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Obama, McCain And Trust In The Ordinary Man

"There is nothing as trustworthy as an ordinary mind -- of the ordinary man."

-- Lonesome Rhodes

Probably you don't remember Lonesome Rhodes's campaign. Lonesome was the ultimate ordinary man, so plain, so flawed that his path to stardom began when he was plastered and unconscious on the filthy floor of a backwoods jail. But Lonesome's innate goodness, his folksy manner, his winning grin and his gift for telling a great yarn -- while tucking in a valuable lesson about morality -- all added up to a magical appeal.

To his own great surprise, and to the joy and satisfaction of millions of Americans, Lonesome Rhodes rose from the very bottom to a media-driven celebrity and on to a position of remarkable influence and power. In time, the American people virtually clamored for him to step onto the greatest of political stages and shake up the nation.

Surely, here was a man of change, a maverick, an outsider. But at exactly the moment Rhodes prepared to claim his place at the helm of the nation, soaring on that slogan about the beauty and purity of the most ordinary of men, Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes blew up.

The same woman who had found Rhodes on that jailhouse floor, who had dressed him up and shaped his public persona -- she now turned around to destroy the monster she had created. As the credits rolled at the end of one of Rhodes's TV shows, while the star delivered an off-the-air, vile, hateful diatribe against the sheep, "idiots," "morons" and "guinea pigs" who were his adoring audience and fans, she flipped on the studio microphone so that all of America could hear who its hero really was.

Lonesome Rhodes is a great American character, a work of fiction, from the movie voters most need to see in these last hours before we elect a president.

"A Face in the Crowd," a 1957 masterpiece by Elia Kazan, is about McCarthyism, and it's about the centuries-old tension between our foundation as a nation run by regular people and our spectacular success as a nation that honors achievement and smarts. It's a movie about right now, about a moment when fear and insecurity do battle with pride and aspiration, a time when we know we're being lied to yet feel so comforted when people tell us everything's going to be just fine.

Despite the fact that both candidates for president got where they are by breaking the mold in their own parties, despite the fact that Americans chose these two men because they seemed like the least traditional, least phony choices in the lot, there is, in the end, no candidate who is leveling with the people.

"This election is not about issues," John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, said a few weeks back. No, he said, "this election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

"I'm asking you to believe," Barack Obama says in the lead quotation on his Web site. "Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington. I'm asking you to believe in yours."

Watch the TV ads that are the heart of the modern presidential campaign and you have to wonder: Do these guys know there's a war on? Has anyone brought it to their attention that the value of American businesses is sinking like a stone, that workers can feel the layoffs coming, that the country's institutions are in retreat, preparing for a cold, hard winter and long seasons of strain?

But the code that governs campaigns does not seem to permit candidates to say, "Let's face it: We're in steep decline, and before we can climb out of it, life must get harder."

No, even as we celebrate democracy and choice, we restrict those who would lead us. We care to hear only from candidates who are almost blindly chipper and optimistic. In return, candidates treat us like wayward children who must be told how wonderful we are -- for fear that we otherwise might turn on them.

So the politicians pretend to be like us, and we make believe that they are just that. We love it when they drop their 'g's at the end of words, and when they wrap their arms around Joe the Plumber (who of course now has his very own PR agent).

We don't want to know that McCain, Obama and almost anyone at that level of any profession are anything but "just like us." (Both candidates are products of elite private schools and universities, both live in places utterly unlike those in most of the country, and neither is remotely as devout as they'd like us to think they are.) We decide to ignore the fact that in virtually no other aspect of life would we place our trust in the hands of someone who is "just like us."

Neither of these bright men would make Lonesome Rhodes's mistake and say awful things about us anywhere near a microphone or camera, but after they've spent two years of their lives wandering the nation mouthing banalities and signing off on demeaning attack ads, isn't it inevitable that they think of us by now as a bunch of irrational, petulant children?

"A Face in the Crowd" wasn't much of a hit. Despite Andy Griffith's frighteningly realistic portrayal of Lonesome Rhodes, the movie was too dark, too bracing a view of how we conflate pop culture and the governance of our country. It was a little too close to the truth.

At movie's end, the people finally see through Rhodes. He is alone, destroyed. But we don't see what happens to those who had invested their hopes in this man. It is still their duty to choose and to vote. Will they be a bit wiser now? Will they look to the next Lonesome, or will they see that life is theirs to muddle through, that their future rests in no one's hands but their own?

By Marc Fisher |  November 2, 2008; 8:42 AM ET
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