(Pre) Weekend Reading: Robert Penn Warren: Perhaps the Greatest Political Set Piece in All American Literature...
Willie Stark learns that his backers are not good-government types who want the best for the state, but rather from the Harrison machine and want him in the race as a spoiler candidate:
Robert Penn Warren (1946): All the King's Men: "Then Willie [Stark] stood all alone by the table...
...saying, “My friends,” and turning his alabaster face precariously from one side to the other, and fumbling in the right side pocket of his coat to fish out the speech. While he was fumbling with the sheets, and looking down at them with a slightly bemused expression as though the stuff before him were in a foreign language, somebody tugged at my sleeve.
There was Sadie. “How was it?” she asked.
“Take a look and guess,” I replied.
She gave a good look up to the platform, and then asked, “How’d you do it?”
“Hair of the dog.”
She looked up to the platform again. “Hair, hell,” she said, “he must have swallowed the dog.”
I inspected Willie, who stood up there sweating and swaying and speechless, under the hot sun.
“He’s on the ropes,” Sadie said.
“Hell, he’s been on ’em all morning,” I said, “and lucky to have ’em.” She was still looking at him. It was much the way she had looked at him the night before when he lay on the bed in my room, out cold, and she stood by the side of the bed. It wasn’t pity and it wasn’t contempt. It was an ambiguous, speculative look.
Then she said, “Maybe he was born on ’em.” She said it in a tone which seemed to imply that she had settled that subject. But she kept on looking up there at him in the same way.
The candidate could still stand, at least with one thigh propped against the table. He had begun to talk by this time, too. He had called them his friends in two or three ways and had said he was glad to be there. Now he stood there clutching the manuscript in both hands, with his head lowered like a dehorned cow beset by a couple of fierce dogs in the barnyard, while the sun beat on him and the sweat dropped.
Then he took a grip on himself, and lifted his head. “I have a speech here,” he said:
It is a speech about what this state needs. But there’s no use telling you what this state needs. You are the state. You know what you need. Look at your pants. Have they got holes in the knee? Listen to your belly. Did it ever rumble for emptiness? Look at your crop. Did it ever rot in the field because the road was so bad you couldn’t get it to market? Look at your kids. Are they growing up ignorant as you and dirt because there isn’t any school for them?
Willie paused, and blinked around at the crowd. “No,” he said, “I’m not going to read you any speech. You know what you need better’n I could tell you. But I’m going to tell you a story.” And he paused, steadied himself by the table, and took a deep breath while the sweat dripped.
I leaned toward Sadie. “What the hell’s the bugger up to?” I asked.
“Shut up,” she commanded, watching him. He began again.
“It’s a funny story,” he said. “Get ready to laugh. Get ready to bust your sides for it is sure a funny story. It’s about a hick. It’s about a red-neck, like you all, if you please....
Willie hadn’t even bothered to look over the edge. “Let the hog lie!” he shouted:
Let the hog lie, and listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you’re hicks, too, and they’ve fooled you, too, a thousand times, just like they fooled me. For that’s what they think we’re for. To fool. Well, this time I’m going to fool somebody. I’m getting out of this race. You know why?
He paused and wiped the sweat off his face with his left hand, a flat scouring motion:
Not because my little feelings are hurt. They aren’t hurt, I never felt better in my life, because now I know the truth. What I ought to known long back. Whatever a hick wants he’s got to do for himself. Nobody in a fine automobile and sweet-talking is going to do it for him. When I come back to run for Governor again, I’m coming on my own and I’m coming for blood. But I’m getting out now.
I’m resigning in favor of MacMurfee. By God, everything I’ve said about MacMurfee stands and I’ll say it again, but I’m going to stump this state for him. Me and the other hicks, we are going to kill Joe Harrison so dead he’ll never even run for dogcatcher in this state. Then we’ll see what MacMurfee does. This is his last chance. The time has come. The truth is going to be told and I’m going to tell it. I’m going to tell it over this state from one end to the other if I have to ride the rods or steal me a mule to do it, and no man, Joe Harrison or any other man, can stop me. For I got me a gospel and I....
You ask me what my program is. Here it is, you hicks. And don’t you forget it. Nail ’em up! Nail up Joe Harrison. Nail up anybody who stands in your way. Nail up MacMurfee if he don’t deliver. Nail up anybody who stands in your way. You hand me the hammer and I’ll do it with my own hand. Nail ’em up on the barn door! And don’t fan away the bluebottles with any turkey wing!...