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Books: Jefferson as Clinton?

Books | Presidential biographies differ on whether character counts

Issue: "Day scare," Jan. 10, 1998

A bestselling biography of Thomas Jefferson has taken on the serious and scholarly job of assessing the third president's character. But at times American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson seems less about Thomas Jefferson than William Jefferson Clinton.

Joseph Ellis's conclusion is that on the character issue, character isn't an issue, for either president."[B]y temperament and disposition [Jefferson] possessed the internal agility to generate multiple versions of the truth, the rhetorical skills to propose policies that different audiences could hear favorably, the deep deviousness only possible in a dedicated idealist.... These remain invaluable political talents." American Sphinx attempts to prove that Jefferson was indeed a '90s kind of guy.

*Thomas Jefferson as Hugger-in-Chief: "The special relationship between John Adams and Jefferson had its origins in their political partnership ... but the deep emotional bonding between the two men occurred in France in 1784-1785."

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*Jefferson as former peacenik: Military experience was "another heroic experience Jefferson could not claim," and that gave his foe Alexander Hamilton an unfair advantage.

*Jefferson as lip-biter: He was "a very vulnerable young man accustomed to constructing interior worlds of great imaginative appeal that inevitably collided with the more mundane realities."

*Jefferson as New Democrat: Critics cited "Jefferson's disarming ideological promiscuity. He was America's everyman."

*Jefferson as product of a dysfunctional family: He seemingly "lacked the ability to convey affection to his own children. This does not mean he was an unloving or uncaring father."

*Jefferson as New Ager: "Something magical and spiritual happened at the founding moment (June and July 1776), a kind of primal encounter with political purity that all the original participants experienced as a collective epiphany."

But what about character, the book's purported subject? Mr. Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College, isn't interested in assessing Jefferson's character, though he chronicles dozens of misdeeds and failings. Instead, he seems to want to use Jefferson as an excuse for moral mediocrity. In doing so, he takes the worst of Jefferson and throws away the best: "No serious scholar any longer believe[s] that the Jeffersonian belief in a minimalist federal government was relevant in an urban, industrialized American society."

A better example of the art of biography is Willard Sterne Randall's newest effort, George Washington: A Life. The founding father is presented as a strong, ambitious man who saw virtue as his only means of bettering his condition. "Honor was a word terribly important in Tidewater drawing-room society at the time," he writes of Washington's early years. It served to form Washington as a somewhat anachronistic "18th-century knight-errant." Such a concern for personal character would eventually become the secret to his success, and the success of a struggling young nation.

This is heavily trodden ground, and much of the material in George Washington: A Life will be familiar to readers. There are Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior (I plan to fully enforce Rule 9 with my own son: "Spit not in the fire.... Neither put your hands into the flames to warm them nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it"). And there are the heavily quoted First Inaugural Address and the Farewell Address. There are the crossing of the Delaware and the Whiskey Rebellion.

But it's familiar ground because it's favorite ground. The inspiring story of our first president can always stand a good re-telling, especially for the '90s kind of guy who has no clue about virtue, honor, and character.

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