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.
Politics, Influence, and Power ThemeTracker
Politics, Influence, and Power Quotes in All The King's Men
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.
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.
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.
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 . . . .
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 . . . ?
There’s nothing in the constitution says that Byram B. White can commit a felony with impunity.
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.
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?
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.
What would it cost? Well, MacMurfee was thinking he might run for Senator . . . so that was it.
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?
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--?”
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.
Oh . . . and I killed Willie. I killed him.
Oh God . . .