On Presidents

Right after Ronald Reagan died, I began reading Joseph J. Ellis’s fascinating biography American Sphinx, which attempts to log the duplicities and conflicting character of Thomas Jefferson. I had long been interested in the book, but when I saw the endless column-inches painting Reagan as a grand hero, as a man no less holier than the Messiah himself, I grew despondent over how the role of the President has remained decidedly unpresidential in recent years. I became ired over two ideas: (1) that the current editorial clime remains so fundamentally immature and dishonest that it cannot offer a portrayal that shows Reagan’s strengths and weaknesses (if only Lytton Strachey or H.L. Mencken were around to weigh in) and (2) that we now have a President as comparatively active on the culture front as a rotting rowboat tied to a quay leading up to some marvelous museum. As if in answer to these issues, Ellis’s bio fit the bill. American Sphinx profiles a man who was, without a doubt, presidential material, but it has (so far) done so in a way that has allowed me to keep my hero worship in check while presenting additional mysteries.

I won’t offer yet another tired dirge that either celebrates or condemns Reagan. There’s enough of that floating around on the blogosphere and elsewhere. I’ll only say that for as long as I can remember, I’ve admired Thomas Jefferson. When I was a boy first learning about this lanky Virginian, the fact that the two of us shared a dark reddish head of hair was always a plus. The fact that he was an intense reader and a man of many interests also attracted me. And when I heard that this was the guy responsible for the swivel chair, which I had always thought was one of the handiest pieces of furniture ever created, I knew that this was the horse I should bet on.

And when I learned as a teenager that this slaveowner had simultaneously written against slavery while keeping the issue on the q.t. during his political career, I was more intrigued than ever.

But I think Ellis pointed me closer to the answer when he recalled Jefferson’s infamous 1786 relationship with Maria Cosway. Jefferson was in Paris at the time and Cosway was married. Jefferson had promised his wife Martha at her deathbed that he would never marry another woman. (He didn’t.) But that didn’t stop him from becoming completely smitten with Cosway. During their six weeks together, Jefferson injured his wrist — for what reasons, we do not know. To this very day, on the romping front, scholars have been unable to determine precisely why, how, or if it happened. (Jefferson was very scrupulous with his private affairs, which makes Ellis’s job considerably tougher.) But what we do know is that from that affair, Jefferson wrote what had to be the most passionate letter of his career. For a brief moment, the assiduous Jefferson let down his guard and authored a 4,000 word letter in which he carried on a dialogue with his Head and his Heart.

Read (or reread) it. This, and not the ability to woo over everybody on television (a mere parlor trick), is the stuff of great men. And in light of the November race, it seems a pity to me that this year, we have two candidates who, like the last race four years ago, who can’t come nearly as close.

It’s also worth noting that Jefferson was a lousy orator.


  1. The long-past histories of nations often strike me as being similar to the Bible in a very specific way. Stories told in the Bible often have tons of magical elements, which the believer takes for granted, even though they no longer happen: God spoke to people, animals talked, seas are divided. Stories of a nation’s distant past are often filled to the brim with “Great Men” — and believers take that greatness for granted as well, even though there’s no sign of such great men in the present.

    I don’t know for sure if this analogy quite works (I’m prone to fuzzy thinking). If ordinary men in special circumstances are, in fact, made legends by those who remember them, then perhaps that is what we are witness now with Reagan’s passing. (Then again, see the earlier comment about my fuzzy-thinking.)

    In any case, I think I’ll definately check out Ellis’s book.

  2. Sorry to be a negative poster today but have you really looked around on the Reagan front? Slate had a negative piece up on Reagan before he was even gone (just on the basis of his poor health) and proceeded to post two more post haste.

    Plenty of articles, not to mention talking heads, have attacked Reagan while giving him backhanded compliments (he was optimistic and genial). The man won the largest landslide victory in the history of this country, presided over a amazing economic recovery, stared down the Soviet Union, and turned a minority party into a ruling party. Whatever his weaknesses (the deficit, Iran-Contra, runaway entitlements, etc.) surely you can expect a little hyperbole when the man dies after a tragic battle with Alzheimers?

    I promise to cut down on the right wing comments tomorrow . . .

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