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All The King’s Men – A story of how power corrupts

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Power corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. -Lord Acton

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. – John F. Kennedy

Willie Stark sure could have used some of that cleansing from poetry. He begins in a rural country seat. He gets a law degree through correspondence and takes on cases that cause powerful people to notice him. He wins more cases as he presents himself as a man of the people. He becomes Governor. His soul is seduced by power. Eventually, the power against which he first fought corrupts and destroys him completely.

Willie starts out with the right motives, but as he grows in stature in his state, he loses the essential innocence and decency that once defined his character. He is involved in making shady deals and using threats and intimidation to get more and more power.

A judge offers his resignation as attorney general. Stark accuses the judge of not wanting to get his hands dirty. The judge warns Jack Burden, who is the journalist following Stark, that he is nothing more than a hatchet man to do Stark’s bidding. It is fitting that his last name is Burden because Stark becomes Jack’s burden. He has to keep doing damage control for Stark, defending his actions more and more. He becomes infected by Stark’s evil, that rises to suffocate the goodness that once defined Jack.

Jack tries to defend Stark to his friends. “Out of evil comes good. The end justifies the means. “The Greek playwright Sophocles wrote in Electra (c 409 B.C.), ‘The end excuses any evil,’ a thought later rendered by the Roman poet Ovid as ‘The result justifies the deed’ in ‘Heroides’ (c. 10 B.C.).

The scary thing about this saying is that is how Adolf Hitler rose to power. A failed painter and Lance Corporal in the Bavarian Army in World War I, says he will offer the German people financial stability and work for all, but it comes with a great price of an evil campaign of death and terror against the Jewish people. Many see him as the saviour who is leading them out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Time will reveal the error of their thinking.

Stark’s evil is insidious. It taints everything it touches. He thinks that he is above the law, a power unto himself.

I won’t tell you further details of the story, because the full impact of it must be seen with your own eyes.

Yes, poetry does have its own cleansing power. The Bible itself has its own purging poetry. Perhaps, if Willie Stark had read that restoring Biblical poetry, he wouldn’t have been corrupted by the dark power that destroyed his soul.

Generous in love—God, give grace!

Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record.
Scrub away my guilt,
soak out my sins in your laundry.
I know how bad I’ve been;
my sins are staring me down

Psalm 51: 1-3 The Message

David Hume, who was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist and essayist wrote, “The corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst.”

Pray for your politicians. It has been my personal experience that most of them I have met have their heart in the right place. They work hard for the constituents they serve. Sadly, some as they gain more power lose their identity. They become lost, not quickly, but slowly, pieces at a time, until they no longer recognize themselves. They lose that shiny idealism that they started out with.

None of us are immune to that corrupting god of power. We all have to be careful we keep our heart free of that seductive snake. It can poison you and suffocate your goodness. The CEO of a major corporation all the way down to an administrative assistant can fall prey to its encroaching darkness.

Power can accomplish great things, but All The King’s Men is a stark reminder for all of us that it can have a dark side.

Let us all keep a pure heart when we are given power.  With it comes a great responsibility to use the gift God has given you for His kingdom work, and not your own ambition.

Let us all use the power God gives us for His honour and His glory. Let us work as His servants of grace, truth and a beauty that we seek by God’s wisdom to find in each soul.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart;

Try me, and know my anxieties;

And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting”

(Psalm 139:23-24, New King James Version).


“Wise Words and Wives’ Tales: The Origins, Meanings and Time-Honored Wisdom of Proverbs and Folk Sayings Olde and New” by Stuart Flexner and Doris Flexner (Avon Books, New York, 1993).