In Robert Penn Warren’s classic 1946 Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Kings Men, one of Gov. Willie Stark’s acolytes offers the burly, tough talking southern populist politician a little advice about how to deal with the voters.
“Just tell ’em you’re gonna soak the fat boys and forget the rest of the tax stuff…Willie, make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em mad, even mad at you. Stir them up and they’ll love it and come back for more, but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t try to improve their minds.”
If you haven’t read Warren’s timeless story of political corruption fueled by a politician who will stop at nothing to destroy his opponents and accumulate power, it may just be the perfect preview of the next phase of the Republican presidential nominating process.
The first film version of All the Kings Men won three Academy Awards in 1949 with the brilliant Broderick Crawford starring as the demagogue Willie Stark. (Crawford won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal.) At one point, when it looks like Willie’s political climb has hit the skids, he tells a crowd, “I’m in this race to stay and I’m out for blood.”
As the Lazarus of American politics, Newt Gingrich, rides out with a victory from the nasty, divisive South Carolina primary toward what will prove to be the nasty, divisive Florida primary – just the kind of environment in which Gingrich thrives – it’s worth reflecting on why Gingrich has suddenly become a viable contender for the GOP nomination. It’s really pretty obvious. He’s tapped into the same populist anger that Warren wrapped around his fictional southern politician in the 1940’s. Some things never go out of style.
In a nutshell, the former Speaker of the House has an ability, an ability that former front runner Mitt Romney will never have, to tap into the raw populist anger that comes naturally to a glib political calculator.
Gingrich modestly – or maybe not – said of his thrashing of Romney in South Carolina that he really wasn’t a great debater, but that he, alone presumably, “articulates the deepest held values” of the American people. The South Carolina crowd loved his attacks on the “elites” of New York, Washington and the liberal media. And, of course, it is the brilliance of Gingrich that he can turn aside questions about his own behavior – marriages, Tiffany lines of credit, big consulting contracts with Freddie Mac – by attacking the messenger. Gingrich never wavers in his conviction that his ideas are the biggest, his motives the purest, his attacks lines the fairest.
Barack Obama is the “food stamp president,” but such language implies no racial code in a state like South Carolina Gingrich says. The president, says Newt, has a “Kenyan world view,” whatever that is, but a Kenyan “world view” has to be something dangerous and unlike the rest of us. In the bright light of triumph in South Carolina, Gingrich was trying to channel Ronald Reagan and claim the mantle of the real conservative, but he mentioned the former president only once. He mentioned Saul Alinsky three times, as in the “radicalism of Saul Alinsky is at the heart of Obama.” Those Alinsky references must have sent a lot of folks to Google.
While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a guy many Republicans wish was in the race, calls Gingrich an “embarrassment” and the party establishment quake at the thought of the pudgy, disgraced former Speaker carrying the GOP banner, Newt sails on. His anger, contempt for his opponents and lust for the political jugular, his ability and willingness to “stir them up,” make the one-time Congressman from Georgia a worthy successor to a long American line of Willie Starks.
Willie Stark’s life and death is often compared to the real life political career of Louisiana Senator and Governor Huey P. Long, but Robert Penn Warren always insisted that Willie was a more universal character; a character that springs from deep within America culture, a character that found life in earlier days in Joe McCarthy, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace.
“They tried to ruin me,” Willie says in the movie, “because they did not like what I have done. Do you like what I have done? Remember, it is not I who have won, but you. Your will is my strength, and your need is my justice, and I shall live in your right and your will. And if any man tries to stop me from fulfilling that right and that will, I’ll break him. I’ll break him with my bare hands, for I have the strength of many.”
On to Florida and a test of the strength of the Gingrich approach to politics and a long week ahead for Mitt Romney.