Clinton's Transformation Into a Mythical 'Trickster'

Laura Shamas is an adjunct professor in English and communications at Pepperdine University

President Bill Clinton's unwavering popularity continues to stun political analysts. Nothing seems to lower his poll numbers. In spite of the House managers' extensive case and the Senate trial machinations, Clinton's job-approval numbers keep improving.

Ironically, it is, perhaps, the Republicans who have most helped Clinton's poll numbers. Because of their prolonged partisan pursuit of the president, Clinton virtually has become a symbol in America's collective conscience. The GOP broadened the scope of Clinton's story into the realm of mythology. They have made him a modern incarnation of the Trickster, a universal archetype that appears in the mythology of virtually every culture. Trickster is the sly underdog, known for his lying, lascivious ways. Caught in his own dance of deception, Trickster's deeds nonetheless often produce positive results.

Trickster is a recurring figure in the sacred tales of peoples all over the world. Coyote is one incarnation in North America; Spider is another Trickster figure from Africa. Monkey King from China, Fox from South America and Hermes from the Greek pantheon are all embodiments of the Trickster. Revered as a hero, this lowly creature outwits formidable enemies against all odds. Is it part of the human psyche to root for the sneaky underdog? The fact that Trickster exists in mythologies from five continents--the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe--indicates a universal affinity for the character.

Trickster has the ability to affect his people through his adventures. As a creator-culture-hero-transformer, the rascal works through lies and the occasional evil deed. Yet, his intrigues frequently have altruistic outcomes, obtained through twisted schemes. An entire group may benefit from Trickster's wily ways.

For example, Coyote's guile brought water to the world, according to an American Indian tale. Coyote found a deer rib that resembled a giant shell. He traded the phony shell to the frog people, who had dammed all the water, for the chance to drink. Pretending to drink, Coyote dug a hole in the dam, which collapsed and sent water rushing into the dry valleys below. Substitute Clinton for Coyote, and the Republicans for the frog people, and you get one part of Clinton's appeal.

There is a duality to Trickster's nature, a paradoxical mix of bawdiness and holiness. Some of his tales are amusing, even erotic. Notorious for his sex appeal, Trickster often woos many women at the same time, which gets him into trouble. Many North American tales have a moral fabric, to show children what not to do. Other sacred narratives feature a divine, holy Trickster, as in the African Dahomey mythology of Legba. Some American Indian tribes unite the sacred and profane nature of the archetype.

In recent pop culture, the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote is a 20th-century American manifestation of the Trickster archetype. The label "Tricky Dick," given to President Richard M. Nixon, was another American cultural allusion to the presence of Trickster. "Slick Willie," Clinton's pejorative nickname, is a more recent invocation of the Trickster symbol.

Clinton's current travails function in a similar way to Trickster tales. Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel, cast Clinton firmly in the profane Trickster role, via the graphic sexual content included in the evidentiary materials released in 1998. The House managers have promoted this image through their dogged prosecutorial strategy, tarnishing the president's character with endless inferences of illegality and immorality.

The GOP has activated several functions of the Trickster myth. Though they were implored not to debase the House, the Senate and the American public with explicit allegations, GOP leaders structured their case to feature sexual content. By appearing partisan, they've made Clinton an underdog. Republicans triggered a collective American psychological response that works in Clinton's favor.

The state of the Clinton presidency dominates our culture. The daily news coverage on television and in print, the constant jokes and the flashy Internet gossip via online magazines and Web sites--all promote this event as national ritual. Networks ran special segments on what to tell children. Then there's the endless assessment of public opinion. Clearly, poll results suggest that most Americans are appalled by Clinton's weakness, but accept him as leader for the remainder of his elected term.

The response of the American public resonates with the classic psychological function of the Trickster archetype, an embodiment of both the profane and the sacred in our leader--and our collective acknowledgment of it in ourselves. The current crisis, forcing a national reconciling of policy, morality and the reality of desire, gives Americans a platform to examine their own humanity. It allows voters to relate to Clinton at a deeper level than most ever expected: a fragile, human one.

Without the Republicans' prolonged emphasis on graphic sexual detail and their accusations of deception, Clinton might have been permanently reviled. But the GOP's strategy has backfired; they have transformed Clinton into a mythic archetype.

Will another side of the Trickster archetype appear? It's worth remembering that in his American Indian tales, Trickster, after meeting his demise, always miraculously revives for another adventure. And Clinton's other nickname is "the Comeback Kid."

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