The swirl and gnash of this season’s presidential politicking has turned my thinking to an unexpected subject: Andy Griffith. More specifically, I mean the late actor’s most beloved character, TV sheriff Andy Taylor of the fictional Mayberry, North Carolina.
Griffith died this past July at age 86. Although his hit television series first aired for eight seasons in the 1960s– before I was even born– I can think of few other shows that have made such a profound impact on my life than “The Andy Griffith Show.” I can say with certainty that Griffith’s wise, plain-speaking Sheriff Taylor served as an unspoken model of behavior for my father, who grew up in the 1950s in the tiny town of Drummond, Montana. For my father, and for many rural (mostly white) Americans, Sheriff Taylor and his fictional neighbors symbolized an idyllic and very American way of life: balancing time “in town” with time fishing, facing troubles in an easygoing but straightforward manner, and taking care of your town by way of taking care of your own.
In short, the America of Griffith’s Mayberry is the America that TV does best: With hard work and a little homespun ingenuity, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and solve any problem in 30 minutes. Watching this year’s presidential race unfold, I see a lot of overtures from both the Obama and Romney camps to this over-idealized, over-simplified America.
After Griffith passed away, I took the recommendation of my friend Kurt Hegre, who has turned me on to other terrific movies in the past, and I requested a copy of Griffith’s breakout film, “A Face in the Crowd,” from the Fresno County Public Library. The movie, directed by the great filmmaker Elia Kazan, stars Griffith in his pre- Sheriff Taylor days as Lonesome Rhodes, an Arkansas drifter and knockabout who gets discovered by a small-town radio reporter and quickly becomes a nationally known TV entertainer. As he rises in popularity and cultural influence, Lonesome Rhodes becomes increasingly obsessed with his own power. An unexpected mistake quickly costs him his audience and also his sanity.
For someone like me who teaches journalism and writing classes around the theme of media and pop culture, “A Face in the Crowd” delivers a chilling critique of the power of storytelling. In our current media-saturated country, we hungrily grope for the next big thing, and we often allow ourselves– sometimes consciously, but most times not– to be swept up in the compelling story of the charismatic underdog. Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes with a perfect swagger that evolves from an earthy and eager warmth into a cold and calculating mania. The more he’s in front of his public, the more Lonesome Rhodes travels further from himself. The more we, his public, sees him, the less we actually recognize him.
To me, this performance sounds like the Obama vs. Romney presidential race. The big difference: We are no longer (if we ever were) living in Mayberry.