All The King's Men

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Themes and Colors
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Politics, Influence, and Power Theme Icon
Personal History, Memory, and Time Theme Icon
The South and Southern Culture Theme Icon
Loyalty, Friendship, and Betrayal Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in All The King's Men, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Politics, Influence, and Power Theme Icon

All the King’s Men is a political novel—a novel about the nuts-and-bolts of how politics gets “done.” For Stark and other characters, politics are inseparable from the use of influence and power to achieve one’s ends. Those ends might be for the public good, or they might be only for the enrichment of the politician. Stark is the novel’s political champion, and when he is finally assassinated, it is not because he has offended some political operative—rather, he has angered a man who believes himself to live outside, or above, politics (Adam Stanton). Stark is a populist politician, meaning that his policies are intended for the good of the people, and that he can make recourse to these policies as a means of defeating his political enemies, whom he paints as corrupt bribe-takers and fat-cats.

Stark’s achievements as a politician are undeniable in the state—the roads are improved, for one, and the hospital is to be built—but some citizens object to the means by which these changes are effected. Stark has little patience for the long-standing political institutions and networks in the state. But others, including members of Burden’s own family and friend group in Burden’s Landing (his mother; Judge Irwin; the Pattons) believe that Stark has upset the political balance in Louisiana, and that his methods will ultimately cause more harm than good.

Stark is buoyed by a number of political operatives, Jack foremost among them. Because of his background as a PhD student and a reporter, Jack is an information man—he hunts down “dirt” on political opponents of Willie’s. It is Jack’s biggest assignment to find dirt on Irwin, which Jack eventually does, although Jack runs this evidence by Irwin before making it public, thus causing Irwin to shoot himself. Sadie is the Boss’s political “hammer”—she is crafty, intelligent, and ruthless, and saw in Willie from the beginning his political potential. But when Sadie realizes that Stark has betrayed her, romantically, for the last time, she jettisons these allegiances and uses her influence to have Stark killed.

Duffy, another part of the political machine in the state, who was once opposed to Stark, becomes Stark’s Lieutenant Governor, and has a hand in Adam’s killing of Stark as well. Duffy is mostly concerned with using political influence to fatten his own wallet, which he does quite ably over his career. In the end, Burden comes to realize that politics are not just reserved for elected office, but are rather inseparable from all human relationships—power and use of influence can cause friendships to crumble, and mutual interests can bring parties together who might seem to have nothing in common. If Jack becomes disgusted with politics by the end of the novel, he has really become disgusted with the ways in which humans beings use each other for their own gain—even if he knows that he, too, has used others throughout his life.

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Politics, Influence, and Power ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Politics, Influence, and Power appears in each chapter of All The King's Men. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Politics, Influence, and Power Quotes in All The King's Men

Below you will find the important quotes in All The King's Men related to the theme of Politics, Influence, and Power.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The beauty about Tiny is that nobody can trust him and you know it. You get somebody somebody can trust maybe, and you got to sit up nights worrying whether you are the somebody. You get Tiny, and you can get a night’s sleep. All you got to do is keep the albumen scared out of his urine.

Related Characters: Willie “The Boss” Stark (speaker), Jack Burden, Tiny Duffy
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Willie Stark's philosophy of politics is at once simple and infinitely complex. On the one hand, he believes that, to manipulate people, you must flatter them, cajole them, be kind to them, give them things, tell them what they want to hear. But you must also strike the fear of God into them - you must cause them to believe that you are the powerful one, and that all they can do is listen.

With Duffy, Stark first approached cautiously. Then he realized Duffy (Tiny) was not a trustworthy man, nor a loyal man - that he would do whatever it took to remain viable in a political system prone to change, and to make more money for himself. When Stark noticed this, as in the quote, he was relieved - he saw that Tiny could be handled through a combination of kindness and the instilling of fear. This political philosophy Stark will put into practice throughout the novel, often to startlingly positive (or persuasive) effect. 


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Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.

Related Characters: Willie “The Boss” Stark (speaker), Jack Burden, Judge Irwin
Page Number: 235
Explanation and Analysis:

Willie has come down to Burden's Landing on a political mission - and in order to achieve what he desires, he must put pressure on Judge Irwin. Jack believes that Irwin cannot be pressured - Jack has known Irwin all his life, and he flinches at the thought of trading in on that relationship in order to push a political agenda.

But Willie has no such worry about the trip. Indeed, he relies on Jack's deep and sustained relationships with the political "old guard" of Louisiana. Without them, Willie would be just another upstart, a man trying, as best he can, to make his way in Southern politics without a name for himself. When Willie argues that dirt can be "dug up" on anyone, he means that all mean are fallible, that all have made mistakes in the past - and that these mistakes can, and should, be used for political leverage. This kind of politics is relatively new to Jack, even though he knows it's the way that Willie often plays the game. 

Chapter 2 Quotes

About two years after [the schoolhouse] was built, it happened. There was a fire drill, and all the kids on the top floors started to use the fire escapes. . . . Because the little kids held up the traffic, the fire escape and the iron platform at the top got packet with kids. Well, some of the brickwork gave and the bolts and bars holding the contraption to the wall pulled loose and the whole thing fell away, spraying kids in all directions.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Willie “The Boss” Stark
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack attempts to describe how, exactly, Willie came to power. Willie did so in part by pushing for a county bond to establish a new, higher quality schoolhouse. The corrupt county politicians agree to build the school, but bid cheaply, and the school eventually falls apart, killing many children inside. What's most striking about this moment, apart from its tragedy, is the means by which Willie uses that tragedy to further his own ends. He makes it plain that he has always opposed these cheap bricks, that he was on the side of the people even though the people didn't know he was on their side - that, in other words, he was, and always has been, a populist champion. This will become Willie's political identity, and he will develop it throughout the novel, even as he ascends to the role of governor in the state. Jack, for his part, recognizes both the sincerity of Willie's desire to help the people, and the way this desire also helps Willie professionally. 

I don’t know whether Willie meant to do it. But anyway, he did it. He didn’t exactly shove Duffy off the platform. He just started Duffy doing a dance along the edge, a kind of delicate, feather-toed, bemused, slow-motion adagio accompanied by arms pinwheeling around a face which was like a surprised custard pie with a hole scooped in the middle of the meringue . . . .

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Willie “The Boss” Stark, Tiny Duffy
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

What is more important than Willie's "shove" of Duffy from the platform stage is the political gumption that underlies it. Willie has realized that he is a "stooge" candidate for governor at this point in his career. He has been nominated by the Democratic machine in order to split the vote with another candidate - such that the will of the party bosses prevails. When Stark realizes this is the case, he becomes enraged, and, with great shrewdness, realizes there are only two things he can do. On the one hand, he could back down and meekly do what the party says. On the other, he could lash out, show that the party is trying to subvert the democratic process - and hope that the voters will respond positively to this kind of populist message. It is a rulebook that Willie will play by for his entire political career, and it will make him, for a time, into the most powerful man in the state. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

If the government of this state for quite a long time back had been doing anything for the folks in it, would Stark have been able to get out there with his bare hands and bust the boys? And would he be having to make so many short cuts to get something done to make up for the time lost all these years . . . ?

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Willie “The Boss” Stark, Judge Irwin, Jack’s Mother, Mr. and Mrs. Patton
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack Burden defends Willie's actions as Governor to the Irwins and the Pattons, families that represent some of the oldest and most powerful interests in the state - the bulwarks of Burden's Landing and of southern Louisiana more broadly. Jack is caught between two worlds. On the one hand, he hints that he recognizes the crudeness of Willie's methods, his populism, and his attempts to woo voters by catering to their emotions rather than to their rational minds. But Jack also sees that Willie is invested in real change, and that he wants to make the state better. Those in power, like the Irwins and Pattons, who have been in power for a long time, do not necessarily want to change the status quo to help those less fortunate. Indeed, for them the status quo is what makes them powerful in the first place. And even as Jack dines with and socializes with these families, he sees how limited their worldview is. 

There’s nothing in the constitution says that Byram B. White can commit a felony with impunity.

Related Characters: Hugh Miller (speaker), Willie “The Boss” Stark, Byram White
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

Hugh Miller, the state attorney general of Louisiana, objects to Willie's massaging of a tricky situation involving White, who, in an official capacity, has been caught skimming money. Willie knows that there is nothing more important than having something to "hold over" another person - that is, a criminal or unethical act that can be used to blackmail someone and force them to follow Willie's orders.

In other words, Willie is excited when he catches White committing fraud, since this means he will now have leverage with White - White will be in his pocket instead of in someone else's. This is how Willie operates. And Hugh Miller, who vows he has sworn to uphold the law, will not stand for it. But Jack, interestingly, simply watches. He neither condones nor decries Willie's behavior - he merely takes it all in, and reports it to the reader. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

Then it was another day, and I set out to dig up the dead cat, to excavate the maggot from the cheese, to locate the canker in the rose, to find the deceased fly among the raisins in the rice pudding.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Judge Irwin
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel has now looped back to its initial story - that of the meeting between Willie, Jack, and Judge Irwin, in the middle of the night in Burden's Landing. Willie needs Irwin to work with him, and Irwin is not inclined to do so; thus Willie asks Jack to find "dirt" on Irwin, as Jack describes in this passage, using an array of metaphors. This is, in part, Jack's theatrical and descriptive flourish - he was a doctoral student, after all, and has a literary turn of mind.

But it also shows the bind that Jack is in. On the one hand, he wants to help his boss - but on the other, he realizes he must subvert one of the deepest friendships he has, with a man who mentored him in his youth. Jack is being asked to choose, effectively, between his past and his present (and future) - and he sides with Willie. 

I can do no more. I went as you know to the people who are against Governor Stanton in politics but they would not listen to me. . . . I will never be any good again. I will be a drag on you and not a help. What can I do, Sister?

Related Characters: Mortimer Littlepaugh (speaker), Lily Littlepaugh
Page Number: 341
Explanation and Analysis:

Mortimer Littlepaugh was the "chief counsel" for American Electric, a company that, in a complex deal, winds up involved in Irwin's graft decades before. Jack digs up the fact that Littlepaugh went to the governor of the state of Louisiana to argue that Judge Irwin, then a high-ranking and prominent public official, had arranged a sweetheart deal for himself to make a private fortune, using his public office. 

Littlepaugh, disgusted that he could not expose the graft, and that the government would do nothing to stop Irwin's malfeasance, killed himself - and once Jack realizes this, he knows he has Irwin "nailed," that there is nothing the judge can do to stop Willie from using this information. This confirms what Willie said in the beginning of the novel, that all men commit bad deeds, and that only some men have to answer for them - unless those bad deeds are uncovered by crack researchers like Jack. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

I told him . . . I told him that if he wanted to do any good—really do any good—here was the time. And the way. To see that the Medical Center was run right.

Related Characters: Anne Stanton (speaker), Adam Stanton
Page Number: 369
Explanation and Analysis:

Anne convinces her brother that, though he opposes working for Willie Stark, Stark is the man who stands between him and the job of his dreams: running a charity hospital that could benefit the residents of the entire state. Thus Adam, like Jack, finds himself in a bind, although Adam has a harder time working for Willie, ultimately. Both Jack and Adam are idealists who must occasionally behave as pragmatists, and Anne does her part to convince Adam that he can live with himself after having "sold out" professionally to Willie.

Anne is an interesting figure in the novel. She is beloved by many, most notably by Jack. And yet she is most vivid not in her contemporary appearances, at the time the narrative is written, but in the past, as Jack describes spending time with her at the Landing. It is as if Anne becomes most alive when she is in a memory - not when she is standing before Jack in real life. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

What would it cost? Well, MacMurfee was thinking he might run for Senator . . . so that was it.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Harrison and MacMurfee
Page Number: 499
Explanation and Analysis:

The revelation of this quote causes Willie to activate his long-held plan of using his "dirt" on Judge Irwin. MacMurfee is in Irwin's pocket, and MacMurfee now thinks that, having learned that Willie's son has gotten a girl pregnant, he (MacMurfee) can use this as leverage to gain a senate seat in Louisiana, the same seat Willie has had his eye on for years.

Willie, of course, is not going to allow MacMurfee's plan to unfold, and he therefore relies on Jack to go to Burden's Landing and talk to Irwin. It is blackmail of a third party to defeat blackmail against himself, and Willie knows that it is entirely personal - that MacMurfee wants to use a detail from Willie's son's life to derail Willie's career. Thus Willie, who believes that all political battles are personal ones, has no problem sullying Irwin's reputation to keep MacMurfee from sullying his own. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

God damn it, so the bastard crawled out on me.
I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t tell you to scare him to death, I just told you to scare him.
He wasn’t scared.
What the hell did he do it for then?

Related Characters: Willie “The Boss” Stark (speaker), Jack Burden (speaker), Judge Irwin
Page Number: 535
Explanation and Analysis:

Irwin's suicide, which mirrors Littlepaugh's suicide years before in the American Electric case, is a double blow for Jack. First, it is an indicator of what can go wrong when one person tries to utterly ruin another - that second person always has the horrible option of ending his or her life, thus stopping the power dynamic of blackmail. And, even more importantly, Irwin's act causes Jack's mother to reveal that Jack is really Irwin's son - that Jack was the child, out of a wedlock, of a romantic union between his own mother and Judge Irwin.

This latter piece of news is almost too much for Jack to bear. For not only does he learn that his own father, the Scholarly Attorney, is not his biological father - he learns that he has caused his biological father to kill himself, all for political gain for Willie Stark, not even for Jack Burden. 

Sugar-boy was leaning above him, weeping and sputtering, trying to speak. He finally managed to get out the words:
“D-d-d-does it hur-hur-hur-hurt much, Boss--?”

Related Characters: Willie “The Boss” Stark (speaker), Sugar-Boy (speaker)
Page Number: 598
Explanation and Analysis:

Willie's lieutenants, those who have supported him his entire political life, who have believed in him since he was a young and unpolished man - they gather around him now, in the hospital he has built, hoping that he does not die of the gunshot wound he has suffered in the capital (the bullet fired by Adam). Willie's operatives (particularly Sugar-Boy) are loyal to him to the end, vowing that, if he does die, he will not die in vain, and that the state will long recognize Willie's achievements.

But Jack, seeing Willie suffer, has a more complex set of emotions. For Adam has killed Willie, in part, for sleeping with Anne - thus "ruining" Anne's reputation, as Adam sees it. Jack, of course, is devastated to know about Anne's relationship with Willie, and the fact that Anne and Willie seem to be genuinely in love. Knowledge of the affair caused Jack to drive away to Los Angeles, and perhaps, too, to give up on romantic possibility altogether. This same revelation happened to drive Adam to murderous frenzy. 

He died the next morning, just about day. There was a hell of a big funeral. The city was jam-packed with people, all kinds of people . . . people who had never been on pavement before.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Willie “The Boss” Stark
Page Number: 603
Explanation and Analysis:

The people of Louisiana adore Willie. He was their champion all his life, a populist hero for the state, who made his career early on by defying large-scale political interests and the moneyed classes that ruled Louisiana. Willie dared to put the interests of the people first, and to use them to gain political power.

That, at least, is the public story. In private, however, and as the novel demonstrates, Willie was a populist as much for his own advancement as for the sake of the people's. He saw that he could do good by promising to be one of the people, not a special interest - yet he became so powerful that no one, he felt, could touch him. And Willie, by the end of his life, believed that any tactic was fair to pursue for political purposes - any kind of blackmail, any kind of illicit or behind-the-scenes leverage. It is this second part of his political life that the people on the sidewalks did not see, and Jack knows this. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

Oh . . . and I killed Willie. I killed him.
Oh God . . .

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Sadie Burke (speaker), Willie “The Boss” Stark
Page Number: 618
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack realizes that Sadie leaked the information to Adam that Willie and Anne were having an affair, because Sadie at least partially knew that Adam would be so enraged to hear it that he would do anything to stop Willie. Sadie did this because she loved Willie, after having served him loyally for years, and she couldn't bear the thought of Anne being with him. Duffy, Willie's operative, also participated in this leveraging of behind-the-scenes information, since Duffy, too, knew that he could destroy Willie this way - and Duffy had his eyes on bigger payoffs and greater office than he could achieve with Willie in power.

Thus Willie was undone by his own affair with Anne, but moreover undone by those who promised to be loyal to him. Sadie and Duffy used Willie's own tactics against him, and Sadie, at this point in the novel, is in a mental institution, having suffered a breakdown; she recognizes that she has suffered for Willie's murder, though perhaps not as much as Willie has.