You may recall that Willie Stark, the Huey Long-esque central figure in All the King’s Men, originally comes to power through a literal collapse of the infrastructure. Stark, who winds up as one of the truly sinister political figures in American literature, starts out as an earnest crusader, thrust into the limelight when a tragic school accident confirms his earlier charges of corruption in the bidding process used to construct the building. As one character puts it, “I am punished for accepting iniquity and voting against an honest man!”
You don’t see scenes like that much in American politics today, and it isn’t only because we don’t have novelists like Robert Penn Warren writing the dialogue. It’s because we live in an era in which the idea of a political white knight, a populist hero of the people, is a concept totally foreign to the average American.
Now, at this point in All the King’s Men Stark is, in fact, a relatively honest man. (This is before he goes on to become a poster child for the “power corrupts” school of political science. For more information look under “Moses, Robert.”) And therein lies the difference. Stark himself, in one of the novel’s most memorable lines, says, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.”
Again, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a politician today (or anyone else, for that matter, outside of an evangelical pulpit) who would put it in quite precisely those terms. But Robert Penn Warren’s words lie at the heart of the debate that is to come, and the way in which our times have changed.
A friend of mine from out-of-town asked me if the outrage had started yet over the 35W bridge collapse. Certainly, if you’re interested in pointing fingers there’s enough blame to go around. You’ve got, just for starters, inspection records that might have sent up red flags, pork-barrel spending that might have taken needed funds away from supporting the infrastructure, a constitutional amendment that was supposed to take care of funding for roads (and might – several years down the line) and two new sports stadiums going up. (Wonder where the money for those is coming from, hmm?)
I told him that while I supposed the outrage would be there eventually, frankly people were still a little too stunned to get going on it. Not to worry though, I assured him – it will happen soon enough. (In fact, there are already arguments going on over the design and speed of the bridge replacement, not to mention the likelihood of a gas tax increase to pay for everything.)
So it’s easy to imagine the blame game to come. (Because, after all, we do have to have someone to blame for it, don’t we? The human heart is far more comfortable with that scenario. Something goes wrong, it has to be someone’s fault, right?) The question, however, is who will benefit from it? Who’s going to be the white knight? And I don’t think that’s a crass question to ask, when you’re talking about someone the public will turn to.
The days of Willie Stark are gone now, or fading quickly. If you look at the literature, the movies, the TV shows of the 50s and 60s, government leaders are generally the good guys. If there are monsters to fight, the military takes them on. If there are gangsters on the loose, the feds are there to protect us. Aliens, mind-control, different types of sinister plots, might even bring the president into the mix.
Hard to believe that would happen now. The general perception of politicians today is not a particularly positive one. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that any politician is going to be able to ride to the top on a wave of outrage over the bridge disaster. Between the earmarking, the pork-barreling, the vote trading, and the general level of corruption and politics-as-usual that most people associate with politics, today’s leaders are probably more likely to be blamed for causing the collapse (or at least the conditions that precipitated it) than looked to take care of the problem. That won’t stop them from trying, from talking a good game about it, but as the saying goes, talk is cheap.
Thomas Sowell had a brilliant column last week regarding the subject of tax increases to pay for infrastructure. He doesn’t think much of it. There’s plenty of money to pay for infrastructure, he said;
The real problem is that the political incentives are to spend the taxpayers’ money on things that will enhance politicians’ chances of getting reelected.
There may be enough money available to maintain bridges and other infrastructure but that same money can have a bigger political payoff if spent building something new instead of maintaining and repairing existing structures.
So where is one to turn to find the white knight? Not the politicians. They’re all guilty to one extent or another, most people would say. Or, as Stark puts it, “conceived in sin and born in corruption.”
(We probably ought to be suspicious of politicians who promise to take care of the infrastructure, anyway. They have ways of turning out to be something other than we’d expected, even as they fulfill their campaign pledges. He made the trains run on time, anyone?)
In truth, the politician of the Willie Stark era has been replaced, in most cases, by the trial lawyer. (See Edwards, John.) No matter what type of calamity occurs today, if you look closely enough you’ll probably find a lawyer somewhere in the aftermath, already working up his first briefs. It’s not that we look to the lawyers to remedy the situation. No, what we ask from them is simpler, more straightforward: we want justice, retribution, financial restitution. We look to them to assign the blame, to hand out the punishment, to hold the guilty parties up to ridicule.
It’s almost as if we’ve given up on the idea of changing things, and are content to simply react instead. We can’t prevent bad things from happening; we can only punish those responsible. The trial lawyers have punished a lot of people over the years, and they’ve certainly made a lot of money for the victims of disaster and their families (and a great deal of money for themselves, in the bargain). They’ve also been responsible for adding to the cost of even the most basic services, of skyrocketing costs (in the medical field, for example), and in attaining a level of trust just about as low as that of politicians. The only difference is that the lawyers might at least be able to get you a few bucks; anytime you talk to a politician it usually winds up costing you money.
There is one other possibility, of course. Oprah. She’s always got a sympathetic ear, unless you do her wrong. (See Frey, James.) Her audience is huge, heart-on-the-sleeve-wearing, inclined to believe the best about you and the worst about them. Maybe she can’t redress the wrongs you’ve suffered, but at least she’ll give you a hug and a shoulder to cry on. And there’s always the chance you’ll get a few minutes of fame, and maybe a book or movie deal. How good is that – a chance at the money, and you don’t even have to go through the trial lawyers to get it. Remember in Three Days of the Condor how Robert Redford goes to the New York Times to expose our corrupt government? Forget that; the Times is so passé. Oprah is the crusading journalist of our time.
I don’t mean for this to sound too cynical, although it undoubtedly is the product of a cynical age. It’s just that the times have in fact changed. Not necessarily for the better, or the worse; Willie Stark was hardly a bargain, as is usually the case once someone gets that first taste of power and finds he likes it. It’s just that we don’t look to the crooked politicians anymore, but to the ambulance chasers.
So when we demand answers, when we call on someone to do something, when we ask, “Where’s the outrage?” we’d better be careful what we ask for. We might just wind up with Willie Stark. Or John Edwards. Or even Oprah. Which one is worse? You be the judge.