Bush’s Legacy: He Survived!

Reagan broke Tecumseh’s Curse, but Bush may have killed it altogether.

See all the coverage of Slate’s farewell to Bush

Former President George Bush, President George W. Bush, and first lady Laura Bush during the 2001 inaugural parade

Historians will be debating George Bush’s presidency for decades to come—in fact, they’ve already started —but in one area, at least, he leaves an unambiguous legacy: He will break, once and for all, Tecumseh’s Curse.

The curse—also known as the Curse of Tippecanoe, the Zero-Year Curse and the 20-Year Curse—refers to the fact that since 1840, every president elected in a year ending in a zero has died, been killed, or been shot while in office. Some curse scholars (I use the term loosely) say that Ronald Reagan actually broke the curse, since he survived his term. Others say that the terms of the curse, which appear to have been amended to take into account John Hinckley’s assassination attempt, were misunderstood and that Reagan actually kept it alive.

OK, so maybe it’s not a completely unambiguous legacy. Still, presidents usually take their legacies where they can get them.

The history, at least, is straightforward enough. Starting with William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, eight American presidents elected at 20-year intervals have died (or almost died) in office. Harrison caught a cold and expired after just a month as president, the shortest tenure ever. Everyone knows what happened to Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860. James Garfield, elected in 1880, lasted four months before Charles J. Guiteau, upset about not receiving an ambassadorship, shot him. William McKinley, re-elected in 1900, was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Warren G. Harding (1920) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1940) died of natural causes. And the circumstances of John F. Kennedy’s death, like those of Lincoln’s, are well-known.

So what of this Tecumseh guy? In 1811, Harrison, commanding about 1,000 troops, defeated some American Indians in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Depending on who tells the tale, either Tecumseh, the defeated chief, or his brother, the prophet-cum-medicine man Tenskwatawa, issued a spiritual fatwa on the head of Harrison, predicting his death as president and then the deaths of presidents elected every two decades thereafter.

Some think the story is bogus, that it was invented in 1901, after McKinley’s death, to explain the bad fortune of a country that had seen the murder of three presidents in 36 years. Still, the lore persists, and is featured in such books as The Pocket Daring Book for Girls: Wisdom & Wonder and Native American History for Dummies.

Serious presidential historians and security experts, unsurprisingly, don’t have much time for this issue. (Or maybe they’re just really busy with inaugural essays: Michael Beschloss, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Richard Clarke all failed to call me back.) Even my former American history professor at Northwestern, Michael Sherry, admitted that while he’s ordinarily not media-shy, “I doubt I have anything profound to say about this particular factoid, odd though it is.”

One group of experts happy to chime in: astrologers. The Internet is filled with articles about what in the heavens is going on with all these neatly spaced-out dead presidents. Nancy Reagan was reportedly aware of, and quite concerned about, the Tecumseh Curse, which may help explain her obsession with charts.

Mark Dodich, a Portland, Ore.-based astrologer with “an international clientele,” offers the most coherent reasoning, and it’s not easy to follow. It has something to do with Jupiter and Saturn in alignment, a 200-year cycle, and the Earth being in Libra in 1980 when Reagan was elected.

Bush’s closest brush with assassination came in 2005 in Tbilisi, Georgia, when a man threw a hand grenade at the podium where he was speaking. (It landed about 60 feet away and failed to detonate.) So the 43rd president would seem to have put the curse to rest for good. But followers of the Tecumseh Curse seem reluctant to let it go.

“At least on theory, Reagan broke the curse and Bush escaped it,” Dodich says. “But we won’t know until 2020 as to whether Bush was a quirk in the system or does it keep on going. It would seem it’s a done deal. But there’s no way to actually say until 2020.”