Why Bush Is Our Most Shakespearean President

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 10 2008 12:09 AM

Why Bush Is Our Most Shakespearean President

 "Removing Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency, it is the right decision now, and it will be the right decision ever." —President George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., March 12, 2008

"Let me live here ever / So rare a wondered father and a wise / Makes this place Paradise."—William Shakespeare, London, England, circa 1610. 

Our presidents have always loved Shakespeare. In April 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson visited Shakespeare's birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon.  "They shew us an old Wooden Chair in the Chimney corner, where He sat," Adams wrote in his diary. "We cutt off a Chip according to Custom." Adams lamented that "[t]here is nothing preserved this great Genius," with no apparent recognition that more might have been preserved if tourists had not taken away chips of the fixtures.

Lincoln could recite hundreds of lines from the plays by heart. Along with the Bible and U.S. Statutes, a volume of Shakespeare graced his White House desk. While steaming up the Potomac in April 1865, Lincoln read aloud lines from Macbeth describing the peaceful postmortem sleep of the good King Duncan. After Lincoln was assassinated five days later (by an actor who had played some Shakespearean roles), Lincoln further cemented the reputation of Macbeth as an unlucky play.

Passing to more recent times, Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt writes about attending a 1998 White House event in which Clinton mentioned being forced to memorize passages from Macbeth in junior high. It was not, Clinton said wryly, the most propitious beginning for a political career. When Greenblatt shook his hand afterward, he asked the president:  "Don't you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things that he knows are politically and morally disastrous?" Still holding his hand, Clinton replied: "I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object."

It might be hard to see George W. Bush's place in this great presidential tradition. Internet searches reveal no evidence that Bush has ever quoted or referred to Shakespeare. But while others only parrot Shakespeare, Bush emulates him.

Shakespeare is famous for having introduced more words into the English language than any other individual. Those words have become so much a part of our vernacular that we no longer associate them with the Swan of Avon. Words used above—like birthplace , fixture , and assassination— originate with him.  Perhaps Shakespeare's most enduring legacy lies in his unseen mark on our semantic stock.

Along this metric, Bush stands alone among the 43 presidents. His coinages are the stuff of legend, including terms such as misunderestimate , mential , and embetterment . Many critics lament how busybody editors "corrected" Shakespeare's Quartos because they did not conform to their pedestrian notions of proper usage. For the same reason, we should not let stenographers "correct" Bush's contributions to our literary heritage. Bush's words do not belong to us. We hold them in trust—for our childrens, and for our childrens's childrens.


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