The Magazine

President Hamlet

After a youth spent as the indulged and inevitable prince, he has become the king that Hamlet would have been had he enjoyed the services of Axelrod and Plouffe, instead of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Mar 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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I don't mean to suggest that Obama is the Hamlet of the newspaper cartoons--indecisive, melancholy, of antic disposition. He is something very different. He is Shakespeare's Hamlet as he saw himself, a man of action who knows himself through and through--but is neither. Both princes have spent their youth waiting for an opportunity that is worthy of their talent to take off their inky cloaks and reveal themselves. Obama is precisely like Hamlet in his conviction that his eloquence proves his leadership ability and his self-knowledge. And, like Hamlet's, his preparation for high office consisted of playacting, speechmaking, and self-examination.

Hamlet is obsessed with finding and playing a role--and uncertain that he is quite up to the task. Such is the Obama we have watched for the first 40 days. For Hamlet, the role he must play is rather simple: He does not expect to combine in himself the qualities of Lincoln and Roo-sevelt, as our unenviable president does. Hamlet only has to be an avenger. Hamlet's dream of his father assigns him this role in the first act, and, for the rest of the play, poor Hamlet repeatedly tries and fails to live up to it. Instead of taking action, Hamlet whiles away the time until his death despising, envying, and imitating the single-minded souls who can play their appointed role in life without agonizing self-consciousness. He tries to imitate them all--young Fortinbras, Laertes, his dead father. To do so, he devises over-complicated rhetorical tricks--writing speeches for the strolling company of actors, pretending to be mad, writing love letters, ordering secret renditions for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, throwing Polonius and Ophelia under the bus. Hamlet dies--and inadvertently achieves his revenge--only because he is so jealous of Laertes's fencing skill that he agrees to the fatal one-on-one that ends the play.

Hamlet's trajectory describes exactly what is unique about Obama's pathway to power--what he didn't do. Most young men of Obama's generation with presidential yearnings have tried putting their hands on the steering wheel of a smaller vehicle, like an attorney-generalship. A state AG's office is an excellent place to practice the swordsmanship that a president needs. Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo prepped this way. Rudy Giuliani matriculated as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Spitzer was the most presidential of all, because he didn't bother with actual lawyering but merely harried and bullied businessmen with something to lose--no indictment necessary.

At the same stage of his life, Obama--skill, intelligence, and training outmatching Cuomo's and Spitzer's, and with even more ambition--didn't burden himself with such responsibilities. He prepared himself purely through the exercise of rhetoric. A brief speech at a student anti-apartheid demonstration gave him a vision of power, he took an assistant professor's salary from a charity to become an organizer of community protest for such causes as asbestos removal. Most of all, he wrote autobiographies. In his books he rehearsed a vision of himself as leader, solving problems with ease that no one had ever solved before. And the key to leadership, he discovered in his very first autobiography, was not the exercise of authority but the telling of stories.

He argues that black people in America do best for themselves when they stick to the truth of things, when they share the "absence of delusions [perhaps he means illusions] that continued to operate in the daily lives of most black people" that he had met as a neighborhood organizer. So he decides that what will save his community--preserve its self-esteem and bring about a better world--is to write down his own life story. Or as he puts it more eloquently, to "struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan." "Our sense of wholeness" must find root in "Mrs. Crenshaw's story and Mr. Marshall's story, in Ruby's story and Rafiq's"--and, most of all, the prince's own. When rival princelings like Spitzer and Cuomo were accumulating executives' scalps, the future President Hamlet was rehearsing his own story in a couple of bestsellers. Within their covers he could count himself a king of infinite space.