The trickster president

Clinton's enemies have made him a culture hero.


Richard Goldstein
December 31, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Perplexed and not a little pissed off by the president's historically high ratings -- in the wake of an impeachment spurned by all but the rabid, the rotund, and the bedridden -- pundits and prophets of the right have taken to castigating the people. "The Founders were right to have a certain distrust of democracy," conservative commentator William Kristol recently asserted, echoing the James Dobson's more apocalyptic admonition: "Our people no longer recognize the nature of evil." This impulse to save the nation from itself brings to mind Bertolt Brecht's advice to East German Communists grousing about the lack of popular enthusiasm for socialism. If the people have betrayed the government, Brecht quipped, perhaps the government should "abolish the people and elect a new one."

Not even Bob Barr has broached such a solution. But the Republican "Superior Dance" would do the Church Lady proud. This rigid strut clearly reflects a painful recognition by the children of the Reagan revolution that they are out of step. For all their success at winning office, something more potent and less tangible than politics blocks the right when it comes to producing fundamental changes in American life. That baffling "something" is the culture, and in this retail realm, the dominant sensibility is every bit as resistant to salvation as it is to socialism.

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Clinton owes his survival to the uniquely American conflict called the Culture War. What began in the 1950s with the brush fire rebellion of the Beats and exploded in the '60s in a full-blown countercultural revolt has by now become a jihad fought at every mall and microphone in America. So sweeping is this cold civil war (complete with the specter of an enemy within) that it has become a permanent part of politics, lingering just below the surface of issues as seemingly distinct as abortion, affirmative action and free speech on the Internet. Indeed, it's possible to argue that the entire impeachment spectacle is an attempt by the right to shift the terrain of this conflict to an arena where they have the numerical advantage. As it turns out, however, they've seriously miscalculated the odds.

The daily dose of scandal has been greeted by the public as another opportunity to be entertained, and Clinton has emerged from the mire with something he didn't have before: a mystique. Greeted by adoring crowds as the Elvis he always pretended to be, the president now represents an American type that has always lurked behind our sanctimony: part victim, part perp, all trickster. He is far more adept than his enemies at slippin' and slidin', a silver fox in the wolf run. Instead of a bully pulpit, he projects a laissez-funk aura that fits the culture like a love glove. And no one has given this president a bigger boost than the Republicans who decided to saturate the media with Monicana. Instead of the revulsion and outrage they hoped to create, they have made Clinton a guilty pleasure, the political equivalent of death by chocolate.

But calling Clinton "a poster child for the '60s," as Pat Robertson has, doesn't begin to explain his popularity. In fact, the reason the culture war is so resonant is that it represents a conflict that has raged for more than a century in American life. One can find all the elements of the current scandal in Hawthorne, who was acutely tuned to the central bifurcation in our culture between what might be called the structure of authority and the spirit of love and liberation. In "The Scarlet Letter," this clash takes root in an adulterous love affair, in which shame and stigma work their cruel magic. But Hawthorne also wrote about a band of rebellious Puritans who lead the young into the forest, where they let their hair grow, dress like the animals and dance around the maypole of desire. In this cautionary tale, the rebels are pursued and captured by the colonists, who kill the adults and cut the hair of the young -- much like what transpired as the counterculture collapsed. You see the dichotomy between authority and liberation again in Mark Twain, between the upwardly mobile Tom Sawyer and the renegade Huck Finn, whose journey down the Mississippi with Jim is a matrix of the '60s observation that "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Walt Whitman, an unambivalent champion of political and personal liberation, wrote a century before the counterculture, and his exhortations about a democracy in which "the body electric" is the bond between citizens continue to haunt American politics.

Seen in this light, the triumph of Clinton is not about a collapse of moral sense in the American people, but an inevitable sign of the return of the repressed.

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What is new about the current incarnation of this long struggle is the way it has become enmeshed with the changing demographics of America. Perhaps the only real achievement of the counterculture, when it comes to enlarging the transcendentalist vision, was its empowering of groups that had always been on the margins of the body politic -- not just racial minorities, but gay people and, most profoundly, women. By now, it is fair to say, an alliance of these formerly subordinated groups is the dominant element in our political life. Certainly, when women and minorities team up they can make or break a president, and in 1992, they did. Clinton is that beneficiary, and in this sense, he is truly a creature of the '60s. His affiliation with women -- which goes far beyond his dalliances and persists despite them -- as well as his affinity for minorities (in the apt words of Toni Morrison, he's the first "honorary black president"), is the central reason Clinton has prevailed. It is also the unspoken reason why he enrages pundits, Puritans and patriarchs alike.

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"Foolish Love" is how the Economist explains the president's popularity. "They stand and cheer, their ecstatic smiles as wide and lingering as his." They, presumably, are that 70 percent of the people who tell pollsters they like the way Clinton is doing his job. But the cover image the British weekly uses to make its point tells the real story: These aren't just any Americans, but rapturous women grasping pictures of Bill and beaming like bobby soxers. Indeed, Clinton's ratings have remained six to eight points higher among women than among men throughout the scandals. Add the staunch support Clinton enjoys among minorities and it's clear why he inspires such fury in certain segments of the population that nothing short of his expulsion from office -- followed by imprisonment -- can quell their rage.

The gentlemen journalists of the Economist may see this constituency as a pack of gullible girls, but in fact, Clinton's rapport with women is no mere romance. His administration -- beginning with the first lady -- is the most feminized in American history, as well as the most diverse. So are his legal team -- two of four are women, one of them a black woman -- and even the list of witnesses the Senate is about to depose (one black man and two Jews). The House prosecutors, on the other hand, are, to a person, white (and mostly Southern) males. Only in the media is this distinction not apparent. But then, so much about this president's appeal is a mystery to the punditocracy. Political commentary, like political power in this country, is still largely reserved for white males. They are no less subject to fear of a black and female planet than are their more plebeian cousins, the Angry White Males. But like all elites, they are slow to acknowledge their anxieties and quick to conflate their interests with the rule of law. Meanwhile, the president eludes his enemies because he is a creature of the very culture they cannot comprehend.

You'd think all these guys would relish the fantasy of getting head in the Oval Office -- from a luscious Jewess, no less -- but their response to the Lewinsky scandal has been more like the good old boys in a Tennessee Williams play, whose reaction to the appearance of a loner in a snakeskin jacket is to drag him off and castrate him. Why didn't John F. Kennedy's far riskier liaisons produce a similar response in the good old boys? Because he was one of them -- the loyal son of a bigoted patriarch who did nothing in his career to upend the structure of male power. Clinton, on the other hand, provokes the primal terror of women's power because he plays to it, and now that this power can make or break a president (especially when women team up with minorities), it's inevitable that male panic will express itself in a political castration rite.

Of course, unlike the doomed hero of "Orpheus Descending," Clinton knows how to dodge the knife. He understands how the attack on his sexuality will play to his public -- how blacks feel about being called an animal, how gays feel about being labeled a pervert, how women feel when their passions are regarded as a sign of weakness and voraciousness. He understands the inextricable link between the fortunes of these groups and his own ability to govern. And he has an instinct for the new morality that has emerged along with the breakdown of patriarchal authority. A mother-centered child of an alcoholic who did battle with brutal stepfathers, he is a natural embodiment of the TV talk-show ethic, in which the moral meaning of sex lies in its emotional content, not its correspondence to convention. This is the politics of Jenny Jones, and Clinton is its master, but that gift would not have taken him so far unless it were a reflection of some deeper impulse in the American psyche: the vision of a sexually charged democracy that Whitman imagined when he wrote, "The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers."

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Of course, Whitman would probably blush, if not rail, at what Clinton has made of the transcendental canon. The body electric is one thing, but stand-up blowjobs followed by easy betrayals -- the president's defense against perjury rests on his promise that he didn't try to "gratify" or "arouse" Monica Lewinsky -- are quite another. Clinton has always been the premodern man with a postmodern pitch -- that's why people adore what he represents but don't trust what he is. Yet, even in his guileful ambivalence, he is an authentic American type. To understand Clinton's mystique, we must leave Whitman and Hawthorne behind, and look to Uncle Remus, who had a far savvier sense of the American terrain. It was a farmyard whose greatest perils were the tar pit and the briar patch, and whose most successful resident was the infinitely wily Bre'er Rabbit. Through charm and trickery, he eludes his enemies and maintains his advantage. Here is the Man From Hope writ small.

Yet who better to lead us than someone who knows the tar and briar first hand? Whatever Congress may decide, the people's choice is a lover, not a fighter; a manipulator, not a moralist; a trickster president in an increasingly slippery world.


Richard Goldstein

Richard Goldstein was the first widely read rock critic, with a column called "Pop Eye" that ran in the Village Voice from 1966 to 1968. The column allowed me to meet most of the major rock stars of the 1960s, and to know some of them quite well, including Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. I also knew and hung out with Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag, and other cultural figures of the time. After the end of the '60s I began to write about feminism, sexual liberation, and identity politics, tracing the connections between these areas and social and political trends in a series of features and columns for the Voice. I also wrote for The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Vogue, among other venues. In the 1980s I became an activist for lgbt rights, and I won a GLAAD award as Columnist of the Year. I have written recently for The Nation, The Guardian, Harpers, The Atlantic (online), the London Spectator, and other publications.

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