All the King’s Men: Populism and Frustrating Presidents As Constants In U.S. Politics

On December 6, the Ash Center partnered with the Harvard Film Archive on a screening of the 1949 classic All the King’s Men directed by Robert Rossen. Rossen’s work is being featured in a film series at the Film Archive from November 29 to December 23, 2013. Ash Center Director Tony Saich, the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, introduced the film with brief remarks capturing the novel, people and places that inspired All the King’s Men. Saich also highlighted compelling connections between democracy today and the life and times of the film’s muse, former Louisiana Governor Huey Long. If you enjoyed this film, you will surely enjoy reading Saich’s remarks reprinted below!


Welcome to tonight’s screening of All the King’s Men. We are thrilled to be collaborating with the Harvard Film Archive as part of our Challenges to Democracy public dialogue series. I invite you to participate with us in this series, through which we intend not only to identify and assess the greatest challenges facing democracy in the United States, but also to put forward and give due attention to the promising solutions we need.

Next week we are partnering with the American Repertory Theater on a performance of The Heart of Robin Hood. Following the performance we are organizing a discussion on economic inequality, as we see Robin Hood as the first Brit to propose a special kind of redistributive justice. You can of course find more information on the series at the Ash Center’s website.

Tony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs

Tony Saich

As you know tonight’s movie is based on the book by Robert Penn Warren and basically covers the life of flamboyant politician governor and then senator Huey Long who was assassinated in 1935 at only 42 years of age. It is a much superior movie to the 2006 remake starring Sean Penn, and there is even a 1981 opera titled “Willie Stark.”

The movie we are about to see won 3 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor. It is interesting to note that John Wayne turned down the key role, claiming that the film script was unpatriotic, subsequently he was beaten for the Oscar by Broderick Crawford, who played the lead Willie Stark. Wayne had starred In the “patriotic” Sands of Iwo Jima.

We see the rise of Stark from lawyer to governor and how he loses his innocence along the way. Yet his populism enables him to carry popular support up until his assassination. The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther on November 9, 1949 noted:

…it gathers a frightening comprehension of the potential of demagoguery in this land. From ugly illustrations of back-room spittoon politics to wild illuminations of howling political mobs, it catches the dim but dreadful aspect of ignorance and greed when played upon by theatrics, eloquence and bluff. It visions the vulgar spellbinders and political hypocrites for what they are and it looks on extreme provincialism with a candid and pessimistic eye.

Long represents the power of populism in U.S. politics, with his appeals to the redistribution of wealth and investment in rural Louisiana. He also represents those who lose touch with reality believing both in their own messianic powers and that the end justifies the means.

Long was a populist who in 1934 launched his “Share our Wealth” program under the phrase “Every Man a King.” There is a dispute about the origins of the title of the novel and film, with some believing that it comes from this slogan, others believing that it came form the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty.”

all kings men

Scene from All the King’s Men

Long denounced the banks and the rich and proposed radical wealth redistribution. He advocated a net asset tax on corporations and individuals that he would use to ease the poverty, unemployment and homelessness that roiled the U.S. during the Great Depression. Personal fortunes would be capped at $50 million, which would equal $600 million today, and later revised this to $5-8 million ($60-90 million today).

In Louisiana, Long expanded the school and medical facilities. For the poor there was a system of charitable hospitals. For the isolated rural areas there was investment in highways and bridges.

In addition to his populist approach to politics he was renowned for his willingness to take on the President. In the 1932 election, he had been a great supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who he believed would sanction a major redistribution of wealth to get the U.S. out of the Great Depression. But he was soon disillusioned and became one of the few to oppose the New Deal plan from the left.

In 1933, Long lead a three week Senate filibuster against the Glass banking bill, claiming it favored national banks over state banks but later supported the Glass-Steagall Act once provisions were introduced to extend government deposit insurance to both state and national banks.

President Roosevelt was not amused and declared Long to be one of the two most dangerous people in America—General Douglas MacArthur was the other. FDR compared Long’s rise to that of Hitler and Mussolini.

Poster for All the King's Men screening on Dec. 6

Poster for All the King’s Men screening on Dec. 6

Populism and obstinacy in terms of frustrating a President’s policy have remained constants in U.S. politics down to the present day. Nicolaus Mills for CNN draws a direct line from Huey Long to Ted Cruz. Long seemed to think that annoying the President was great fun and he reveled in the use of the filibuster, often ignoring its consequences. Mills sees Cruz as a descendant of Long in the sense that he is trying to build a reputation by trying to block and sink a presidential initiative. He thought he could get the President to bend to his will by shutting down the government and derailing the Affordable Care Act.

On populism, a number of writers have likened his “Share our Wealth” program to the ideas of the Occupy Wall Street movement, or that a number of his proposals would be suitable for the movement to adopt. That’s enough from me; let’s all enjoy the film!

1 Comment

Filed under All the King's Men, Expansion of Presidential Power, Political Polarization

One Response to All the King’s Men: Populism and Frustrating Presidents As Constants In U.S. Politics

  1. This is a great tip especially to those fresh to thee blogosphere.
    Brief but very accurate information… Appreciate your sharing this one.
    A must read post!

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