The stories of Jack Burden and Willie Stark become almost inextricably intertwined when Jack first meets Willie, just after Willie became Treasurer in Mason County. Then, when Willie became embroiled in a political controversy, the Chronicle sent Jack out to Mason City to cover the story. Later, the Chronicle also sent Jack out to cover Willie Stark’s first campaign for Governor.
Chapter One described events that, for the most part, took place in 1936, and we later learn that this novel is being written (or the story is being told by Jack Burden) in 1939. This chapter, in contrast, focuses primarily on events that occur between 1922 and 1932. As Jack tells about what Willie Stark was like and what happened to Willie in those early days in his political career, we inevitably learn a great deal about Jack Burden. We also learn a great deal about the political tradition that shaped Willie Stark.
In the nameless southern state in which this novel is set (obviously Louisiana because of Warren’s geographical references to neighboring states and also because of the topography), the county political organization seems to be exactly like the state organization, except that it operates on a smaller scale. In Mason County, for example, the political “boss” is Dolph Pillsbury, who is also the Chairman of the County Commissioners. It is he who determines who runs for office and who wins; he decided what post Willie would run for, and whether or not Willie would win; Willie thus became County Treasurer after Pillsbury and the incumbent had a falling out. Pillsbury also determines who receives county contracts. Political ties and family ties are more important than the legal requirements for letting bids. In the county organization, the political boss is the absolute ruler — at least until he makes a mistake.
Even though Willie has grown up within this political tradition, he is idealistic enough to buck the system when he sees something going on that he thinks is wrong. (He is also idealistic enough to believe that a lawyer should actually know something about the law in order to be admitted to the bar). Thus, when the County Commissioners pass over several lower bids to award a contract for a new school to a contractor who happens to own, in partnership with Pillsburg’s brother-in-law, a brickyard that was cited for producing poor quality bricks, Willie protests. Indeed, he mounts a campaign against Pillsburg’s candidate, disregarding the political consequences.
The strength of the political machine during the 1920s and 1930s is clearly shown in the failure of Willie’s campaign. In response to Willie’s charges, Pillsbury and his cronies spread rumors that the low bidder on the contract will bring a lot of “niggers” into the area — ignoring the fact that there were two other bids between the low bid and the one that was accepted. This story is effective in distracting people’s attention from the real issue, and it is all the more effective because Pillsbury supports it. In addition, Pillsbury’s influence is great enough that the newspaper in Mason City will neither print a story on the controversy nor print leaflets for Willie so that he can present his views. When he does manage to get the handbills printed elsewhere, he must deliver them himself, since the boys whom he hires to deliver them are “persuaded” not to do the job. Willie’s voice is the voice of a man crying in the wilderness.
In addition to being an idealist, Willie Stark is also stubborn and single-minded. In spite of the obstacles and the opposition which he faces, he persists in trying to make his position known. Furthermore, at the next election, he runs again for County Treasurer, even though Pillsbury has given his support to a more tractable candidate. Willie is of course soundly defeated, but it is interesting to note that, in the course of these struggles, Willie comes to take this opposition to him as a personal matter, becoming less concerned with the crookedness of the situation.
This entire episode serves to establish the political environment that shapes Willie Stark. It also provides the impetus for Willie Stark’s rise as a state-wide political figure, for Willie’s opposition to Pillsbury is proved to be right when three children are killed and several others severely injured when a fire escape collapses during a fire drill — because of the shoddy bricks that were used to construct the schoolhouse. People remember that Willie had tried to warn them, and when Willie campaigns against a Pillsbury-backed Senatorial candidate, the candidate loses convincingly.
Then Willie becomes a candidate for governor of the state. The fact that he does so at all is due to the machinations of one faction of the state Democratic party machine. Indeed, it becomes obvious that the only difference between the county machine run by Dolph Pillsbury and the state machine is that the state machine is large enough to have several factions competing for power. The Harrison faction picks Willie as a dummy candidate in an attempt to split MacMurfee’s rural support. They use Willie as a dupe, giving him a fraudulent show of support, a smooth organization, and sufficient people to assure him that he can be governor.
For most of the campaign, Willie exhibits the same qualities which he demonstrated in Mason County, and he is idealistic enough to believe that he does have a chance to become governor, even though he knows about the crooked machinations of the political system of the state. He is also idealistic enough to think that what the people want to hear is the truth and a program for good government, backed with dry facts and statistical figures — even though he knows how the people in Mason County responded to his campaign against giving the contract for the schoolhouse to J. H. Moore. Willie Stark is dazzled by the prospect of becoming governor, and he is stubborn enough and single-minded enough to keep polishing his speech and delivering it, even after he becomes aware that it is not effective.
When Willie Stark discovers that he is being used, however, several things change, and when he gets drunk for the first time in his life, he changes. As he did in Mason County, Willie takes this new situation personally; he doesn’t like it that “they” have treated him like a hick, a clod, and a dolt, and this time he does something about it. He remembers what he knows about people, and he uses it effectively to campaign — strictly on his own — against Harrison. He also serves notice that he will return to politics if MacMurfee does not keep his rhetorical promises. The jolt of his discovery that he has been politically “used” strips away Willie’s idealism and unleashes his natural flair for practical politics. As a result, the success of his campaign against Harrison establishes him as a potent political force in the entire state, rather than merely in the region around Mason County.
In this chapter, Willie Stark becomes a dynamic character, one who learns and changes. Jack Burden, on the other hand, is a static character. He is not an actor, as Willie is. Instead, Jack is an observer who simply watches the people around him. He does his job, and he drinks. When Willie talks to him about his campaign, Jack listens and makes soothing noises; when he does give Willie advice, it is cryptic, cynical, and non-committal. Nevertheless, Willie has a magnetism, a certain electric quality that attracts Jack, and so Jack takes care of Willie the morning after Willie’s first drunken binge, and Jack also quits his job at the Chronicle during Willie’s second campaign for governor (which he wins) because Jack cannot compromise; he refuses to write editorials supporting MacMurfee, the paper’s candidate. Indeed, Jack Burden has no direction and no motivation of his own; he needs someone to give him that direction. After he quits his job at the Chronicle, Jack moves without purpose, and he sleeps a great deal. It is only after Willie Stark offers him a job that Jack emerges from a meaningless drift.
Chapter Two of All the King’s Men, then, does several things that are important to the novel. It provides a vivid portrait of the political climate and system in the state, and it shows the events that led to Willie Stark’s rise to political power. It also establishes Willie Stark’s basic character, showing the changes in it, as well as developing the characterization of Jack Burden. All of this is important to our understanding the events of the first chapter, as well as understanding the events of later chapters.