Jack Burden describes the trip down Highway 58 toward Mason City in the entourage of Governor Willie Stark (whom he often refers to as "The Boss") in summer 1936. In Willie's black Cadillac are Jack, Willie, Sugar-Boy O'Sheean (a short Irish twentysomething who serves as Willie's bodyguard and driver), Tiny Duffy (Willie's Lieutenant-Governor), Willie's wife Lucy Stark (who sits pensively), and Willie's son Tom Stark, whom Jack describes as a young, handsome, flashy football hero. In the second car, which is also full of reporters and photographers whom Willie has brought along, is Sadie Burke, Willie's secretary. The group is headed to visit Willie's father, who still lives out in Mason County, a backwoods area of the state where Willie grew up. Willie intends to use the visit as a photo opportunity with the state media.
The group arrives in the city and enters a local pharmacy, where Willie enters humbly before being recognized and crowded about by the townsfolk. A large portrait of Willie rests in the place. He speaks with an old man at the soda fountain, Malachiah Wynn ("Old Leather-Face"), who explains that his son went to jail for killing someone in a fair fight.
The crowd calls for Willie to make a speech, and he does--though seeming somewhat reluctant--at the top of the County Courthouse. He gives a simple address in a homespun style featuring Biblical quotes, humor, and interaction with hecklers. At the end Willie excuses himself, saying it is his day off, and he makes his way back to the Cadillac.
As the group drives out of the city, Jack reminisces about the first time he met Willie, in June or July of 1922 when Willie was Mason County Treasurer. They met during Prohibition at a speakeasy called Slade's. Also present were Tiny Duffy, who then was a tax assessor and a "city hall slob," and Alex Michel, deputy sheriff. At the time, Jack worked for the Chronicle and was a friend of Tiny Duffy, who had arranged the meeting so Jack could get some information from Michel. Michel arrived with Willie, whom Jack characterizes as a simple man with a deadpan demeanor.
When the two shook hands, Jack thought that Willie winked at him. The scene cuts to sometime far in the future, where Jack asks Willie if he winked at him, and Willie, holding a glass of Scotch, responds coyly, "if I was to tell you, then you wouldn't have anything to think about."
Back at Slade's, Tiny Duffy orders beer all around, but Willie asks for none. Duffy and Alex try to bully Willie into drinking, but Slade steps in and says he will not make drink anyone who does not want to drink. Jack reflects in the narration how Slade, after Prohibition was repealed, was one of the first to get a liquor license, was awarded a prime location for his new business, and obtained remodeling money. On how Slade received all this, Jack writes: "I figure Slade got his reward for being an honest man."
Willie drinks orange pop, and Alex introduces the fact that Willie is in politics. Tiny Duffy is incredulous, and Jack notes how one "could look at Willie and see that he never had been and never would be in politics."
Back in the Cadillac, Willie instructs Jack to find a lawyer for Malachiah Wynn's son. Tiny Duffy objects, saying that the victim was a doctor's son and popular person in the community, and that helping the boy would be bad politically. Willie angrily rebukes him, saying that "his boy is a good boy" and that he instructed Jack to get a soft-spoken lawyer and pay through a friend. Tiny Duffy recoils.
The group arrives at Willie's father's home, where Willie and his wife pose for a deliberate photo with Old Man Stark and his old, infirm dog Buck. Tom and Jack have to physically move the dog and dress him up. More staged photos are taken of Willie upstairs in his old bedroom.
Disgusted with the display, Jack leaves to be alone outside by a fence, watching the sunset. Willie approaches him there and has some of his liquor. Sadie Burke runs over and informs Willie that Judge Irwin has endorsed Callahan, the Senate candidate opposing Masters, the candidate with Willie's support.
After dinner Willie, with the silent disapproval of Lucy and the sad displeasure of Old Man Stark, leaves with Jack and Sugar-Boy. The three drive 260 miles southwest to Burden's Landing, the city where Jack grew up and which bears his name, to visit Judge Irwin. On the way, Jack thinks about his mother and stepfather who live there; his childhood friends Anne and Adam Stanton; and the departure of his father, Ellis Burden, and the ways in which Judge Irwin had been a father figure to him. Jack advises Willie that Judge Irwin will not easily be threatened.
Jack is sent to knock on the Judge's door. The Judge is at first glad to see him, then mortified by the sight of Willie. Inside, Willie asks the Judge if it was fine for Jack to pour him a drink, and the Judge calls Jack a "body servant," causing Willie to laugh. Jack, infuriated, considers walking away from both of them, but he does not.
Stone-cold, Judge Irwin explains that he chose to endorse Callahan since Masters would be manipulated by Willie--and some "dirt" had been brought to his attention. Willie offers to dig up dirt on Callahan, then threatens to dig up dirt on the Judge. The Judge orders them to leave, and on the way out, he trades insults with Jack. Jack is at once enraged and self-conscious about what he says.
On the ride back, the Boss tells Jack to dig up dirt on Irwin, irrespective of the Senate race. In the narration, Jack writes (years after the events here, in the later "present" time of the novel) that Adam Stanton, Judge Irwin, and Willie Stark are all dead.
Chapter One sets the necessary groundwork of the novel by introducing the two internally convoluted figures who will drive the action. Please see the Character List for detailed analysis of the lives of the characters.
Willie Stark, "the Boss," is painted as a fiesty, cocksure politician. In Mason City, he is a humble man instantly recognized as a local hero. Outwardly, he appears not to have desired a great deal of attention on his trip; the people apparently cajole him into making a speech. Ultimately, he ascends to the top of the courthouse, as if he were a great orator preparing to make a deep pronouncement. The address that follows is homespun and conversational, laced with Biblical quotations. Ultimately, he deftly wields the attention of the crowd and spins a seemingly impromptu, grandiloquent address in which he champions the cause of the state's rural citizens.
In contrast to his idealistic address and amiable manner, the next scene has Willie rebuke Tiny Duffy, his meek and political underling. A similar contrast occurs at Old Man Stark's house, where Willie, having professed to want only to visit his own father, uses the event as an elaborate photo opportunity, then later cuts it short to attend to a political matter.
At the Judge's house, Willie's deceptively friendly country tone and manner are the same as during his speech earlier. Yet he imposes himself, subtly threatening the political career of the Judge. The heinousness of Willie's slimy politicking oozes from his words against the Judge, who appears to be a kind and ethical old man, even as he uses the same Biblical quotes and Southern colloquialisms:
I said, "But suppose there isn't anything to find?"
And the Boss said, "There is always something."
And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."
Two miles more, and he said, "And make it stick."
The narrator, Jack, foreshadows the dramatic conclusion of the novel, even as the events leading up to the deaths of Adam (who is yet to be fully introduced), Willie, and the Judge are far off. Yet the meeting with the Judge, besides painting strong images of Jack and Willie, is what sets into motion the system that will result in these characters' downfalls. The dirt that Jack is ordered to dig up will cause the Judge's suicide, and it will encourage the liaison that results in the mutual deaths of Willie and Adam.
Little Jackie made it stick, all right.
The chapter ends with the line above, as the later Jack looks back on these events. At this time in the novel (mid-1936), Jack, working for Willie and about to perform a task intended to slander and ruin a man he respects, is still unable to see how his influence could result in such tremendous and horrible consequences.
Jack frequently desires simply to walk away from the odiousness of the politics, such as when he leaves the photo shoot to fall into his own thoughts, and when he considers leaving the argument between Willie and the Judge when it veers into personal assaults on him. But Jack, despite having the volition to do so, never truly escapes; instead, he often tunes out by contemplating his own past. Essentially, Jack is not simply trying to escape the present by hiding in the past, but instead trying to figure out the present by sifting through the causes and consequences that have brought him to where he is. Jack expresses interest in arriving at a complete understanding of the shrouded character of Willie Stark; for instance, he later considers the issue of whether or not the Boss winked at him in their very first meeting (but Willie answers, "Boy, if I was to tell you, then you wouldn't have anything to think about," 24).
In the meeting with the Judge, Jack's two worlds collide. His past, where the Judge was a father figure to him after the departure of his "real" father, and where he held a deep respect for the man, now collides with the present, where he works for the Boss, a man he knew when he was truly humble and apolitical, and whose current state disgusts him. Jack has abandoned his open respect for the Judge, who will be revealed as Jack's biological father near the end of the novel, and he passively follows the forceful Willie now.
This inner conflict, where Jack works for a system he despises for no stated reason other than his nihilism, is integral to the novel's plot. Jack is incapable or unwilling to see that by working for Willie, he indirectly (and eventually, directly) is the cause of suffering. His ultimate realization of this fact by the end of the novel is a key closing development to which he alludes at the end of this chapter.