|The Archetypical Presidency
Defining the Presidency Through Archetypes in Television and Film
(Originally written in May of 2006)
The President of the United States of America is the single most visible figure in all of American politics. It is no wonder then that in our popular culture and media we have found ways to place the office of the President at the center of our fiction. But by fictionalizing our President to fit within the confines of any medium, we end up sacrificing quite a bit. If the full complexity of the office and its support were evoked, it would be seemingly impossible to follow all of the elements of a story. This means that quite a bit must be trimmed away, and a character that evokes the spirit of the office must be created. But what makes a President, for lack of a better term, Presidential? What must an audience see to be able to identify with a character as President of the United States of America? What is their expectation, and should this expectation be met or be challenged?
Unfortunately, when it comes to bringing these depictions to visual formats like television and film, the choice is most often to meet our expectations rather than present an idea that may be contrary to our preconceptions. Because of this easily predictable pattern, fictional representations of the American political system’s highest office can be clearly broken down into seven separate, basic archetypes: the Oval Office, the Statesman, the Romantic, the Rebel, the Action Hero, the Scoundrel, and finally the Buffoon.
This article will attempt to analyze these basic archetypes, and find examples from fictitious holders of the office from both television series and films that have been created in the last fifteen years. Secondly, we will look at an example of what happens when one goes against the expected or desired archetype of an audience. Finally, we will take a look at the public images the President in the media and compare it to the collected archetypes, seeing if we can classify the archetype both the President’s and the President’s opposition have attempted to cast either as.
Defining Archetypes Through Fiction
The most basic archetype of all that can be found in most television series and films is that of a character no more developed than by the words “Mister President.” Characters fulfilling this basic archetype, a man or woman who does not exist beyond his or her title, we will refer to as simply “The Oval Office.” The Oval Office President in many ways could simply be replaced by a cardboard cutout with a giant Seal of the President of the United States stapled to it, and does not exist as a character for anything more than a story telling device. It is rare that this character is anything more than a secondary character in the story, as so little about them is defined.
This character is most often seen in action films (although this is not always the case). A simple example of this is within the context of the turn of the millennium television series Seven Days. The television series Seven Days is a light science fiction action drama where the central character works as part of a secret NSA project. The first time the President of the United States is directly seen is in the episode “Doppelganger Part 1,” which aired in November of 1998. He is played by actor Holmes Osborne (which is only notable due to his uncanny physical resemblance to the man who would actually be elected President two years later), and even though he is given a name within the episode, it is merely window dressing. The character’s political beliefs, party, or really anything beyond the title are not investigated (“Doppelganger Part 1” 1998). Another example of this archetype can be found in the science fiction television series Stargate SG-1. In an episode of the show’s seventh season, William Devane was introduced as President Henry Hayes. Again, the character’s personal politics are never openly discussed, and he acts as merely an engine for the episode’s storyline (“Inauguration” 2005).
The second archetype we will look at is a more classical idea of the office of President. Characters that can be categorized within this archetype’s framework can also be thought of as our ideal image of what the President should be like. This is the character who most evokes the romanticized image of George Washington taught to school children at a young age. Because of this idealized vision of a leader, we will simply refer to this archetype as “The Statesman.”
The Statesman President is perhaps best seen in the character of Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, in the NBC drama The West Wing. The character of Josiah Bartlet is a Nobel Prize holding economist, Notre Dame and Oxford schooled, and literally descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The West Wing, which ran in primetime from 1999 until 2006, provides us with probably one of the deepest portrayals of a President in fiction, yet Bartlet still falls cleanly into the archetype of the Statesman without varying that far away from our expectations (“‘The West Wing’ Continuity Guide” 2006).
Unlike the Oval Office, the Statesman’s politics are quite clear. Combined with the elevated level of heroism imbued by this archetype though, this clear political agenda often undermines those who may differ from the character. Bartlet is, throughout the length of the series, seen as intellectually superior to his political opponents. Likewise his opponents are often cast in an overtly negative light to help elevate the Bartlet character. This fictional device, clearly designed to help the audience relate more closely to the hero, can easily fall into the trap of illegitimately belittling the opposing opinion by casting the opposite position as the villain, making those who hold said political belief look foolish (Beaver 2002).
A close cousin to the Statesman archetype, but with a few notable differences, is a softer, cuddlier President. An idealist, like the Statesman, this archetype differs in that they can be seen as a much more fallible, sympathetic voice. This archetype has more than policy on his or her mind though, because he or she is “The Romantic.”
A good example of this archetype is seen in the 1995 film The American President (which, like much of The West Wing was scripted by Aaron Sorkin). Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd. Shepherd is similarly educated when compared to Bartlet, and makes his idealistic policies well known. Shepherd though is given a much softer side than Bartlet, and is much more fallible. The Romantic President we see with Shepherd though is a rough mix, whose primary plot motivation is, admittedly, a love story with a female character in the film (Reiner 1995).
The same problems occur with the Romantic President that we see with the Statesman though. As the character is an idealist, he is quite vocal in his political beliefs. To ensure that the audience likes the character, regardless of their own political beliefs, those who oppose the films hero must be portrayed as overly despicable and opportunistic. This is, again, a completely unfair assessment of the true political opposition.
While this is perhaps one of the more human of all of the archetypes, it is still a gross oversimplification. While the Romantic President is able to express ideas, if the actions he or she takes in the film were to be translated to the real world of politics the consequences would be significantly more severe. It is also this archetype that somehow escapes the traditional pressures of the position, and is seen with less responsibility than the role actually requires.
An archetype seen perhaps in earlier cinema regarding some political characters has recently begun gaining more ground as a possible Presidential archetype. This archetype is that of an underdog, fighting against a political establishment in an attempt to make their way. Possessing an idealist nature similar to what can be found in the Statesman, they are perhaps a Statesman in the making. Stronger than the Romantic, but perhaps without the cards weighted in their favor, they are still far behind in the battle. A President who fills this archetype can be thought of as “The Rebel President.”
The Rebel President is easily seen in the short lived television series Commander in Chief, where actress Geena Davis plays President Mackenzie Allen. An Independent, who had been Vice President for a now deceased Republican President (don’t try to think about it too hard), she had been asked to step down before the former President’s death. Davis plays Allen as an underdog, playing against a system that is displeased with her holding the office in the first place (“Commander in Chief” 2006).
Another example of this can also be found in The West Wing. During the sixth season, a Democratic Congressman from Texas named Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, is introduced as the underdog candidate in the Presidential race. Smits’s character, while not a President yet per se, fights over the remaining two seasons of the program to win the Presidential nomination, and later the election (“‘The West Wing’ Continuity Guide” 2006).
The problem with the Rebel President is merely that the cards are stacked so high that in any realistic scenario the Rebel shouldn’t prevail. Their obstacles are built to such a level, and are shown to be incredibly difficult, that it is practically unbelievable that the character would actually overcome them in real political situations. In fact, in the case of Smits’s character in The West Wing, it was difficult to believe that the character would win the nomination, let alone the final vote. They also face a similar problem that the Romantic and Statesman cause: to create opponents as dangerous as required for the Rebel to fight against, you must again make the opponents far too sinister to be completely believable.
A much more recent archetype to enter the fictional arena is that of a person of few words, and great action. Where traditionally the President in action films played a smaller role, usually as the Oval Office President, this archetype is significantly more dominant. This version of the President is not afraid to take on direct threats head on, and is unlikely to let others do the dirty work for her or him. This is what is referred to as “The Action Hero President.”
One of the most classic depictions of the Action Hero President can be found in the 1996 film Independence Day. In the film, Bill Pullman plays President Thomas Whitmore, a veteran of the first Gulf War. As the majority of the United States’ military is destroyed (both on and off camera) in the film, during the final climactic battle the heroes are short on pilots. Pullman’s character, being the strapping war hero that he is, decides to climb into the cockpit of a jetfighter himself and take on the alien intruders on his own (Emmerich 1996).
This same theme would be repeated a year later in the 1997 film Air Force One. Harrison Ford portrays President Marshall in this film, and like Pullman’s character in Independence Day, Ford’s character is a former soldier. So, when the plane Air Force One gets hijacked by your stereotypical Russian terrorists, it is not the highly trained and quite active Secret Service agents who defeat them, but instead the Action Hero President himself (Petersen 1997).
In both of these cases, the politics of the Action Hero President are rarely evident. Other than the required “Tough on Bad Guys” stance that they boldly attempt to poorly emote, the only significant part of their being President, and the experience required to perform in that capacity, is their military background prior to holding the high office. The fact that the Action Hero President is even President in the first place seems incidental. This archetype may be the most flattering to a President, but it is also one of the least believable Archetypes for a politician to be cast in reality.
A significantly more negative and sinister archetype that the President may be cast is much less flattering. The idea of a sneaky and devious politician is not unheard of, and therefore does not surprise most people when they see it represented in media. Sometimes they are a character is who is vying for political gain, while other times merely to satisfy their own vices. Regardless of their goal, the motivation behind it is clearly a selfish one. What is being referred to, of course, is what we’ll call “The Scoundrel President.”
A good example of the Scoundrel President in recent cinema actually comes from a character so small he is only given the name “American President” in the credits of 2003’s Love Actually. Played by Billy Bob Thornton, the Scoundrel President fills the role it best can, that of an adversary to the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister (who is of course portrayed as the Romantic Archetype previously mentioned). Thornton’s character is, of course, interested in Grant’s love interest, who just happens to wear a beret not dissimilar to one worn by a rather infamous former White House intern (Curtis 2003).
The problem with the Scoundrel is that he or she is portrayed as so crooked, and so sleazy, that it seems impossible that someone that transparently selfish could successfully win an election. If the character were portrayed in such a way that they exuded the personality characteristics of The Romantic or Statesman, but had the Scoundrel’s underlying motivations, it would be one thing; however, as the Scoundrel is rarely seen as anything other than an overgrown used car salesmen, it is highly unlikely that an individual with that particular public persona could find his or her way to serious power.
The final archetype we will look at is another negative image of the President. This time, rather than the idea of a corrupt politician though is the idea of an incompetent one. A Buffoon is a character that, for all intents and purposes, is unqualified to hold the office of President of the United States. While at least significantly more likable than the Scoundrel, this archetype can only be accurately described as the “Buffoon President.”
The Buffoon President is perhaps best seen in a 2001 episode of the television series Lexx. Rolf Kanies plays the character of Reginald J. Priest, a large eared, simple minded individual who is (due to the machinations of a much more sinister character) elected President of the United States of America. While his advisors run everything behind the scenes, Priest is depicted as being totally oblivious and unaware of most things going on around him (“Little Blue Planet” 2001).
The Buffoon President is nothing new though, in the poorly made film Hot Shots! Part Deux, Lloyd Bridges portrays President Benson. President Benson, at first glance, almost fulfills the Action Hero archetype, a former military man with little to no political description. It is however blatantly obvious the instant the character speaks that he is the Buffoon (Abrahams 1993).
While both of these cases may be entertaining for comedic purposes, it is holy unrealistic to believe that a sitting President could literally be as stupid as the Buffoon President is. While it does create a likable scenario, the likelihood of a candidate literally this dumb making it past the rampant press on the campaign trail is so unlikely that it is mildly embarrassing to think that anyone would honestly believe a real, sitting president could be a part of the Buffoon President archetype.
Archetypical Conflicts: The Reagans
One of the interesting components to any look at archetypical behavior is what happens when one goes against the expected archetype, and instead chooses a different path. An example of this is clearly seen in the 2003 Viacom produced miniseries simply entitled The Reagans, but more so in the reactions it caused. In this particular case the controversy is significantly more interesting than the subject matter it is about.
CBS had reportedly ordered film depicting the romance between Nancy and Ronald Reagan, using Politics merely as the setting (“The Reagans” 2006). Most conservatives had apparently been expecting something similar, and were disturbed when reading a leaked copy of the script that it did not portray former President Ronald Reagan as either the Romantic or Statesman archetypes, but instead something more akin to the Scoundrel (Davis 2003).
In an uproar over the chosen depiction, conservative groups threatened to purchase airtime during the original intended airing time of The Reagans, while others threatened to organize a boycott of CBS and their sponsors during Sweeps Week (Rodeffer 2003). Critics of the miniseries, including the former President Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis, claimed negligence by the writers of the miniseries, citing the gross oversimplification of both Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Davis 2003). In the end, CBS chose to remove The Reagans miniseries from their sweeps lineup, and instead aired it on the premium cable service Showtime, which is also owned by their parent company Viacom.
While it is highly unlikely that the portrayal of Ronald and Nancy Reagan was accurate to real life within the context of The Reagans, would any portrayal have been? While an unflattering archetype was depicted within the miniseries, a flattering miniseries would likely be equally as unbalanced. When the audience wants to only revere or detest a President, how can you truly create a shade of gray?
While it’s true that initial archetypes of the President in fiction were inspired by our cultural expectations of the office, the pendulum swings both ways. Because we have these archetypical images embedded in our heads of who the president is supposed to be, politicians can easily make use of them by evoking an image. Effectively, a sitting President or a Presidential hopeful can use the images generated originally from fiction to change the perception of the office or candidate to their advantage. It is also true though that political opponents of the President can likewise attempt to evoke a negative archetype in an attempt to politically damage their opponent.
When George Walker Bush was first elected to the Presidency of the United States, the image of him as the Buffoon President was so prominent in popular culture that the cable network Comedy Central aired eight episodes of a sitcom entitled “That’s My Bush!” which emphasized and caricaturized the President as a stammering incompetent (“That’s My Bush!” 2006). This is the only time in history where a sitting president has been directly spoofed in the format of a weekly sitcom, and in no doubt reinforced the idea of Buffoon which seemed extraordinarily prevalent prior to the events of September 11th 2001.
In the spring of 2003, a fighter jet dramatically landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Out of the jet stepped President George Walker Bush, dressed in a flight suit (Bash 2003). That day he would deliver a speech claiming the end of major combat operations in Iraq in front of a large banner that read “Mission Accomplished.”
It can be argued, that within this moment (whether knowingly or not) President G.W. Bush was attempting to frame the event by evoking the archetype of the Action Hero President. The image of the President stepping out of a plane (even if from the co-pilot’s seat), dressed as such was an attempt to bolster confidence and shore up support. The images itself is reminiscent of imagery of fictional presidents, evoking images from films like Independence Day.
Of course, as the Iraqi conflict continues, this event has helped serve President Bush’s opponents archetype him differently. In 2006, three years after President Bush made his now infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, there are an estimated 2,200 American casualties in the Iraq War (Curl 2006) [ed: Please remember this was written in 2006, that number is much higher now]. Opponents of President Bush have attempted to cast him as the Buffoon, citing that he is not able to perform his responsibilities, and recent polling shows that this may be the case. In fact, Bush’s approval ratings as of May 11th 2006 have reached their lowest, with surveys suggesting that two thirds of America do not believe that President Bush is capable of finding the right solution to correctly end the war in Iraq (“New Poll Shows Bush Approval Rating Drops to Lowest Point in his Presidency.” 2006).
Dialing back the clock to the Clinton administration, we can see a very clear instance of what one might call “competitive archetyping.” When the impeachment process occurred in President Bill Clinton’s second term, members of the Republican Party attempted to cast Clinton as a Scoundrel President, by emphasizing his lying during testimony about a personal affair (“Ankle Bracelets, Mr. President?” 1998). Using the scandalous nature of the incident, they managed to successfully impeach President Clinton (Armstrong 1999).
The Clinton White House was not unresponsive though. As the negative press built, it began to take the semblance of a unified force against him. The over exuberance from President Clinton’s opposition backfired, and rather than casting Clinton as a Scoundrel instead placed him in the much more sympathetic role of the Rebel President. During the entire impeachment process, Clinton’s approval rating remained high, and a clear majority of Americans were against removal (Balz and Deane 1999).
It would be incorrect though to say that those casting Clinton as the Scoundrel completely failed. Even those sympathetic to the Rebel President archetype still felt, by a fairly sized margin, that Clinton should have been Censured by the Senate for his actions as well. One might infer that people agreed that what Clinton did was wrong; however, their outrage was far surpassed by their belief that the Congressional response was an overreaction (Balz and Deane 1999).
While it is true that in reality it is incredibly unlikely that the President of the United States of America will ever fit nicely into the archetypes that have been constructed over the years, it will conversely likely remain true that these are the clean peg holes the American public will expect their future Presidents to fit in to. While as dramatic devices there is nothing inherently harmful about enjoying entertainment media which features these archetypes, it is important that we realize that our real politicians are never going to be so cookie cutter, no matter what they might try to have you believe
In fact, by judging the sitting President by such closed standards, we are doing ourselves a disservice by guaranteeing that we never see beyond the clear cut roles we have in our heads for the highest office in the land. It ensures that those who would appear to us as Buffoons at first may evolve beyond the limitations of even a Statesman and that those who we may perceive as Statesmen can always deceive us if they are revealed to truly be worse than Scoundrels.
The archetypes found in media are self-perpetuating as well. The Action Hero President is a bizarre evolution from the War Hero President (which is really just a variation of the Statesman Archetype). But as we perpetuate and mutate these ideas in media, it then reflects back into our cultural norm, and cycles again, until it yet again mutates. The only way for the public not to be taken in by a simplified archetypical situation is for them to understand that the archetype was never really correct in the first place.
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