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Willie Stark Moment

Tn. Gov. Phil Bredesen and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear were in Clarksville today for one of those rituals that comes with being governor anywhere.

They unveiled some new highway signs directing motorists to the Robert Penn Warren birthplace in Guthrie, Kentucky, a town near the stateline on Interstate 24.

What makes this a bit more interesting, at least to me, is Warren’s role as the author of the 1947 Pulitzer Prize winning novel “All The King’s Men.”

The central character in the book is a rising politician of the Depression era named Willie Stark who becomes a governor and undergoes a transformation that is the heart of the story.

Published as the post World War II American political ethos was just beginning to form, Warren’s book has become a political time capsule of sorts. When Stark became Governor, the office in many states was much different than it is today. Governors in many states were dispensers of patronage with few specific duties aside from controlling state road projects and the highway patrol and the National Guard.

Unveiling new signs on a highway is just the type of event Willie Stark would have had on his calendar and he would have been magnificent. There probably would have been a parade through the town and large crowds at the ceremony. After all, the powerful undercurrent throughout the novel is what happens when citizens turn over politics to the politicians.

Willie Stark just had to win. And that was much more difficult than governing in his era.

Being a governor is much more complex for Bredesen and Beshear and their generation. Some of that is because of the shift in responsibilities during the Reagan era in the 1980s. And some of it is a change in our politics, in part, because of the tremendous influence Warren’s book had.

Warren’s achievement and influence in that regard are sometimes forgotten because in the analysis of our political history as a country, many moments are defined as the exact spot where our innocence died. Innocence dies a lot in political analysis. And it’s hard to argue that Watergate and the Kennedy assassination weren’t significant moments in that regard. But Willie Stark as a cautionary tale early in the timeline will always be relevant.

Warren always denied the book was a political tome that in today’s parlance we would say is “ripped from the headlines.”

In his introduction to the Modern Library Edition of “All the King’s Men,” Warren wrote that Stark represented “the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself. The book, however, was never intended to be a book about politics. Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out.