Known as “Cousin Willie from the country,” Stark is so shaken when he learns of the scheme that he gets drunk for the first time. The self-taught and somewhat naïve, even idealistic, county treasurer who had studied his secondhand law books — and Emerson and Macaulay and Shakespeare — in front of a rusty old stove at the family farm then reaches deep and finds his calling. Appealing to the resentments of his poor white constituency, he rallies crowd after crowd almost to madness. Pretty soon, he’s sitting in the governor’s mansion.
Willie Stark has gotten really good at beating corrupt politicians at their own game. In his state, machine politics has replaced the illusory rectitude of old boy aristocrats, but Willie is neither an aristocrat nor a machine pol; he’s a solo act. He’s also an authoritarian grandstander who uses all the means at his disposal, whether court-packing or blackmail. “There’s always something,” he tells his expert dirt-digger, Jack Burden, who narrates the novel.
Yet Willie sincerely wants to bring roads and schools to his state, to tax the rich and to create a more equitable social structure. Unfortunately, though, he thinks only he can deliver the goods, and that how he chooses to do it doesn’t matter. He believes he embodies the people’s will. “Your need is my justice,” he shouts to them. He’s their ruthless, energetic “Willie.”
But what surprised me most on rereading the novel was that a hospital — a hospital — lay at its center. When the basically unsympathetic but complex Governor Stark escapes impeachment (impeachment), he promises a roaring crowd that he’s going to build a big, beautiful, free hospital to ease pain and sickness. “You shall not be deprived of hope,” he tells them. Willie’s dream is not a dream of meretricious beauty, like Jay Gatsby’s. It’s a dream of health care as a basic human right.
Before that hospital goes up, Willie is fatally shot by the priggish and somewhat self-deluded romantic who happens to be the famous physician picked to run the place. “It might have been all different, Jack,” a dying Willie tells the narrator. “You got to believe that.”
Maybe so; maybe he’d have built his beautiful hospital just the way he said he wanted, without graft or sin. I like to think so. But maybe he’d build it however he could, simply to get it done. As it is, we’re left with the slightly portentous narrator, who bears the novel’s “burden,” having finally discovered that we’re all connected, for better and worse: “The world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter,” he says. “It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things.” We’re all connected, yes, and in connection lies responsibility. Willie Stark may finally grasp that. But frankly, I don’t care who builds that hospital: Just build it.
Brenda Wineapple is the author of several works of history and literary biography, most recently “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation.”