The old TV show Maverick has been on local channels lately. It was one of my favorite programs when I was twelve years old, but I’ve pretty much outgrown it. I don’t watch the reruns, but they started me thinking about an American archetype — the lovable con man.
There are a lot of them in literature, and a lot more moving among us in our everyday lives. You know him, weird Uncle Bob who always has a beer in his hand but never buys drinks. Or Uncle Jim who thinks it is wonderful that you are planting trees in your mother’s yard, and drives home to get his favorite shovel, but never comes back.
What all these slick dealers have in common is that they are funny, charming, and it is almost impossible to stay mad at them. They’ll steal your beer, or steal your heart, or steal your money, and leave you laughing at how easy you were to take.
In the movie version of Maverick, he says, “There is no more deeply moving religious experience, than cheating on a cheater.” Cute, but in point of fact, Bret and Bart and Beau cheated everybody. It doesn’t matter though, because they were charming.
There were others before Maverick. Starbuck, in The Rain Maker, teaches Lizzie that she is beautiful, but she marries her home town swain. Good thing. If she had run off with Starbuck, it would not have ended well.
Harold Hill, in The Music Man, made a career of separating suckers from their money. He was charming and slick and thinks faster than the locals. When he falls in love with the librarian, it changes his attitude. She reforms him. Okay, fine, but for me that doesn’t saves the movie; the line that saves the movie is when he tells Winthrop, “I always think there’s a band.”
See, he didn’t mean it. He thinks he’s giving something back. He’s a good Joe at heart.
If a con man believes his own lies, does that make us forgive him? In the movies it frequently does. But what if a real Marian the librarian married a real Harold Hill. We would probably find her later with eight kids, hungry and living on skid row, after Harold Hill moved on. I like the movie version better.
Does our charming American con man believe his own lies? Does he even know himself where the truth is? Does it matter to him? Does it matter to us?
If he is slick enough, and fast enough, and plausible enough — if he can tell one lie to cover another until we get lost in the shell game — there is no limit to how far he can go.
He could even become President.