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SECTION TWO: THE CAMPAIGN
Willie is a lawyer now. And although he remains gullible and politically naive, he has a more cynical attitude toward life than he did before he lost the county treasurer election. For example, he studied long and hard for the bar examination, but when he took the exam, he burst out laughing about the simplicity of "those crappy little questions."
Willie's reaction is not unusual for someone who has spent a long time working toward what seems to be an unreachable goal. Lawyers, he thought, are people who should be expected to answer difficult questions on an examination. The exam did not challenge him. Perhaps he expected too much.
It is worth noting that Willie seems more interested in the social rewards that knowledge can bring (for instance, being a lawyer or a politician) than he is in having knowledge for its own sake. Social approval and recognition are more important to him than intellectual understanding and self-knowledge. In this respect, Jack and Willie are opposites.
One day some fat men in striped pants come in a big car to the farm and ask Willie to run for governor. Already, there are two men in the race-Joe Harrison, popular with city people, and Sam MacMurfee, popular with rural folk. Willie's visitors are from the Harrison camp, but Willie doesn't know it. Because Willie has become something of a folk hero, they hope he can split the MacMurfee vote. He falls for their flattery and begins to think that perhaps he is the state's messiah. After all, the schoolhouse incident was a pretty convincing show that he has a unique relation to God and Destiny. So Willie, with his ideals and fantasies, goes on the campaign trail.
Jack is the Chronicle reporter assigned to Willie's campaign. Night after night, in an adjoining hotel room, he hears Willie polishing his speech. Day after day, he sees the crowds tune Willie out. Willie's speeches are awful. He spews out facts and figures, awkwardly presents issues, and relies on the sayings and sentiments of men long dead. Finally, Jack tells Willie that he isn't gaining supporters because he talks about issues instead of trying to arouse emotions. What does Jack's comment say about his view of the American voter? Do most audiences prefer emotional excitement to information? Are people generally elected to high office on flash and style? After accidentally learning from Sadie Burke that he's been duped, however, Willie does develop flash and style.
Late one evening Sadie, who is Willie's secretary and a spy for the Harrison group, comes into Jack's hotel room while Willie is openly worrying that he's not going to be governor. Thinking that Willie knows he's been framed, Sadie reveals the truth. Further, she calls him a sap and a sucker. Shocked, Willie reaches for Jack's whiskey, takes his first drink of hard stuff, and keeps drinking until he passes out. The next day, at a barbecue, Willie, despite his considerable hangover, gives a barn-burning speech. Speaking from his heart, he excites the crowd by telling them what it's like to be a redneck and to be used because of it. He tells them what a dummy he has been for the Harrison people. Then he throws his factsand-figures speech into the air and resigns from the governor's race in favor of MacMurfee. He says, "Me and the other hicks, we are going to kill Joe Harrison so dead he'll never even run for dog catcher in this state."
And Willie is as good as his word. Using his own money, he travels the state making speeches for MacMurfee. Standing with a thumb in his overall strap, he begins his speeches with "Friends, rednecks, suckers and fellow hicks." Willie has found his own political voice and style. And even though he calls his audience hicks and tells them things they don't want to hear, they listen and vote for MacMurfee. With Willie's energetic support, MacMurfee becomes the next governor.
While MacMurfee is governor, Willie practices law in Mason City. Several of his cases make the state papers, and one, in which he represents an oil company, makes him rich. Then, in 1930, he again runs for governor, and wins. When Willie goes to the capital, he takes with him some of his old enemies-the Harrison people, the most important being Tiny Duffy, one of the fat men who helped to frame Willie. But now Willie wants him around. Why? Well, he tells Jack, Tiny reminds him of something he doesn't ever want to forget: "That when they come to you sweet talking you better not listen to anything they say." Jack, however, thinks that Tiny is there for another reason. He sees Tiny as Willie's "other self," his contemptible and corruptible self.
Some readers think that Robert Penn Warren "was" Jack Burden, that Jack represented Warren's attitude toward the characters and events in the novel. Warren, however, has said that he is all of the characters and continues to be involved in them. To some extent, then, the novel's characters the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of the author himself.
In a similar fashion, Willie's character can be understood, at least partly, by looking at the people whom he gathers around him. Of course, you learn what Willie is like through his words and actions. But also, by observing his chosen aides and companion-especially Tiny, Sadie, Jack, and, later, Anne Stanton-you learn more about what makes Willie tick. Thus, as you read further, notice the ways in which the other characters provide for Willie a mirror to reflect both admirable and despicable qualities. Also, you might consider to what extent you too surround yourself with people who reflect some of your characteristics-both those that are obvious and others that may be hidden.