If Sheriff Andy Taylor were to knock on my front door along with Opie and Barney Fife, I probably would invite them all into my living room and offer them a glass of tea.
So real are they to me that it would take a moment before I would think to ask how three fictional characters from “The Andy Griffith Show” had sprung to life, especially considering that the boy actor who played Opie, Ron Howard, is now an aging movie director, and the other two actors, Don Knotts and Andy Griffith, have passed away.
Griffith died July 3 at age 86 and was buried in Roanoke Island, N.C. He may have made his mark in Hollywood, but he never strayed far from his roots. He was born and raised in Mount Airy, N.C., he played a North Carolinian on television, and he died six hours from his birthplace in that same state.
Most people probably think of his fictional home, Mayberry, as an idealized slice of America, but most of the shows I remember were about human frailties, with the characters representing human flaws. Call someone a “Barney Fife” or a “Gomer Pyle,” and they’ll know you aren’t being complimentary.
Many of the shows featured Andy patiently engineering a workaround of a character’s flaws in order to solve a problem while sparing their dignity, often with hilarious results. In one episode, Andy convinced Barney to whisper a choir solo into a “sensitive” microphone while, unbeknownst to him, a powerful bass singer performed the actual solo backstage. Andy just didn’t have the heart to tell old Barney that he was a terrible singer. If you have seen it, you probably remember the episode, and if you haven’t, I can’t do it justice in print.
This being an opinion column, I’m supposed to go somewhere with this, so here’s the “thought for the day”: We all would like to be wise Andy, but we’re actually the town of Mayberry. We are all subject to Barney’s ineptitude, Aunt Bee’s need to be needed, Otis the town drunk’s addictions, Floyd the barber’s lack of focus, and Goober’s, well, goober-ness. Like Opie, we’re learners.
Despite his obvious wisdom, Sheriff Andy did not think himself too wise, and that was his greatest strength. Mayberry temporarily would have run more efficiently were he an autocrat simply telling everyone what to do, but the system would have broken down, as does every autocracy. Even though he was right most of the time, he knew the townsfolk were not sheep to be led, that they all had inherent worth. Despite Barney’s fumbling and bumbling, he was the lawman who gave the governor a parking ticket and then refused to back down. One could have a worse teammate than that.
It’s easy to forget that Andy was an elected official because the viewers never saw him act like a politician, and in that way the show was idealized. In real life, he probably would have fired Barney.
But although the character was fictional, the values he represented were real, and I’m not talking about the value of being right all the time. He worked with people.
A lot of today’s elected officials, and the media blowhards who speak for them, and the bigwigs who fund the whole operation, don’t acknowledge the value of doing that. They see a world where they are wise Andy and the other side is incompetent Barney, dimwitted Gomer, or the obnoxious Ernest T. Bass. They don’t appreciate the worth of those other people, that maybe the guy who can’t load his pistol without dropping the bullet might also ticket the governor because the law is the law, or that the goofy neighborhood mechanic might make a decent Marine, or that the person who disagrees with them about a policy issue might have a point. Instead, those are people to be defeated or manipulated.
Sheriff Andy Taylor won’t appear on any of our ballots any more than he will appear on my doorstep, and so we voters are stuck with the actual politicians we have, and they are stuck with each other. For this democracy to work, they are going to have to engineer some workarounds, which generally is best done while sparing everyone’s dignity.
That’s hard to do in a 30-second attack ad. But it’s the only way to get anything done – in a small town, or in a country of 300 million.
Steve Brawner is a Bryant journalist whose blog, Independent Arkansas, is linked at arkansasnews.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.