Andy Griffith was a genial and gifted character actor, but when he died on Independence Day eve, you’d have thought we’d lost a Founding Father, not a television star whose last long-running series, the vanilla legal drama Matlock, expired in 1995. The public tributes to Griffith were over-the-top in a way his acting never was, spreading treacle from the evening newscasts to the front page of the New York Times.
It was as if the nation were mourning its own demise. To commentators in the liberal media, Griffith’s signature television role, Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, North Carolina, was “one of the last links to another, simpler time” (the Miami Herald) and a repository of “values which actually transcended the deep divides which tore the nation apart during the years the show aired from 1960 to 1968” (the Washington Post). On the right, the sermonizers quickly moved past an inconvenient fact (Griffith made a spot endorsing Obamacare in 2010) to deify Sheriff Taylor for embodying “a time when television was cleaner and simpler” and for giving “millions of Americans the feeling the country stood for all the right things” (National Review). Among those “right” things was the fictional Mayberry’s form of governance, which, in the ideological take of the Daily Caller, demonstrated that “common sense and local control work better than bureaucracy or top-down management.”
In reality, The Andy Griffith Show didn’t transcend the deep divides of its time. It merely ignored them. “Local control” of Mayberry saw to it that this southern town would remain lily-white for all eight years of its fictive existence rather than submit to any civil-rights laws that would require the federal government’s “top-down management” to enforce. Nor was television always so simple back then. Just seven months before The Andy Griffith Show’s 1960 debut on CBS, the same network broadcast an episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which the placid all-American denizens of an (all-white) suburban enclave turn into a bloodthirsty mob hunting down any aliens in human camouflage that might have infiltrated the neighborhood. As the show’s creator and narrator, Rod Serling, makes clear in his parable’s concluding homily (“Prejudices can kill …”), the hovering aliens who threatened to drive Americans to civil unrest and self-destruction at the dawn of the Kennedy era were not necessarily from outer space.
The wave of nostalgia for Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and for the vanished halcyon America it supposedly enshrined says more about the frazzled state of America in 2012 and our congenital historical amnesia than it does about the reality of America in 1960. The eulogists’ sentimental juxtapositions of then and now were foreordained. If there’s one battle cry that unites our divided populace, it’s that the country has gone to hell and that almost any modern era, with the possible exception of the Great Depression, is superior in civic grace, selfless patriotism, and can-do capitalistic spunk to our present nadir. For nearly four years now—since the crash of ’08 and the accompanying ascent of Barack Obama—America has been in full decline panic. Books by public intellectuals, pundits, and politicians heralding our imminent collapse have been one of the few reliable growth industries in hard times.
The outpouring traverses the political spectrum, from the apocalyptic hard right (Patrick Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower, Mark Levin’s Ameritopia) to the conservative Establishment (Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010) to the centrist Washington Establishment (Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks) to centrist liberalism (Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s That Used to Be Us) to the classically progressive (Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence). Depending on the political coloring of the authors, the books have different villains: the tea party, coddled Wall Street plutocrats, coddled welfare-state entitlement junkies, the yapping and trivializing news media, broken schools, a polarized and broken Congress, a politicized Supreme Court, a socialist president. And China Über Alles (with an occasional cameo by India). The books’ pet issues also vary, from the collapse of the family to the debasement of cultural values, the demise of political compromise, the extinction of the “vital center,” the president’s feckless “leading from behind” in foreign affairs, the rise of income inequality, the ballooning of the national debt, and unchecked federal spending. But the bottom line is nothing if not consistent, and is most concisely summed up in a tirade delivered to a hall of college students by Aaron Sorkin’s alter ego, a television anchor played by Jeff Daniels, in the HBO series The Newsroom: “When you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Yosemite?”