30. A Face in the Crowd

Angry TV newsman Keith Olbermann often spoke on his old show of Glenn Beck, the McCarthyite extremist talk show host who compared Obama to Hitler. Olberman didn’t call him “Glenn Beck,” though. He called him “Glenn ‘Lonesome Rhodes’ Beck.” Every time.

Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd, and though the movie came out in 1957, this is a timeless character, important to remember at wacky political moments. Rhodes is a drifter when we meet him, jailed and mean as a beat dog. He loves to talk, though, and has a huge laugh. He sings for a radio host and gets sprung early. The radio station hires him for an hour every morning. He sings songs, tells stories, and everyone loves him.

His brand explodes. Bigger cities. Then TV. Advertisers – especially a pharmaceutical giant hocking placebos – hire him as their pitch man. Politics comes calling next. Lonesome, see, quite simply connects with the common man, which is useful on TV, the greatest tool to communicate ever invented. A stuffed suit helpfully explains that “the mass,” meaning us, “has to be guided by the strong hand of a responsible elite.” It’s like mind control.

How does Lonesome do it? “He’s got the courage of his ignorance,” a writer (Walter Matthau!) says. Lonesome lies constantly, without a scintilla of remorse. “On a stack of Bibles,” he likes to say. He doesn’t understand cruelty, and seems to believe what he’s saying in the moment but then forgets it forever. A liar that skilled can conquer media if politics is involved.

Also, importantly, he hates his audience. Pointing to an everyman, Lonesome tells an image-challenged senator, “He’s stupid. He’s got no mentality. He thinks with his feet. But I trust those feet.”

Trust those feet. Give the slobbering masses what they think they want and watch the dough, or the votes, roll in. Glenn Beck isn’t the only bloviating political opportunist. There are loads, like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity and maybe one-fifth of Congress. They give their audience garbage. They hate them. But they trust those feet, and power is sweet.

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