Ron Swanson is more than the MVP of the Parks and Recreation squad, more than just the funniest character on TV – he’s the perfect depiction of aggrieved American manhood at the twilight of the empire. He has a face sculpted out of glare, a mustache of granite, a helmet of hair held in place by sheer force of will and eyes that can strip the paint off speedboats.
As embodied by the great Nick Offerman, who says more by clenching two-sevenths of his right eyebrow than most actors say with their whole bodies, Ron Swanson is the familiar sitcom archetype of the ornery boss, in the tradition of Ed Asner on The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Danny DeVito on Taxi. The big difference is that he’s the boss of a petty government bureaucracy that embodies everything he hates. The ground he’s staking is strictly his own wounded pride. The facial hair he loves so much isn’t a symbol of the turf he is straining to defend &8211; it is the turf.
He’s a full-on believer in the Ron Swanson pyramid of greatness: meat, guns and woodworking. The rule book for his scout troop consists of just three words – “Be a man” – and he proudly declares, “I only read nautical novels and my own personal manifestos.”
The fall has been full of terrible new sitcoms about one-note American white-guy cranks struggling against the ladies who push them around. It’s the same joke over and over, whether it’s Kevin Dillon in How to Be a Gentleman – which got the ax after two episodes – or Tim Allen in the miserable but popular Last Man Standing. But Ron works on a much deeper level, because he has real pathos and humanity in his endless resentment.
Part of the Swanson effect is just how much American culture has changed in the time that Parks and Rec has been on the air. Ron has existed for less than three years, but his fringe political views have turned into the Republican mainstream, if not the whole message of the primary debates, which are Parks and Rec‘s main comedy competition this fall. His crackpot rants about the government are now the kind of thing Republican candidates say when they’re trying to get taken seriously. When they filmed the episode where Ron gets audited and barks, “First of all, income tax is illegal,” they had no way of knowing that by the time it aired, Michele Bachmann would have already made this her campaign theme.
We have no clue how Ron turned out this way, but we feel for him because he’s a little too young to be this guy. The old-school TV versions of Ron were the WWII vets – Lou Grant and Archie Bunker. They might be cranks, but they spent their youth heroically participating in the most successful tax-funded project in the history of federal governments, which was beating the Nazis, and then came home to build the America whose passing Ron Swanson mourns. Those old coots can look back with pride. Ron doesn’t have a career to brag about – he’s proud to do his government job as ineffectually as he can.
We don’t know when exactly Ron decided the modern world was too complex and confusing for him and began to stoically hide behind his armor of facial hair. But whatever we think of Ron’s code, we respect and admire him for living by it. It turns out we need his mustache as much as he does.
This story is from the November 24, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.