From our correspondent Bill Shakespeare

Thomas N. Longstreth

November 04, 1992|By Thomas N. Longstreth

CHARGES, counter-charges, wild predictions, dire warnings

and much public posturing: Another presidential campaign has ended. And although William Shakespeare never covered one, he wrote words that make us think he did, particularly this year's.

The electorate was clearly in a nasty mood. An accumulation of domestic problems led to John and Jane Q. Public's lament, "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world ("Hamlet," Act 1, Scene 2, Line 129). But what really turned off the voters was the hugely symbolic issue of congressional bad check writing. One representative explained that he had spent "so far as my coin would stretch; and where it would not, I have used my credit" ("Henry IV," Part I, 1, 2, 61), but his constituents shot back, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be ("Hamlet," 1, 3, 75).

President Bush's main worry was, or should have been, the stagnant economy, but he thought the problem was being exaggerated, claiming, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" ("Hamlet," 2, 2, 59). He insisted until the very end that things weren't all that bad with the economy. The people, though, cried out that it was his job to "find out the cause of this effect,/ Or rather say, the cause of this defect,/ For this effect defective comes by cause" ("Hamlet," 2, 2, 101).

The president's advisers were aware of other problems, too. His illness at a Japanese dinner, after which he lamented, "I have supp'd full with horrors" ("Hamlet," 5, 5, 11), revived persistent rumors about the "infirmity of his age" ("King Lear," 1, 1, 296). To counter them, he said he would "jog on, jog on, the footpath way" ("The Winter's Tale," 4, 2, 133), and, indeed, despite a cold, the president could be seen taking his early-morning run until the very end of the campaign, friendly photographers strategically present.

As the time neared for the debates, the president's advisers, agreeing that he needed "the natural touch" ("Macbeth," 4, 2, 9) to counter his formality, said to him, "Mend your speech a little, lest you mar your fortunes" ("King Lear," 1, 1, 96).

In the Clinton camp, his strategists released a flood of statistics designed to refute his opponent's claim that "something is rotten in the state" ("Hamlet," 1, 4, 90) of Arkansas. (H.L. Mencken had observed the same thing for this newspaper long before Bill Clinton was born.) At the Democratic National Convention, he ignored his advisers' admonition that "brevity is the soul of wit" ("Hamlet," 2, 2, 90); his acceptance speech left some bleary-eyed listeners murmuring, "Word, words, words" ("Hamlet," 2, 2, 195). There was also criticism of his wife, about whom a Republican cried out, "O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" ("Henry VI," Part III, 1, 4, 137)!

But it was Bill Clinton himself whom the president's men attacked. Responding to various personal charges and to less-than-candid explanations for them, the governor explained, "They say best men are molded out of faults,/ And, for the most, become much more the better/ For being a little bad" ("Measure for Measure," 5, 1, 440). Mr. Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar during the Vietnam War, asserted that "the better part of valor is discretion" ("Henry IV," Part I, 5, 4, 120); of Mr. Bush, who fought in World War II, his supporters said, "You may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar" ("Othello," 2, 1, 165).

The vice presidential candidates had lesser but quite specific roles. Al Gore, an environmentalist, warned against pollution of the atmosphere, saying, "This goodly frame, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave overhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appears . . . a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors" ("Hamlet," 2, 2, 317). Dan Quayle, asserting the primacy of law and order, asked, "What makes robbers bold but too much lenity?" ("Henry VI," Part III, 2, 6, 22).

And speaking for the religious right, he perceived that "there's a divinity that shapes our ends" ("Hamlet," 5, 2, 10). When his wife, in defense of "family values," claimed that she had never missed dinner at home with the kids, some Democrats were heard to murmur, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" ("Hamlet," 3, 2, 242).

In the end, many Americans in this political season believed that "the time is out of joint" ("Hamlet," 1, 5, 188), and, "True it is that we have seen better days" ("As You Like It," 2, 7, 120). Worse, with television dominating the proceedings, it seems these days that "all the world's a stage" ("As You Like It," 2, 7, 139). We wish that our candidates would say to themselves, "The weight of this sad time we must obey;/ Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say" ("King Lear," 5, 3, 325).

And, honestly, can any voter claim to have cast a ballot yesterday for "a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust" ("Macbeth," 1, 4, 11)?

Thomas N. Longstreth teaches Shakespeare, among other things, at St. Paul's School.

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