Whisky & Culture

Days when they were kings

Jefferson Chase takes a nostalgic trawl through Robert Penn Warren's political classic
By Jefferson Chase
Struggling to maintain my sanity amidst all the sensationalist soundbites, proxy mudslinging and media manipulation of the 2004 American Presidential election, I turned to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men a book over half a century old that could hardly be more topical.Based on the life of former Louisiana governor Huey Long, this 1946 Pulitzer Prize winning novel is both a exposé and a celebration of Southern politics, a grand tale of corrupted ideals, replete with sensationalist sound-bites, proxy mudslinging and media manipulation. All the King’s Men is narrated by Jack Burdon, a newspaper reporter turned right-hand man for the fictional Governor Willie Stark.Burdon’s main job is to dig up dirt on Stark’s political opponents, and reflecting over the obligatory shots of bourbon, Burdon can’t decide whether he more admires or loathes the man he calls, simply, The Boss.Stark is both a self-styled champion of the common man and a ruthless demagogue willing to use any means necessary to enforce his political will. In a flashback, Burdon recalls how whisky played a role in the Boss’s meteoric rise to power.Stark, it seems, started out as an idealistic, tee-totalling patsy, secretly underwritten by the political machine to split the opposition vote and guarantee the incumbent’s re-election. Afact lost on Stark himself, until his campaign manager puts him in the picture.It hit him. There was no denying it. His face worked as though he might try to say something or might bust out crying. But he didn’t do either one. He reached over to the table and picked up the bottle and poured out enough into a glass to floor the Irish and drank it off neat.It’s the first real drink of Willie Stark’s life. But it isn’t his last. The result, initially, is predictable. Stark wakes up the next morning in no condition to deliver a planned speech at a big rally.He opened his mouth a little way and his tongue crept out and explored his lips carefully, wetting them. Then he grinned weakly, as though he were experimenting to see if anything would crack. Nothing happened, so he whispered, “I reckon I was drunk last night.” “That’s the name it goes by,” I said. Ever the loyal assistant, Burdon tries his best to get his employer back on his feet. Nothing helps except that old stand-by, the hair of the dog.When they reach the rally, Stark is well primed for a minor melt-down and a major political breakthrough. He throws away the script and discards his reasoned arguments for a populist tirade against his enemies on both the Right and the Left.As I rounded the end of the grandstand, I looked back and there was Willie flinging sheets of his manuscript from him so they swirled about his feet and beating on his chest and shouting how the truth was there and didn’t need writing down. There he was, with the papers about his feet and one arm up, the coat sleeve jammed elbow high, face red as a bruised beet and the sweat sluicing, hair over his forehead, eyes bugged out and shining, drunk as a hoot owl, and behind him the bunting, redwhite- and-blue, and over him God’s bright, brassy, incandescent sky.The Boss is born. He’s found the persona that will take him to the Governor’s Mansion and the verge of a run for the Presidency.Reading Penn Warren’s words as the candidates mouthed their final pieties last November, I couldn’t help feeling a bit nostalgic.Although the rules of the game have stayed largely the same, there’s no room in politics any more for earthly pleasures like alcohol. Are we better off as a result? I seriously doubt it, and although I’m sure some people disagree, I’ve got not only Robert Penn Warren, but Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Boris Yeltsin on my side. Colourful characters all, who frequently tied one on and threw away the script.If there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s that human weaknesses aren’t the worst qualities a politician can possess.