Surprising Nostradamus

One of the synchronicities of the 2000 election was that interest in Nostradamus spiked after George W. Bush was finally acclaimed president-elect. At the turn of the year, the sixteenth-century French seer was listed at number 32 on the Lycos 50, the search engine's compilation of top online information requests (the list doesn't include pornography-related searches). The sudden prominence of Nostradamus was undoubtedly triggered by a widely circulated electronic message asserting that in 1555 the prophet had foreseen the results of the presidential election:

Come the millennium, month 12,

In the home of the greatest power,

The village idiot will come forth

To be acclaimed the leader.

The message, which sounds a lot like something unleashed from a college dorm room somewhere, was forwarded around the world via the Internet. And references to the "quotation" popped up in columns by The New Republic's Martin Peretz and The New York Times's Gail Collins. Peretz used it tentatively while Collins wrote, "For sure, somebody made it up." But in The Times of London, columnist Kate Muir reported it as fact. Apparently she didn't check with, which posted an assurance that the chain e-mail was a hoax.

Conservatives were offended by the whole matter. New Republic columnist Andrew Sullivan (who clashed with his boss, Peretz, over the Gore-Bush contest) wrote on his Web site: "What does it say about the caliber of many liberals that the smartest thing they can say now is that George W. Bush is a village idiot?"

In any event, there's little chance that Nostradamus imagined Bush's election, according to David Ovason, author of The Secrets of Nostradamus: A Radical New Interpretation of the Master's Prophecies, which was just published by HarperCollins. "The truth is that Nostradamus for at least 400 years has been used as a basis for spurious and partisan predictions," says Ovason, a British writer who describes himself as a historian of art and symbolism. He also teaches astrology and is clearly a strong believer in Nostradamus's prophecies--properly construed, of course.

Nostradamus would not have made such a specific reference as "Come the millennium, month 12," Ovason points out. An astrological clue would have been more likely. "Village idiot" is also improbable, given what Ovason refers to as the prophet's "inimitable" technique of using several languages to disguise the names of individuals. For example, Ovason explains, Nostradamus might have conjured the Middle English word boskian, from bosk, the word for "bush." Thus, if the seer could have imagined Bush's ascendancy to the presidency through the convoluted process in Florida, he might have described a "slow Boskian route"--or in French, La lente route Boskien. But it turns out that even Nostradamus didn't see the Bush victory coming.