All the King's Men begins with a long description of a drive to Mason City. The first person narrator (who we later discover is Jack Burden) relates how he last came to Mason City nearly three years ago in 1936. The narrative then shifts back to this time as Jack tells of sitting in a Cadillac with the Boss (Willie Stark), Tiny Duffy, the Boss's wife Lucy and son Tom; Sugar-Boy is driving. The photographer, reporters and the Boss's secretary, Sadie Burke, are in the second car.
They pull up in front of a drug store and everyone recognizes the Boss. The presence of a photograph of him above the soda fountain reiterates his fame. Jack informs the reader that he has seen this picture in a thousand places and is signed with the legend, 'My study is the heart of the people'. Once outside, the Boss talks to the mass of people telling them he is not here for votes today - he is home to visit his father. This is the first indication that the Boss is a politician.
As they drive away, Jack remembers the first time he met Willie about 14 years ago in 1922. This is when Willie was the County Treasurer of Mason County and Jack was a journalist for the Chronicle. They met in the backroom of Slade's pool hall; Tiny Duffy, who was then a tax assessor and Alex Michel (the deputy sheriff) were also present. Willie was an old school friend of Alex. Slade's refusal to join in taunting Willie to have a beer is noted by Jack as the reason that he did so well financially after Willie came to power.
The narrative returns to three years ago and the two cars arrive at the house of Willie's father. This is arranged as a photo opportunity rather than a family visit. Sadie gives Willie the news that Judge Irwin 'has come out for Callahan', that is, he has endorsed him for Senate nomination (rather than Willie's man, Masters). That evening, Willie, Jack and Sugar-Boy drive down to Burden's Landing (where Jack was born and raised) so that Willie can talk to Irwin. Jack recalls his friends, Anne and Adam Stanton, and remembers Irwin as more of a father than his mother's partners (who appeared when his father left the marital home).
At Irwin's home, Willie helps himself to a drink and tries to intimidate Judge Irwin with the suggestion of blackmail: the Judge remains unmoved. On the drive back to his father's house, Willie insists that Jack finds 'dirt' on the Judge - even if it takes 10 years. The chapter concludes with Jack relating how this was a long while ago; Masters is now dead, as is Adam Stanton, Judge Irwin and Willie.
This first chapter gradually introduces several of the main characters, but this does not occur in a straightforward linear fashion. Time shifts between the present, three years and 14 years ago as Jack remembers connected incidents from the past. This resistance to linearity gives the narrative a complexity.
With the shifts in time, it is also possible to see the changes in Willie's persona more clearly as his innocence and honesty of 14 years ago is juxtaposed with his cynicism and bullying tactics as a Governor. His desire to find 'dirt' on Judge Irwin, for example, is motivated by revenge: he is angry that the Judge has not sponsored 'his' man. This monstrous behavior is evidently in opposition to the Willie that Jack first meets in Slade's pool hall. Even at this early stage, then, the narrative has exposed the negative influence of power and adulation.