems like one who has achieved fame on a reality television show and is now coasting on it.  She can ride the waves but can she go in for the slog?  Does she want to go in for the slog?

One other similarity with Willie Stark is her attraction to privilege.  In All the King’s Men, Stark is corrupted by the very power and wealth that he seeks to overthrow.  Palin too appears to love the clothes and the lifestyle that go along with celebrity status. 

But there’s a key difference.  Stark has one true thing that he cares about, a state-of-the-art hospital.  An irony in All the King’s Men is that this vision leads to his death.  The doctor he has hired to run it, and who assassinates him, feels as though he has been manipulated after discovering that Willie is sleeping with his sister—even though Willie has chosen the doctor precisely because he acts out of perfect integrity.

At the moment I don’t see Palin in danger of such ironic reversals because I don’t see her caring for any project the way that Stark cares for his hospital.   If you’re not rooted in some kind of reality, you can’t be overturned.   As far as I can tell, she isn’t really for anything, a point that Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has made. This practically makes her impervious to irony.

Palin seems to stand for a certain style rather than any particular position: upbeat folksiness mixed with lower middle class resentment (with her sexy looks making the whole thing exciting).  It doesn’t seem to matter whether she makes things up, characterizes long-term health counseling as death panels, or advocates the bombing of Iran.  To criticize her for her policy positions almost seems like breaking a butterfly upon a wheel.

I get the image of the butterfly on a wheel from Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Arbuthnot.  Ultimately, Pope may teach us more about Palin than Warren because Pope understands image.  When the satirist wants to criticize a certain public figure, he imagines his friend Arbuthnot all but asking, “Why waste energy on that fluff?” Here’s the interchange:

Let Sporus tremble — “What? that thing of silk,
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass’s milk?

Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?

Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?”

To which Pope replies,

Yet let me flap this Bug with gilded wings,

This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings . . .

Pope feels it is necessary to hold people to account for their words and actions, an ideal that seems almost quaint in a world where image is everything.  Many today seem to think, with Arbuthnot, that reasonable people will see through the froth and that the Palin bubble will burst on its own.  Pope is not so sure.  Time will tell who is right.

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2 Trackbacks

  1. By On Obama, Lincoln, and Compromise on December 13, 2010 at 7:08 am

    […] unemployed in Chicago, and I see no sign of a Willie Stark sellout (an example of which you can see here). Obama’s differences with the left seem more over tactics and tone than […]

  2. By Lit and Shared Political Conversations on December 31, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    […] increasing polarization in our politics drew a lot of comment. I compared Sarah Palin to Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, to Goldilocks, and to Chaucer’s Wife of […]


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