Andy Griffith, Political Icon?

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Yes, the actor was a liberal, but no, the morality of Mayberry wasn't Democratic or Republican. What it was, was American.

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Associated Press

Rest in peace? Fat chance. Today's celebrities have seldom even been laid out on the cooling board before the race to claim them for a political cause begins.

Liberals held up Levon Helm's fate as an argument for universal health care. Conservatives suggested President Obama wasn't publicly mourning MCA because the Beastie Boy was white. Conservatives said Dick Clark's legacy was as a capitalist. Liberals tried to press Ray Bradbury into the defense of Occupy Wall Street, though he was rightfully a Tea Partier and Reaganite.

Given Andy Griffith's cultural footprint, it was inevitable he'd get the same treatment after his death today at 86. His eponymous show came at just the right time to represent an age of American innocence, optimism, and muscle; coming before the splintering of the media, it reached an enormous portion of the country; and by taking place in rural North Carolina, it skirted the upheavals of the Civil Rights movement.

Here's the thing, though: Griffith, though not stridently activist like Bradbury, was open about his political beliefs for much of his career. His last major moment in the national spotlight came in 2010, when he cut a commercial meant to reassure seniors about the Affordable Care Act:

The ad enraged right-wingers. Ben Shapiro wrote on National Review Tuesday, "Later in life, of course, Griffith let his personal leftist politics out of the closet, as was his right... But that Griffith was not the Griffith that resonated with people." But as it happened, it wasn't a new thing for Griffith. He publicly backed two Democratic governors of North Carolina -- Mike Easley, at whose inaugurations in 2000 and 2004 he spoke, and Bev Perdue, for whom he made an ad in 2008. He also stumped for Jim Hunt, a Democratic Senate candidate against Jesse Helms, in 1984, and was avidly -- though unsuccessfully -- recruited to take Helms on himself six years later.

But what about his values? That's what Matt Lewis praised Tuesday:

I hope conservatives don't allow [the Obamacare ad] to in any way stain his legacy (and I hope liberals don't exploit the timing of his death). Personally, I try not to let politics ruin entertainment. Even still -- the top notch quality of the show aside -- there is much for conservatives to like. A recurring theme was how common sense and local control works better than bureaucracy or top-down management.

The normally surefooted Lewis is right to warn against politicization, though his immediate move into politicizing Griffith is confusing. In any case, there is a lesson here. The morals that made Mayberry seem idyllic were things like common sense, community, ethics, and hard work, and there's nothing partisan about them. The set of values Griffith espoused ought not to be seen as contradictory with his liberal politics; nor should it be seen as the fount of his liberal politics. As we prepare for July 4, we should remember this, to paraphrase Griffith: What it was, was American.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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