For Americans over 40, Leave It To Beaver is an iconic television show, complete with archetypal American characters. Every week during its Eisenhower/Kennedy heyday, Americans watched a handful of naifs (Beaver and Wally Cleaver, and their innocent little friends) stumble into dangerous or embarrassing situations thanks to Eddie Haskell’s slick, dishonest machinations. Eddie, a skinny, duplicitous young man, was adept at ingratiating himself with adults when called upon to do so, but his main goal remained to upset the placid social order prevailing amongst Beaver-ville‘s young. When anarchy threatened, Beaver and Wally always knew that their mother June would express worry and dispense kisses, while their father, Ward, acting in a lovingly magisterial way, would impart wisdom, impose appropriate consequences, and generally restore sanity.
Although the show ran for only six seasons (1957-1963) and pre-dated the upheavals of the 1960s, decades of repeats ensured that it resonated in the American psyche. Generations of Americans have laughed with (and yes, sneered at) the tight little world of Beaver-ville, one predicated upon stable nuclear families: wise fathers, stay-at-home mothers, and grateful children.
Perhaps the scenario is a fairy tale that never reflected the majority of American families, but it’s a lovely fairy-tale, one that promises lasting security for the child who can escape the bad boy’s enticements and embrace the elders’ wisdom. It presents an America as we wish it would be, although we’d be glad to update its monochromatic cast. In the 21st century, Beaver’s neighborhood would have different races, colors, and creeds, and it would probably be home to a conservative gay couple down the block, raising an adopted orphan from China.
What’s so satisfying about Leave It To Beaver is that it presents a time-tested way of ordering the world: it trusts maturity. Even the best-intentioned young people lack the wisdom and knowledge to cope with instability, danger, dishonesty, and disorder. Their innocence and naivete mean that they’ll too easily trust demagogues and make foolish, hurtful, and potentially harmful mistakes.
What kept the show from being a tragedy, and turned it into an amusing morality tale, was that week in and week out, the grown-ups in the room were able to sort out the child’s chaotic world. Sadly, real life isn’t like that. Too often, naive voters put their faith in demagogues and there is no rescue. This election, though, there’s still a chance that Ward Cleaver’s political stand-in can win the vote and save the day.
From the moment Mitt Romney became the presumptive Republican candidate, this election took on the trappings of a contest between Ward Cleaver (played by Mitt Romney) and Eddie Haskell (played by Barack Obama). The comparison was easy at a superficial level: Romney bears an almost uncanny resemblance to Ward Cleaver, complete with commanding height, combed-back black hair, square jaw, and fatherly meme. Obama, too, is Eddie Haskell’s double since he shares the youthful face, lanky body, and manipulative, hustler’s demeanor.
If one digs beneath the superficial similarities, it’s uncanny how Mitt and Obama still stay close to the Ward and Eddie characters. Let me count the ways…