A face in the crowd revisited

In his Axios AM report Mike Allen notes a live webcast today will celebrate the transmission of the first electronic TV signal on Sept. 7, 1927, and the man behind it, Philo T. Farnsworth. The AP therefore marks the day as the 90th birthday of television. The webcast is set for 6:00 p.m. (Eastern) from the site of Farnsworth’s San Francisco lab. You can watch it here

TCM may be marking the occasion in its own way, playing the best film ever made about television and politics, if not the best film about each simply. By my lights, anyway, that would be the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd. TCM is running the film at 3:30 p.m. (Eastern) this afternoon. If you haven’t seen it before, you may want to set your DVR to record it so you can check it out at your convenience.

Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay for the film based on his story “Your Arkansas Traveler.” According to Richard Schickel, Schulberg’s story was inspired by Will Rogers. It featured Lonesome Rhodes, “a good-natured hillbilly with the common touch, who, like Rogers, starts working sly political commentary into his corn-pone monologues, and when his wealth and influence grows, becomes a menace to liberal-minded society.”

Starting with a Rogers-like character, Schulberg contemplated “the then hot career of Arthur Godfrey, a ukelele-strumming hick with a popular music and talk radio show in Washington who had come to a larger public’s attention with his tearful coverage of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral on CBS.” Godfrey became the host of a popular national radio show. When he moved to television variety programs, Godfrey grew “increasingly tyrannical with his supporting cast” and “increasingly forward with his political opinions.” His career flamed out a few years after the release of A Face in the Crowd.

Elia Kazan directed the film. Playing Lonesome Rhodes, Andy Griffith turned in a ferocious performance. The film reflects the concerns of Schulberg and Kazan over the uses to which television might be put by a glib demagogue. When his show takes off, Rhodes gives the dauntingly square Senator Worthington Fuller a lesson in how to transform himself into a presidential candidate through the medium of television.

Rhodes is introduced to Fuller by his sponsor General Haynesworth, manufacturer of the worthless Vitajex pick-me-up tablets. General Haynesworth advises Fuller that he needs a slogan like “Time for a change,” “The mess in Washington” or “More bang for a buck.” Rhodes takes it from there. It’s a scene that proved to have an uncanny relevance to the Obama presidential campaign of 2008. Below Fuller demonstrates that he hasn’t yet fully absorbed Rhodes’s lesson (the scene cuts to Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau watching Rhodes on television in the bar).

Griffith himself turned up in the 2010 mid-term elections in connection with the debate over Obamacare. Griffith appeared in three advertisements, one of which is captured in the video below. He was playing “Andy Griffith,” but he was a figure who bore a passing resemblance to Lonesome Rhodes. This time around old Andy was spouting cornpone baloney in the service of Obama’s project of nationalizing health care. The ads in essence put Lonesome Rhodes to work for a substantially higher authority. He wasn’t some ambitious operator who could be tripped up by an open mic, as Rhodes was.

Tom Fitton reported that the Obama administration spent $3,184,000 in taxpayer funds to produce and air the Griffith advertisements in the run-up to election day that fall, all with the purpose of “educating” Medicare beneficiaries, caregivers, and family members about forthcoming changes to Medicare as a result of Obamacare.

Fitton also quoted the findings of Factcheck.org of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. According to the organization, the advertisements were little more than glorified propaganda. Griffith’s assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, according to Factcheck.org, “the truth is that the new [Obamacare] law is guaranteed to result in benefit cuts for one class of Medicare beneficiaries — those in private Medicare Advantage plans.”

The appearance of Griffith in the 2010 advertisements prompted me to think through one of the innovations brought to us by the Obama administration. It is an innovation slightly beyond even the heated imagination of Budd Schulberg. Obama brought us the cornpone television demagogy of Lonesome Rhodes yoked to the power of the executive branch of the United States government.