For a while now I’ve had a play in my head called “Three Presidents” that, not being a playwright, I haven’t had the wherewithal to think through. The third and sixteenth presidents of the United States meet in front of the White House and introduce themselves. Number 16 knows all about Number 3, of course, while Number 3 is at once charmed and slightly disconcerted that in its selection of presidents like Number 16, the country has become so populist, so …Jeffersonian. After remarking on how the White House is rather less approachable than in their own times, the two men eventually file through security into the West Wing, and finally are escorted into the Oval Office. This in itself captivates them, since the Oval Office as we now know it is less than 80 years old. The former presidents hand their coats to the valet and make themselves at home, and after a brief interlude begin to wonder aloud when the current president will appear, at which point the rather bemused black man holding their coats informs his predecessors that the current president has already appeared.
America is encrypted in the mathematical sequence 3 > 16 > 44. For different reasons, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama are in the news lately—one the subject of two books, the other of a movie, the third of an election. They are related by more than their office; in one fashion or another, the great national crucible of race lies at the center of each of their stories. Jefferson embodies the American contradiction, his thoughts and actions and life all at odds. As a young member of the Virginia legislature when the state still was a British colony, he introduced futile anti-slavery measures before going back home where his slaves awaited him, just as he wrote an anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence that was excised in part so that his own state would sign. Cheap psychoanalysis is irresistible. Did Jefferson strike anti-slavery postures that he knew were doomed, so that he could tell himself he tried to live up to his ideals in the face of both his own corruption and a system that allowed more for that corruption than for idealism? As the years passed, his excuses grew more feeble as circumstances grew more complicated—including the 37-year relationship with a slave by whom he had six children, and finances so ruinous that, put crudely, his slaves were among his only assets—until at the end, the man whose written words of equality electrified the world couldn’t bring himself to write the word “slavery” in his otherwise exhaustive correspondence with rival John Adams. Jefferson was America walking like a man, to paraphrase a Robert Johnson blues—its idealism and betrayal, its transcendence and rapaciousness.
If anyone else lays claim to authorship of the American idea, it’s Lincoln, 17 years old and living in Indiana (where his family moved because it wasn’t a slave state) when Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of the first July 4th. Lincoln confirms as much as any single figure history’s Great Man theory, which leftists disdain as overly romantic, but he only became that great man in the last three years of his life, during which he rewrote and updated Jefferson in his November 1863 speech at the Gettysburg cemetery. Then, at his second inauguration a month before his murder, he gave the single most revolutionary speech ever by a president. This was the address that stipulated the price that the country must pay for debasing the Jeffersonian ideal; it was an address that explicitly said God wasn’t on our side because, in our ownership of human beings, we hadn’t been on God’s side. Given the agendas that people bring to their perspectives on Lincoln, it’s easy to lose track of what an accelerating work in progress he was on the issue of race. While a founder of the Republican Party as an anti-slavery party, he wasn’t an abolitionist when he emerged as the dark-horse victor on the third ballot at the party’s 1860 convention; early in his presidency, slavery was of secondary concern to Union-saving. By the end of his first term, however, Lincoln plotted with Frederick Douglass in the White House the sort of guerrilla raids on Southern plantations for which he condemned John Brown five years before. He emerged as his nation’s pre-eminent visionary when his views of America and race aligned into something morally and philosophically (and, it should be acknowledged, strategically) coherent.
Lincoln and Jefferson possessed an imagination at least as sweeping as their intelligence, so it’s possible that sometime mid-conversation there in the Oval Office, they might actually start to wrap their heads around the fact before them that takes the form of the 44th president. Obama might remind Lincoln of the long-ago trip down the Mississippi and the sight of men in chains on auction blocks that haunted him the rest of his life; as the son of mixed-race parentage, at a height similar to Jefferson’s, he might remind the third president of the sons by his slave-mistress. These sons so reminded visitors to Monticello of Jefferson himself that the truth of the relationship with Sally Hemings was indisputable long before DNA caught up with the impostor that called itself “history.” Unclear even to a fly on the Oval Office wall at this meeting is whether the sudden vantage point of a couple of centuries would lead Jefferson to muse, as Obama might well muse, how it has been that the country always was more offended by Jefferson sleeping with a black woman than owning her. Now the same country elects, twice, a biracial Hawaiian—the stuff of a Lincolnian tall tale. What Jefferson and Lincoln would grasp more quickly is why Obama’s image has been radicalized by many in the same country beyond what reality supports, why Fox Nation insists on creating an Obama who doesn’t exist and who bears no resemblance to the Obama the rest of the country knows. In many ways, Number 44 is a political conservative compared to his two guests whom Tea Party patriots claim to so revere.
Possibly one of the reasons I haven’t written “Three Presidents” is that I don’t know how it ends. On the other hand, a writer can’t be tyrannized by uncertain endings, and 3, 16, and 44 are interesting enough characters that if they talk long enough, they’ll provide their own ending. They have a bond: Each is erudite and likes ideas and likes to read; each is the most engaging person in any room he’s in, provided he chooses to be; each is capable of becoming remote, receding into himself. Each has to duck sometimes walking through a doorway. Each has considerable reasons for being awed by the other two. Each is the incarnation, and therefore the keeper, of the American Promise. And when finally the small talk of tall men is spent and uncomfortable silence falls, it’s because each understands that, at the very moment in 1776 when we made that American Promise, we broke it, and have spent the 236 years since trying to keep it.