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Clay Jenkinson

Clay Jenkinson is a public humanities scholar who lives and writes in Bismarck, N.D. He grew in western North Dakota, not far from Theodore Roosevelt’s Badlands. He attended the University of Minnesota, the University of Colorado and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He also is the host of the "Thomas Jefferson Hour," a syndicated public radio program dedicated to the search for truth in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson.

CLAY JENKINSON: Poor John Adams: Right And Wrong As Always

Basic chronology:

  • June 7, 1776: Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee presents resolution of independence to the Second Continental Congress.
  • June 11: Committee of five appointed to draft a declaration explaining America’s right to secede: Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson.

The others drop out in the following order: Sherman, Livingston, Franklin and Adams. Jefferson signs and undertakes to write the document, “consulting neither book nor pamphlet.” (Showoff!)

  • June 28: Committee presents Jefferson’s draft to the Continental Congress.
  • July 2: Congress passes resolution of independence — the die is cast.
  • July 4: After two days of intense debate, Congress adopts a chastened (TJ said mutilated) version of Jefferson’s declaration of independence.
  • Aug. 2: There was never a formal signing ceremony. The document certainly wasn’t signed on the Fourth of July. Once the engraved copy had been prepared, most delegates signed on or around Aug. 2, 1776.
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr …
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr …

The great John Adams, who played a much more significant role in the American Revolution than did Jefferson, developed both a short-term and later a long-term reaction to the events of the first week of July 1776. In the moment, overwhelmed with pride and revolutionary excitement, Adams wrote a letter to his “dearest friend,” Abigail, his wife, on July 3. The great letter contains the following exuberant paragraph:

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Well, sir, you were half-right. At the instant when this was all unfolding, Adams rightly predicted the ways in which the American people would come to celebrate the birth of their republic. But he was off by two days on the celebration date.

for a list of OSHA violations, see …
for a list of OSHA violations, see …

Much later, when Jefferson’s fame and popularity had soared beyond that of many of the other figures of the Revolution, including Adams, Adams attempted to restore the balance in his own favor. He made it clear that he could have written the Declaration of Independence if he had wanted to but that, in an act of selfless nobility, he handed the assignment off to young Jefferson. He suggested in letters that there was nothing original in Jefferson’s document; in fact, Jefferson had merely copied from a range of state and local declarations to produce his synthesis. And when he was truly upset with his former “protege,” the earthy Adams raged, “You have run away with” the Revolution.

Among other things, exquisite penmanship. Genius: “an infinite capacity for taking pains.”
Among other things, exquisite penmanship. Genius: “an infinite capacity for taking pains.”

All that historians can conclude is this. Jefferson had nothing to do with America’s preference for the fourth of July over the second of July — unless you credit what even Adams called Jefferson’s “peculiar felicity for expression” for lifting what might have been a routine state paper into global immortality.

Jefferson did not seek to write the Declaration of Independence. In fact, he tried to talk his way out of the assignment.

The simple fact is that on the Fourth of July 1776, one of the handful of most important documents in the history of the world was adopted by a group of principled intellectuals from Britain’s colonies in North America. If you start to make a list of the most important and influential documents ever written — the Magna Carta, the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.N. Universal Declaration of Rights — there can be no list that does not place Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in the top 10, indeed top five.


Because Jefferson had spent a lifetime to hard reading and composing lucid prose in order to be ready when the moment came. As a young man, he read 12 to 15 hours a day. Doesn’t leave much time for firecrackers. Jefferson had a genius for piercing through the immediate to the universal significance of things. The Revolution wasn’t finally about Britain. “It was about the aspirations of humankind.” Jefferson was a humanist in the profoundest sense of the term.

The irony is that Jefferson would probably have been happy to steer fireworks, parades and bratwurst to the Second of July and devote the Fourth of July to seminars on liberty, a thoughtful toast with a fine glass of Bordeaux, a rigorous checklist survey of how well human liberty is doing against the forces of creeping bureaucracy, regulation, taxation and big government.

He never did figure out how to fire off a Roman candle.

So today, July 2, 2017, I lift my glass to irascible, contentious, prickly, earthy, vain, self-pitying and unbearably honest and virtuous John Adams. Let the parades begin.

It may be worth noting that in 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution, Adams and Jefferson died on the same day — on the FOURTH OF JULY.

Checkmate, Mr. Adams.

CLAY JENKINSON: Driving The Yellowstone River Valley At The Time Of The Solstice

I was out in western Montana helping my mother get her wee Thoreavian cabin ready for the summer. We had a couple of sweet days together. She is 85 years old, still strong and autonomous, but just beginning to exhibit signs of elderliness. It bothers me to see her in even modest decline. I’m sure it bothers her much more.

Not so far east of Billings. A pitiful image of what I saw on my drive.
Not so far east of Billings. A pitiful image of what I saw on my drive.

The cabin is just two miles from the northeast gate at Yellowstone National Park. It is precisely the sort of modest cabin — droll, humble, beautiful in its simplicity — that I most admire.

Yesterday, I had to hurtle back to the center of North Dakota. I could not afford to linger. So I drove from Cooke City to Belfry, then on to Laurel, where I picked up Interstate 90 and the clearest possible path home. I stopped only in Billings, to take care of a few emails, and then in Miles City, to purchase fuel.

The Yellowstone, the Yellowstone, oh my, the Yellowstone.
The Yellowstone, the Yellowstone, oh my, the Yellowstone.

Sometimes, I listened to news talk shows on satellite radio. Sometimes I just breathed in the silence of Montana. Sometimes, I drove with the windows open. More often, I closed the windows so that I could think. I have a lot on my mind these days.

You would never think that I-94/I-90, a four-lane interstate highway designed to follow the path of least resistance across the fourth-largest state, would be beautiful, but it is. In fact, it must be one of the most beautiful highways anywhere on Earth.

Not far west of the North Dakota border you intersect the great Yellowstone River and follow it upstream all the way to Bozeman. Sometimes, it is on the north side of the freeway, sometimes the south side. Whenever I crossed the river, my heart leaped a little. It’s that great a river.

Sometimes, it runs right along the highway. Often enough, it snakes its way to the far side of its wide valley. The Yellowstone, essentially the longest undammed river in America, starts in Yellowstone National Park and disembogues into the Missouri southwest of Williston, N.D.

The Yellowstone valley is not just beautiful. It is achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful. If you stopped the car every time there was something you just had to photograph, you’d crawl along at about 15 miles per hour, on average. In eastern Montana, the river is the bluest blue you can imagine as it runs through tawny grasslands and a few pine ridges. At times, as in the photograph above, it has carved sandstone cliffs, some continuous for miles, others broken into buttes, bluffs, and breaks.

Most people deride eastern Montana as dullsville, flyover country, bland, boring, interminable. In my view, they are just wrong. They have been conditioned to think a beautiful landscape means the Grand Tetons or Glacier National Park or the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Those places are stunning in their dramatic, in some sense overstated, way.

The Great Plains are an acquired taste, but they are a taste worth taking the time to acquire. They are more subtle than Yosemite, more empty than the Great Smoky Mountains. The sky is endless. You find yourself saying, “It really is big sky country,” and then feeling a little embarrassed to succumb to a state government marketing slogan. Something about the endlessness of the plains, so much land used for so little, the human footprint so light and even tender, the sense of being swallowed up by the earth and the grass, provides a sense of satisfaction I have never experienced elsewhere, even at the summit of the Maroon Bells Wilderness south of Aspen, Colo., or on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

You have to let the Great Plains in to fall in love with their subtleties. If your world is Starbucks, the print edition of the New York Times and Whole Foods, you probably aren’t going to find the plains sufficiently satisfying. The Plains towns are basic, clunky, red and redneck. It’s country music country. Limbaugh country. It’s patriotism on your sleeve country. It’s now largely Trump country.

But however much you may object to some things about this place — and I object to dozens, some of them fundamental — it has a magical authenticity.

These are the folks you want to be around at the apocalypse or the crash. These are folks so full of unheralded integrity that their word and handshake are their bond. They are magnificent in a crisis. They work hard, play by the rules, pay their full share of taxes (grumblingly), don’t expect amenities from government, and they are rooted in the earth, the sky, and the wind. They have character.

Many ARE characters. They are egalitarian in the most democratic sense. They don’t care what you wear, where you went to college (or if you did) or how big your house is. They may be edgy about the Other in the abstract, but they are almost unbelievably respectful and friendly to individuals of any stamp from anywhere on Earth at any time.

They are unhappy with where the country is headed, but the unhappiness runs less deep than you might expect. They hate being treated like rubes and yokels by the urban, suburban, exurban; the national media; the elites. They recognize that their economic prospects have been sliding for the last two decades and that the great initiatives that America undertakes (its wars, its massive construction projects) are paid for disproportionately by them both in dollars and in lives, and they resent that they are largely forgotten Americans, or worse.

And yet when the person most condescending toward them and their style runs out of gas or has a flat tire, they will provide all the help s/he needs, and make no more than a couple of wry statements.

Whenever I spend time out in the heartland of the Great Plains I cheer up about America, about life, even about my life.

Yesterday, as I glided along in my smart(ass) car that keeps me in my lane and slows me down if I get too close to the semi-trailer truck in front of me, I found myself gazing out at Montana for whole hours at a time. I have driven that road at least 50 times in my life. I cannot remember any journey across the Yellowstone Valley of Montana that has not been so beautiful that I remarked on it for days afterward. I love that drive in summer or winter, on the windiest day in human history, or when the ground blizzard makes you grip the wheel for hundreds of miles.

But yesterday, it was as beautiful as I have ever seen it. The light was perfect. The light is always good. But yesterday, it was pure in a way I have never seen before. It was soft June light, not garish July and August light, or “winter around the corner” September light.

The cottonwood leaves are still unscarred by the aridity that is coming. The clouds were not the cotton ball cumulous so common to early summer or the lowering gray clouds that should bring a thunderstorm but don’t. The clouds were wind-wisped into the gentlest and least threatening elongations. The temperature outside the car was 74 degrees, which is as close to perfection as possible anywhere on earth. Whenever the broken prairies started to seem too familiar, I passed through a brief rise of the plains, and pine trees dotted the summits of the grass.

It was so beautiful I wanted to cry. It was so beautiful I wanted to be with the person most important to me in life. It was so beautiful I wanted to have $25,000 of camera equipment, a drone and a day 10 times longer to try to capture the quality of the light. The photo I have placed above reminds me of the magnificence I experience, but I can tell you honestly that it doesn’t more than 10 percent capture yesterday afternoon and evening. It’s a paradox.

I would give anything to have been able to take 100 photographs worthy of the eastern Montana on the last day of June 2017. And at the same time, I am glad that no photograph can capture the full essence of the Great Plains. I do and DO NOT want my best experiences mediated.

No photograph can capture the breeze, the commercial airplane’s intermittent hum from 35,000 feet. No photograph can capture the temperature and the loneliness and the fullness and the sense of wonder and the recognition that this place is so profoundly undervalued even by the people who live and work here.

At Miles City, when I stopped for gas, two teenagers in the RV next to me were raging at their father for stopping under the metal canopy of the gas station because it had cut off their viewing of the movie “The Titanic.”

As I crossed over the state line into North Dakota, and the sun set behind me, I sincerely wondered whether I would ever see Montana so beautiful again in my lifetime.

I think the answer is yes.

CLAY JENKINSON: Sad Lessons From the Nixon White House

Given where things are headed, I’m preparing the way a humanities scholar prepares. I’m reading accounts of the life and presidency of Richard M. Nixon. I’ll place a short bibliography of books worth reading at the bottom of this essay.

The constitutional crisis we are now descending into is either much less grave than Watergate or much, much more serious. Time will tell. If President Trump is just an ignorant bully who doesn’t really understand obstruction of justice, he’ll probably survive to limp out his term. If people around Trump actually conspired with Russian agents to affect the 2016 election, some of them are going to go to prison, and the President may well have to resign. It’s one thing to bug the Democratic headquarters (June 1972), a very different thing to collude with a foreign power to distort domestic elections in the United States.

Personally, I sense that this story is ultimately going to be about sex (the hookers in the Moscow hotel) or about personal financial skullduggery (Trump’s beholdenness to the kleptocrats in Russia who have financed his global operations), or both. If treason was committed, it was probably done more out of ignorance and arrogance than with seriously malicious intent to subvert American sovereignty. Time will tell.

Why Nixon and Watergate?

As Mark Twain is said to have said but didn’t, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Here’s what I have learned from my recent reading of Nixon books.

1. It’s not the crime but the coverup. This is now a cliche. But it is nevertheless true.

2. Of course the president is involved, not necessarily in the crimes themselves, but in the coverup. Presidents don’t usually know how grave the situation is until it is much too late. In the earlier, more “innocent” phases of the scandal, the president thinks he can manage it to his advantage. As the scandal deepens, the president learns that the crimes did in fact occur, but now it is too late to cut his losses or pretend innocence. Nixon was almost certainly unaware of the Watergate break-in or the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in Los Angeles. But he had ordered and coordinated the cover-up of “whatever it was” early on, and by the time he realized how grave things really were, it was too late. In for a penny of cover-up, in for a pound.

3. Blaming the media works, but not forever. Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS and other entities all made serious mistakes in their reporting. Some of what they reported turned out not to be true. Naturally, the Nixon administration clutched at each of these “lies” and declared (on their basis) that “nothing the press reports can be trusted.” The media’s mistakes were unfortunate and unfair, but the great news entities got the larger dynamics of the story right, and while diehard Nixon lovers never accepted the truth, a critical mass of American opinion-makers and leaders came to realize that the story was essentially true. Any story this complicated is hard to sort out, particularly when the principal actors refuse to cooperate in setting the record straight, and others are leaking material out of malice of to save their sorry skins.

4. Invariably, as the scandal deepens, the president argues that his enemies are making it impossible to do good and important things for the American people. This, of course, is true, but it doesn’t mean the administration is innocent, and no matter how much you blame your enemies, in the end the collapse of a presidential administration is self-inflicted. Presidents almost never admit this. Nixon did, years later, to his credit. The “people’s business” argument is often all the President has left in his rhetorical arsenal, but it never works.

“a growing cancer on the Presidency …”
“a growing cancer on the Presidency …”

5. Another of the predictable “defenses” is that “this is an inside-the-beltway scandal, which the real American people don’t care about.” This is both true and untrue. Compared to the cluster of real issues the American people want addressed — health care, border security, energy policy, education, jobs — these scandals are of negligible importance. But the American people do love a good scandal, especially one leading all the way to the top, and no matter how disproportionate the scandal-mongering gets, there is no stopping it. In the case of Iran-Contra, the American people had finally to decide if they could stomach impeaching President Reagan, who most Americans liked in spite of his failures. Everyone sensed that he was not evil, like Nixon, but just manipulatable and a bit addled. At some point, a presidential scandal reaches the Decision Point: acknowledge the president’s guilt but somehow agree to carry on under his leadership, or force the issue and get rid of him.

6. The president probably doesn’t know all the bad things that have been done in his name. He really is relatively innocent. His aides don’t tell him the whole truth. Once the scandal begins to thicken, everyone starts looking for a scapegoat. Nixon didn’t really want to know the truth until too late. When he finally started trying to figure out what had happened and who was responsible, he could no longer cut his losses, fire the culprits, apologize sincerely and carry on. My point is that when presidents profess their innocence or their bewilderment about crimes committed in their name, they are often telling the truth or at least a partial truth.

7. At some point the president hopes there is a foreign policy crisis that will drive the scandal off the front page. In Nixon’s case, the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 and the oil embargo that followed should have made the Watergate “caper,” as one of his aides called it, go away. This never actually happens. The scandal may very temporarily slip off the front page, but it will not disappear for very long, and meanwhile the best reporters finally have time to do more serious digging. Perverse though it sounds, I’m guessing there are people close to the current president hoping for a big terrorist attack somewhere in America or an American outpost. Think of that.

8. Firing the chief investigator always makes matters worse. Nixon tried this in the Saturday Night Massacre (October 1973). President Trump should not have fired FBI director James Comey. In doing so, and denouncing Comey as a “nut job,” President Trump brought on the special counsel. He also offended Comey so deeply that the former FBI director now seems determined to do what he can to bring Trump down.

9. John Dean was telling the truth. Beware of challenging the veracity of the Dean/Comey figure. When you pretend that the “facts will show” that the president was telling the truth and the key witness was fabricating and lying, it’s always safe to bet on the John Dean figure rather than the president.

10. The president always makes the mistake of viewing his problems as political when they are already legal. By the time he realizes that they are legal (or constitutional) problems, not primarily political ones, it is too late. Meanwhile, because he chose to see the scandal as a political matter, and reckoned that he could “tough it out,” the President finds himself engaged in the cover-up. See No. 1.

11. Elections are extremely irrational affairs, and people who should know better do crazy, erratic and illegal things to get their guy elected. Nixon was going to win the 1972 election by a comfortable, perhaps even a gigantic, margin. He had absolutely no rational reason to permit the dirty tricks and break-ins that were undertaken in his name. But elections bring out a kind of insanity in those close to a candidate. This is what we are going to learn about the 2016 Trump campaign. President Trump may turn out to have been essentially unaware of the Machiavellian actions undertaken by his closest aides, but that doesn’t make him innocent. In Trump’s case, his zealots may have felt that he simply could not win without shady maneuvers. And they may have been right.

12. There is a great deal of self-pity before it ends. Just wait.

13. And finally, the last weeks of a collapsing administration are truly dangerous. Nixon’s closest aides finally took steps to make sure the president didn’t do anything in the last weeks that might have precipitated Armageddon. The temptation to lob a missile at North Korea may finally overwhelm a discredited and desperate president. In the last weeks of his administration, Nixon told his core advisors that he wanted to die, that he wanted to go to sleep and not wake up. At some point, the most responsible members of an administration have to “parent” the collapsing president.

Eventually, even partisan stalwarts realize that for the good of the republic, the president must be removed from office. When Barry Goldwater finally comes over to the White House and says, enough, it’s time to start the helicopter.

None of this gives me any joy. In fact, I hate to see the glee and the high-fiving of the left. Some members of the media and some partisans can barely suppress their mirth. We are witnessing the possible collapse of a duly-elected president of the United States. This can never be good for America. Richard Nixon’s fall was a classical tragedy. Donald Trump’s, should it come to that, will more closely resemble a farce. But his fall would represent a very serious setback for the United States of America.

I remember driving up to a farmhouse near Wahpeton, N.D., on the day that Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. I was there to take a photograph of an award-winning shelterbelt. The farmer opened the front door. When I introduced myself, he said, “I’m sorry. This is no longer the right day for such a photograph. Please come back another time.” He could not have been more polite. He could not have been more serious. In my opinion, he could not have been more right.

Books to read:

  • Evan Thomas: “Being Nixon: A Man Divided.”
  • John Dean: “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.”
  • Bob Woodward: “The Last of the President’s Men.”
  • Rick Perlstein: “Nixonland.”

CLAY JENKINSON: The Death Of Decorum In The White House

As a scholar not a partisan, I have been trying to think if any president in American history has behaved in a less presidential way than Donald Trump.

Andrew Jackson was a frontier ruffian in some respects, a loud populist, and during his inauguration March 4, 1829, his rural supporters trashed the White House.

Theodore Roosevelt called his enemies colorful names (he said McKinley had the backbone of a chocolate éclair, and he called William Jennings Bryan a human trombone). His roughhousing with his rambunctious children in the White House raised the eyebrows of the Victorian stuff shirts of his time. As president, Roosevelt rattled the nerves of Charles Elliot, the president of Harvard, when he showed up at his old alma mater packing a loaded pistol. When one of his old pals from the Dakota Bad Lands fretted that he might not be admitted into the White House through the usual doors, TR urged him next time just to shoot out one of the windows. Probably he was joking.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Bill Clinton famously spoke with foreign diplomats while receiving oral ministrations in the Oval Office from Monica Lewinski and fiddling creatively with cigars. He was not the only president to have opportunistic sex in the White House, of course, but his sexual style always felt a little like it belonged in a trailer park. JFK is said to have taken LSD in the White House with one of his girlfriends, in the middle of the workday. One hopes it was a relatively quiet day during the nuclear-tipped Cold War.

The always elegant Thomas Jefferson.
The always elegant Thomas Jefferson.

Most presidents either have or adopt proper Presidential deportment. Think of Ronald Reagan (a conservative populist) or George Bush senior (a patrician) insisting on always wearing a coat and tie in the Oval Office, never propping their feet on the famous Resolute desk, and invariably speaking, at least in public, with decorum, a careful and heightened diction and a demeanor that reflects an awareness that they were the prime representative of one the most powerful and important nations in history — the republic of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, and elegant Obama.

Trump mocks a disabled reporter.
Trump mocks a disabled reporter.

No. 45, Donald Trump, behaves like a rich frat boy, your crazy unfiltered uncle at the Thanksgiving table, the loudmouth at the end of the bar at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night, the golfer who wraps his 7-iron around a tree when he misses an easy shot. Trump behaves like a psychologically damaged 70-year-old man trapped in the persona of a spoiled 13-year-old adolescent, a reality TV star who got paid millions to be brash, rude, demeaning, and narcissistic.

And here’s the astonishing thing. For about 35 percent of the American people, it works! In fact, some significant percentage of the electorate thinks this is precisely what American most needs. When you mock a disabled person by waving your arms in what you think is a spastic parody, declare that your wealth and celebrity allow you to grab women by their sexual parts with impunity, when you call Mexicans “hombres,” shove the prime minister of Montenegro out of the way during a photo op or call terrorists who just blew up the bodies of several dozen British young people “losers, a bunch of losers, OK,” you would seem to prove yourself unfit for the presidency of the United States. Who really wants to defend such behavior? And yet, this man who has never tried to hide his core persona was elected president of the United States in 2016.

I have close personal friends, decent, morally mature and sensitive men and women, who defend Donald Trump’s antics and hijinks and say that he is the victim of “fake news” and a liberal national media that is indeed the “enemy of the American people.”

This phenomenon is simply mystifying. Trump’s behavior gets denounced every day, almost every hour of every day now, but I’m much more interested in trying to understand it, or more particularly trying to understand why there is about a third of the population that defends such loutish and unpresidential behavior or even fist pumps it.

If your preacher talked this way, would you defend it? If a high school English teacher talked this way, would you defend it? If Obama had talked this way, would you have defended it? If your best friend talked this way, would you defend it?

I heard a commentator named Dylan Byers on one of the talk shows last week say that we will never recover our national social and political equilibrium until we figure out why about half the nation is so pissed off, so utterly disillusioned with America’s path, so profoundly fed up, cynical and eager to say not much more than “up yours” to the rest of us, that they routinely, even invariably defend the least presidential character in American history.

I suppose you could argue that even Thomas Jefferson had his moments. He deliberately ruffled the feathers of British ambassador Anthony Merry with his pell mell dinner protocols. Occasionally, for effect, or in philosophical absent-mindedness, he greeted White House visitors in his slippers. He blustered about Spain’s colonial presence in the western hemisphere and rattled the saber towards Madrid and Mexico City from time to time, knowing that it was highly unlikely that Spain would take the bait and actually wage war against the United States. Weary of the opposition press of his time, Jefferson eventually suggested that we divide newspapers into four sections: truth, probabilities, possibilities, and bald lies.

That’s the sum total of Jefferson’s rudenesses. Probably no president in our history had more elegance, and a finer sense of etiquette than Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s world was essentially no different from a Jane Austen novel: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma.” Everyone is polite, euphemistic, civil, and nonconfrontational. Whatever gets resolved — and, of course, they faced the same problems all humans always face — has to be resolved by indirection, strained politeness and nuance. It’s hard to know when someone is enraged in Jane Austen’s world because they always unburden themselves using their “inside voices” and employing complete sentences. Or they faint.

Thomas Jefferson was an exquisitely civilized man. He did not Tweet or hold impromptu news conferences or mouth platitudes with tedious repetition of every phrase. “We’re going to be great again. I tell you great again. I mean great folks. Really great. So great.”

Jefferson sat down in front of a plain sheet of expensive paper and the best writing instruments of his time. He thought through just what he wanted to express before he touched pen to paper, paused to regroup between sentences, tried hard to phrase his views in a way that would find harmony in the letter’s recipient.

When he disagreed strongly with someone, Jefferson invariably attempted to lighten the tension by saying, “If we disagree, let us disagree as rational friends.” This was a personal application of the famous utterance from his First Inaugural Address: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.”

Much later, Jefferson wrote one of his most beautiful letters to a man named Charles Thompson. The letter epitomizes the soul of the kind of individual you want to be president of the United Sates.

“It is a singular anxiety which some people have,” Jefferson wrote, “that we should all think alike. Would the world be more beautiful were all our faces alike, were our tempers, our talents, our tastes, our forms, our wishes, aversions and pursuits cast exactly in the same mould? If no varieties existed in the animal, vegetable or mineral creation, but all moved strictly uniform, catholic and orthodox, what a world of physical and moral monotony would it be!”

Well, I guess you cannot Tweet that.

I’m Clay Jenkinson.

CLAY JENKINSON: You Do the Math: A Tale Of Two Presidents

A tale of two presidents. Here’s President Obama’s statement in the guestbook at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, July 2008:

“I am grateful to Yad Vashem and all of those responsible for this remarkable institution. At a time of great peril and promise, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man’s potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world. Let our children come here, and know this history, so that they can add their voices to proclaim ‘never again.’ And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit.”

And here is what President Trump wrote this week:

You don’t have to seek these images out. They just pop whenever you search for photos of Donald Trump.
You don’t have to seek these images out. They just pop whenever you search for photos of Donald Trump.


This isn’t about the politics or the policies of the two presidents. I am not intending to make a partisan statement about the political outlooks of the two individuals. That’s a theme for some other time.

President Obama in Jerusalem.
President Obama in Jerusalem.

No matter how fed up half of the American people are with the status quo, the “establishment,” the “swamp,” we need and deserve decorum and grace in our national leaders. It is the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth. Think of the elegance, grace, civility, intelligence, respect of such men as JFK, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. And then think of the style of the individual who now presides over the United States. The president is not just a power broker. He or she is also the principal representative of the United States of America, the world’s most important constitutional republic. The president represents a third of a billion people on the world stage. Does Donald Trump represent your idea of America?

When you shove Montenegro’s prime minister out of the way at the photo op, when you mock a disabled reporter by imitating what you think are spastic gestures, when you call the head of the nation’s most important law enforcement agency a “nut job,” when you browbeat our allies at a ceremonial occasion at the new NATO headquarters, you are not advancing the public work of the United States but terrifying a world sorely in need of thoughtful leadership and reducing America’s soft power in the world.

We deserve better.

That there are people who will defend these stunts is a sign of the ethical degradation of America.

CLAY JENKINSON: Time To Get It Over With

Donald Trump is almost certainly going to have to resign. His behavior in the Flynn-Comey affair is nothing short of obstruction of justice. Even Republicans who have defended his hijinks until now are beginning to understand the gravity of the President’s misbehavior.

Richard Nixon waves farewell. He was a crook, it turns out, but he loved this country and he understood its place in the world.
Richard Nixon waves farewell. He was a crook, it turns out, but he loved this country and he understood its place in the world.

We need to swallow hard and get this over with.

I knew long before the election that President Trump was going to be bombastic, crude, impulsive and that he would play fast and loose with constitutional and political niceties.

He flirted with an unapologetically extra-constitutional presidency, or at least Know Nothingism, openly declaring that he would profile Muslims, shake up long-established foreign policy norms and alliances, undo hard-fought environmental regulations, and undermine the credibility of some of our most important institutions, inlcuding the judiciary.  He made all of that clear in his two-year campaign to become the Republican nominee and then president of the United States.

Donald Trump won the 2016 election. Elections matter. He had a right to try to change America in the ways he outlined. Millions of Americans voted for him because he told them he would fix what was wrong with the United States.

We can’t afford a prolonged (and predictable) constitutional crisis.
We can’t afford a prolonged (and predictable) constitutional crisis.

But what none of us could really know was that he would permit his closest cronies to commit treason against the United States by egging on Russian interference in our national election. We could not know that he would divulge state secrets to the Russians, demand loyalty vows from key figures in his administration or attempt to obstruct justice by first undermining the credibility of the FBI investigations, then trying to coerce FBI director James Comey and — when that failed — firing Comey, the national officer investigating the crimes of Trump’s cronies, and perhaps his own.

We are edging toward an impeachment crisis. Whether we have the national will to see it through will be a test of our genuine patriotism and our love of the American Constitution. It will also be a test of the Republican Party.

It seems to me that this can only end one way: Sometime in then next year, Donald Trump is going to leave the presidency one way or the other. Mike Pence is going to be the next president of the United States. If you try to construct a scenario in which Trump survives this crisis, you will find it impossible to see a reasonably plausible path.

A man wholly unfit for the presidency. His wounds are all self-inflicted.
A man wholly unfit for the presidency. His wounds are all self-inflicted.

The only way Trump can survive is to go on national television, admit everything, apologize in plain and unmistakably sincere terms, throw himself on the mercy of the American people, ask for a final opportunity to redeem his presidency and pray publicly for forgiveness. If he did this, he would probably survive. The American people believe in second chances.

The likelihood of Trump facing his limitations in an unmistakable and humble way approaches zero. Hubris is his brand. He does not have the right stuff to confess to his inadequacies and his crimes.

Here’s why we need to get this over with sooner rather than later. While we spend months processing these increasingly damaging revelations, with Trump’s diehards blaming the Democrats, the establishment and the media, our true enemies are plotting destruction to America and its vital interests. Their capacities for mayhem are equal to their appalling anti-American rhetoric.

Remember the Condit-Levy madness of 2001? For months, that summer the American people wallowed in sexual prurience after Chandra Levy was killed in the District of Columbia, and her boss, Gary Condit, denied, then admitted, he was having an affair with her at the time of her disappearance. Condit did not kill Levy. But his sexual predations distracted an entire nation at a critical moment in our history.

During those wild and crazy months, former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman were warning us that al-Qaida was planning a major attack on the United States. They cried out plaintively using every tool in their possession. They were right about the threats.

But the American people would not listen because they were drunk with intrigue and innuendo, and they preferred to obsess over a tawdry D.C. sex scandal than attend to the urgent security crisis that was unfolding just on the other side of the National Enquirer. Think of the price we paid for our prurience.

We know that our Islamist enemies are now intending a major attack on the United States. Probably it will come in the form of a series of airline bombings, using laptop computers or other electronic devices that can be slipped through airport security inspections. National security officials have said recently that the current threat is the greatest since September 11, 2001.

Two things are critically important now:

  •  First, we need to get this political-constitutional farce over as soon as possible. Almost everyone now has a sense of how it is going to end, even many of the diehards.
  • Second, when the real crisis comes something catastrophic, perhaps on the scale of 9-11 — we are going to need to have a president in place who can lead us through dark times to national survival and recovery. A stable president might even be able to prevent the attack.

I take no joy in the collapse of the Trump presidency. We are the most important nation on Earth. The stakes could not be higher. We don’t have the luxury of a protracted national comedy of political ineptitude and malfeasance. Who wants to hear the last defenders defend the indefensible as things spiral into collapse? We need to attend to the urgent issues of our time: energy policy, health care, immigration, natural resource conservation, education and above all, national security.

As in the summer of 2001, we have once again taken our eyes off of the ball. I am terrified by what is undoubtedly taking place behind the gaudy and sensational scenery as the fifth month of the Trump presidency begins.

Let’s just get it over with.

Clay Jenkinson

CLAY JENKINSON: Erasing The Past

Students at Columbia University recently put a Ku Klux Klan hood over the statue of Thomas Jefferson that stands in front of the journalism school.

The group, known as Mobilized African Diaspora, declared that “Jefferson’s statue makes it clear that black students are merely tokens of the university.” MAD argued that “venerating” Jefferson “validates rape, sexual violence and racism,” which they say is at odds with the university’s pledge to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all of its students. They are demanding the removal of the repugnant statue of the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty and the Bill for the Government of the Western Territories.

The subtlety of righteousness: Jefferson with his KKK hood at Columbia University.
The subtlety of righteousness: Jefferson with his KKK hood at Columbia University.

So let me get this straight. Jefferson must go, because he was a slaveholder, but Alexander Hamilton gets to stay at Columbia, even though he despised democracy, distrusted the people, sought to overturn the election of 1800 after the New York results were in, called the Constitution a “shilly shally” thing, advocated a hereditary monarchy for the United States, wanted U.S. senators to serve for life and believed that adventuresome militarism was a primary path to American glory. Hamilton attended Columbia, then known as King’s College, before he became history’s greatest advocate for handing America over to what he called “the rich and the well-born.”

Students shame Jefferson with Post-its at the University of Missouri, on land purchased from Napoleon by Thomas Jefferson in 1803.
Students shame Jefferson with Post-its at the University of Missouri, on land purchased from Napoleon by Thomas Jefferson in 1803.

A KKK hood over Jefferson’s head at one of the premier academic institutions of the United States? Columbia, I thought you taught your students to think, to discuss, to reflect, to ponder, to debate, to imagine, to explore rather than merely to posture in righteousness. Really, the students of Columbia are now joining the new American Culture of Outrage? I thought Columbia was above cliché.

Here are five reasons this is a bad idea.

The “racist scum” who wrote the most important 35 words in the English language: “We hold these truths be be self-evident …”
The “racist scum” who wrote the most important 35 words in the English language: “We hold these truths be be self-evident …”

First, if you cover Thomas Jefferson with a KKK hood, what’s left for the KKK? There is a proportionality issue here. Jefferson did some ignoble things, but he never burned crosses on the lawns of his enemies. He never turned attack dogs loose on black men accused of a crime. He never burned down the barns of Catholics and Jews in Virginia. He never sent thugs to beat up individuals who called for general emancipation. He never set fire to polling places, tortured prisoners or joined a squad of sheeted goons on horseback who ran down a black man accused of a crime he may or may not have committed, tied him to a tree, gouged out his eyes and castrated him with a butcher knife and then poured kerosene on him and lit the pyre. For that matter, he never put a hood over the statue of someone he disagreed with.

Second, there is no way we can erase the past. Slavery doesn’t go away even if you pluck down Jefferson’s statue. Jefferson’s life and achievement are inextricably bound up with slavery, but in this he is not alone. To be logically consistent, we’d have burn images of George Washington (the strategic genius who won the Revolutionary War), James Madison (the father of the U.S. Constitution and the author of the Bill of Rights); James Monroe, who declared that the Western Hemisphere was off-limits to any future European colonialism; John Marshall (perhaps the greatest justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court); and Patrick Henry, our greatest revolutionary orator.

Wipe them off the map, them and many more, but that doesn’t change the fact that the United States was complicit in the systematic enslavement of millions of Africans and African-Americans between 1619 and 1865, and our civilization has not achieved racial equilibrium yet. I’d rather keep the Jefferson statue (and the Robert E. Lee and the Stonewall Jackson and the Jefferson Davis statues, too) and argue in front of them every day until we make things right, than rip them all down and pretend it never happened.

Third, when J. Robert Oppenheimer was being tried in 1954 for some radical associations he had formed during the 1930s, long before he was asked to head up the Manhattan Project, his countless defenders invoked what they called “the whole man theory.”

Taking Oppenheimer’s life and achievement in their entirety, his degrees, his books, his teaching, his research in quantum mechanics, his masterful management of the most significant engineering project in American history, his mentoring of young scientists, his profound ethical musings on America’s role in creating the greatest weapon of mass destruction the world had ever seen — given all of that, how much weight should we give to one or two minor incidents that did no harm to America’s security but did not exhibit Oppenheimer in the best possible light?

Taking Jefferson’s life and achievement in their entirety, what weight should we give to slavery? If we apply the whole man theory, does his complicity in slavery force us to erase him from Mount Rushmore, to raze Monticello, to throw paint on his statue at the College of William and Mary, to rename Jefferson high schools for someone better?

Or on balance, do we still need, respect, and even celebrate Jefferson, in spite of slavery and Sally Hemings, for the long list of his undeniable contributions to American civilization, from the Library of Congress to the University of Virginia?

The Declaration he wrote in 1776 did more to free American slaves than all the pamphlets of all the abolitionists combined. Plant the seed of universal liberty, and the rest is sure — sooner or later — to follow.

Surely, Jefferson can never again be seen as a flawless American hero. But to make him a leering, raping, horse-whipping fiend like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Simon Legree is as silly as it is easy for those who would rather dismiss than discuss the blemishes of American history.

Fourth, what makes these students believe they are morally superior to Thomas Jefferson or any number of other figures from American history? What part of the human condition do they think they have avoided? I’m with Jesus: “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” All you have to do is get off your soapbox long enough to ask, “What will the future say of us?” — and if you are like me, you will just want to shrink away to your fracking rig, or your air conditioned Walmart in Phoenix, or your spring break in Cabo or your plastic water bottle, or perhaps start removing your clothing made in Taiwan or China under labor conditions we have not permitted in this our happy republic since 1905.

Really? We can be righteous, we who have caused the vast majority of the world’s scientists to warn that we are edging to global climate catastrophe?

I’m with Hamlet: “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?”

Finally and most important, a mature response to the dark side of human behavior is not to turn away in smug superiority and disgust, but to wrestle with those impossible questions of human imperfection.

Why did LBJ jeopardize his magnificent vision of a Great Society to wage a war in Southeast Asia he knew to be unwinnable the moment he inherited it? LBJ’s decision left 58,000 American dead, a million or more Vietnamese, and yet he said from the beginning in 1965 that the war could not possibly be won.

Just for a moment, compare that legacy and those numbers with Jefferson’s admittedly damaging relationship with slavery. Why did FDR put more than 120,000 Japanese, many of them Japanese-Americans, in internment camps during World War II? How could Bill Clinton’s sole dream, from the age of 16, have been to become president of the United States, and then he jeopardized the whole progressive dream to diddle interns? How could Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered one of the handful of greatest speeches of the 20th century, have plagiarized his doctoral dissertation? How could Theodore Roosevelt have dishonorably discharged 167 African-American soldiers for a riot in Brownsville, Texas, when even he was pretty sure they were not guilty of the crime?

The list goes on and on. Shakespeare said, “We are all men frail, and capable of frailty.” George Washington told his niece, Nelly, there is something combustible in human nature, so we ought not play with the matches of temptation.

We humans are strange, paradoxical and wayward creatures, full of sound and fury and whopping moments of darkness and self-destruction. As Huck Finn said, “Humans beings can be awful cruel to one another.”

Who shall scape whipping?  Not I, that’s for sure. My great mentor Everett C. Albers always said in moments like this, “Judgment is Easy, Understanding is Hard.”


I’m Clay Jenkinson.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Our Gardens

When I moved back to North Dakota in 2005, I determined to plant a vegetable garden. I moved back to the Great Plains just in case the world collapsed and when it did, I wanted to be near farm country — where I could, like “The Martian,” grow just enough potatoes to survive.

The moment I got all the boxes into my house, I drove to Fergus Falls, Minn., to my grandparents’ old dairy farm, to get some of their rhubarb. They were long since dead, and the farm now belonged to the city of Fergus Falls, but I managed to dig up a few rhubarb roots before they bulldozed everything and transplanted them back at my house here in Bismarck, N.D. For me, this was as important as an ancient Roman transferring the family’s household gods — the Lares and the Penates — to the new hearth.

I’ve harvested rhubarb from that seed stock every year since. Every time I bite into a rhubarb pie or rhubarb bars, I think of my grandmother Rhoda Straus. She kept a garden all of her life, not as a privileged hobby, but out of actual necessity. As someone who lived through the Depression and the Dust Bowl, she needed to grow as much of her own food as possible — every single year — and then to can enough of it to get her family of five through the winter.

She’s my hero: Rhoda Straus. She was as close to a Jeffersonian as anyone I’ve ever met. She paid her taxes, voted every time, belonged to three or four church circles, made quilts, afghans, clothes, draperies, scarves, Christmas decorations, helped organize the annual farm bureau picnic. She had perfect penmanship, spoke and wrote in complete sentences, read all the county brochures on self-improvement and never borrowed a dime. She was what O. E. Rølvaag, quoting the Old Testament, once called a giant in the Earth.

My mother, who is a remarkable woman, walked away from Jeffersonian agrarianism when she was 18 and never looked back — not once. She wouldn’t crochet or make a quilt if you paid her by the inch. When she sees me out weeding my garden, or bringing in vast bushels of tomatoes to blanch and can, she can barely hold back a sneer. At her very-most generous, Mother will say, “Better you than me,” and from time to time, she explains that farmers’ markets are the best of both worlds: high quality, organic, locally grown food — and somebody else does all the work. But she loves, even covets, my creamed corn, and I have begun counting the frozen in my chest freezer before and after she visits.

I am not quite sure why I chose to leap over my mother’s indifference and back into the arms of my maternal grandmother, but I’m not sorry. My favorite meal of the whole year — whether I dine at my favorite restaurant in front of the Pantheon in Rome or at Delmonico’s steakhouse in Manhattan — comes about Aug. 15 when I come home from work, walk out into the garden, snap off two cobs of ripe sweet corn, pull three pear-shaped tomatoes off their vines, grab a cucumber and pull a baseball-sized onion out of the warm earth. I wash them in the kitchen sink, boil the corn, slice up the rest, add a little feta — if I’m feeling frisky — and some zesty Italian dressing, and then I eat what I regard as a perfect meal.

The taste of this salad to the one you get in a restaurant is the difference of hearing Paul McCartney sing “Hey Jude” live in concert or listening to the song on an 8-track tape that went through the wash. It is the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Matthew (13:31). It is, in its own humble way, a kind of agrarian Declaration of Independence. It is to make a sacrament out of the mingling of hands in the soil, modest little seeds, water and the sun.

Farmers are dreamers — and gardeners, too. I have big plans for this year’s garden. I’ve been buying and ordering my seeds. Yesterday, after work, I started up my lawn mower (first pull) and my rototiller (7,000th pull) then, like Romulus among the Seven Hills, I made one round with the tiller to claim my precinct and got started. I spent part of the evening trying to decide where to plant what. I will start my tomatoes this weekend inside — this is North Dakota, where you don’t dare plant a tomato outside until after Memorial Day — including, this year, several Joe Cocker tomato seeds given to me by my friends in western Colorado. I’m not even sure what that means — Joe Cocker tomatoes — but I plan to make them flourish with a little help from my friends. I planted potatoes on Good Friday, as the old wives recommend.

So where does Jefferson come into this tale of Rhoda Straus’ grandson? I think I speak for my friend, David Swenson, the semipermanent — well, you know what — when I say that Jefferson has changed both of our lives in all sorts of ways, including out in the garden. First, we keep careful records, thanks to the master. Second, we experiment with new crops and new varieties even when we know that might not work out. Third, we both truly believe that those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God. And perhaps most of all, we take solace from Jefferson’s letter to Charles Wilson Peale on August 20, 1811. Here’s Jefferson:

“I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another.”

The failure of one thing repaired by the success of another. If you think about it, this wisdom applies to all of life, not just a vegetable garden up where Lewis & Clark wintered between 1804 and 1805.

CLAY JENKINSON: The NEH – The Most Jeffersonian Thing In America

Thomas Jefferson would probably not have supported the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, at least in his own time.

Don’t get me wrong. He loved the arts. He read in seven languages. In fact, he was reading Thucydides in ancient Greek, without a grammar or dictionary, in the 83rd year of his life.

Could Michelangelo have self-funded his art?
Could Michelangelo have self-funded his art?

In his own state of Virginia, Jefferson wanted public libraries to have art collections that you could literally check out and display, this painting or that sculpture, in your own home for a time. He gave his life to the promotion of public education. In fact, he regarded his founding of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as one of the three prime achievements of his life.

Thomas Jefferson was America’s Leonardo da Vinci.

But …

Jefferson believed that a national debt is a national disgrace, and he believed that the federal government should only do those things that were absolutely “necessary and proper” as the Constitution puts it, and not that which is delightful, life-affirming, useful, or personally satisfying.

Jefferson told Charles Willson Peale, the father of the America museum system, that we must not contemplate creating a national museum of the United States (effectively the Smithsonian) until such time as we had paid off the entire national debt and also passed constitutional amendments to authorize such things as a national museum or a national university.

Ok, we get it. No president was as fiscally Draconian as Jefferson.

But that was then and this is now. Now we have the CIA, the National Security Agency, billions of dollars of black-ops that never appear in the budget of the United States. We have the Consumer Product Safety Board, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Radio Free Asia, the National Forest System, National Monuments and on and on and on. Some of these things can rightly be called Jeffersonian. Some are so dark that it would be a slur against Alexander Hamilton or even Aaron Burr to say they might favor them.

The United States government funds a great deal of what might be called Enlightenment. But the United States government also funds an enormous amount of darkness-regime change, political assassination, arsenals of chemical and biological weapons, cyber-terrorist shops, extraordinary renditions, entities so horrific and so appalling that they make the NSA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA look like a gathering of Girls Scouts.

We are no longer Jefferson’s nation. We are not, in any meaningful sense, a republic any longer. In 1909, Herbert Croly, in a book called “The Promise of American Life,” said we would only become a Jeffersonian nation if we adopted Hamiltonian means. From today’s ominous perspective, even that might seem cheerful and naïve.

The Great Plains Chautauqua: the master work of the legendary Everett C. Albers of the North Dakota Humanities Council.
The Great Plains Chautauqua: the master work of the legendary Everett C. Albers of the North Dakota Humanities Council.

People often ask me what is the most Jeffersonian thing in America. My answer is invariably the same. If we rule out Monticello, Poplar Forest, or the University of Virginia — all great candidates — or the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which is maybe the most magnificent public building in America, my vote goes to that small cluster of cultural entities including: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, public television, America’s public libraries, and our fabulous national state and local array of public museums.

For me, above all else, it is the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Don’t tell me we don’t need the NEH, the NEA, public radio or that the work those entities do is not patriotic enough or that the NEH and NEA are not much more than welfare for scholars and artists.


The endowments represent that very thin gossamer of Jeffersonian thread that lifts our national culture to civility, nuance, context, thoughtfulness and public engagement. The NEH costs less to run per year than any one of the dozens of weapons systems, from unnecessary tanks to the failed F-35 jet fighter program that the Defense Department itself asks Congress to cancel as inefficient, over-priced, overbudget or no longer useful; programs and engines of death that members of Congress keep funding, not because we need them, but to please their pals in the military industrial complex.

My life has been marked, my life has been “made,” by the existence of the National Endowment for the Humanities and its 57 affiliated state and territorial humanities councils. Imagine living one week without National Public Radio, without the National Air and Space Museum, without the films of Ken Burns, without that local ballet performance by young girls and boys who would have nowhere to develop their talents without the town’s $1,432 grant from the Utah Arts Council.

Do we absolutely need the NEH and the NEA? That depends on how you frame the question and what you think a great civilization “needs.” Did we need the MX missile or the ABM defense system or the most recent of our wars in Iraq? As King Lear says, “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars /Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.”

American civilization has been lifted immeasurably for pennies on the dollar, indeed pennies on tens of millions of dollars, parceled out as competitive grants by the NEH and its state affiliates. To go after them because we need to balance the national budget is insane. To go after them because some simpleton thinks all art should be accomplished without institutional funding would be to deny the Vatican the Sistine Chapel, deny Florence Michelangelo’s David, deny St. Louis the national Gateway Arch, deny PBS the great genius of our finest public historian Ken Burns.

If you love the “Thomas Jefferson Hour” or the republic Thomas Jefferson sought to create, you must fight to maintain funding for America’s cultural agencies, for they truly are the most Jeffersonian thing in America.

CLAY JENKINSON: Theodore Roosevelt, John Steinbeck, and Pinnacles National Monument

The other day, our Steinbeck cultural tour made the journey from Monterey, Calif., to Pinnacles National Park. There is no clear and obvious Steinbeck connection, except that the National Park is part of the Gabilan Mountain system, and that range marked the eastern boundary of the Salinas River Valley, sacred to Steinbeck and the source location of several of his novels, including his great late work “East of Eden.” The Pinnacles are a recent National Park (since Jan. 10, 2013), but the site has been protected as a National Monument since January 16, 1908. That’s where Theodore Roosevelt comes in.

Roosevelt, the greatest presidential conservationist, designated 18 National Monuments between June 1906, when the Antiquities Act was passed, until March 4, 1909, when he grudgingly relinquished the White House to his handpicked but ultimately disappointing successor William Howard Taft.

Roosevelt never saw the spectacular Pinnacles, but he hearkened to the urging of his friend, David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University. Jordan was a serious ichthyologist, the author of “A Guide to the Study of Fishes,” an important book that TR had on his shelves at Sagamore Hill. Jordan believed the Pinnacles, a stunning 23-million-year-old set of volcanic plugs, home to 149 species of birds, 49 mammals, 22 reptiles, 69 butterflies and a whopping 400 species of bees, should be given permanent federal protection.

Roosevelt was instantly convinced. He set aside 2,500 acres, the heart of the Pinnacles themselves, but the Monument was enlarged over time until by 1969 it included 26,000 acres.

The California look. Historic brochure for Pinnacles National Monument.
The California look. Historic brochure for Pinnacles National Monument.

It’s a stunning place, lightly visited, accessible only by a narrow asphalt road. We hiked to the top — strenuous but not lung-coughing — and watched at least a dozen of the world’s last condors soar overhead or perch on the high rocks waiting for something to scavenge.

For a long time, I sat on the east face of one of the highest Pinnacles and looked into the American West from the other direction for a change. And I gained even greater respect for Theodore Roosevelt. His footprint is everywhere. His enthusiasm for protecting the most beautiful landscapes in America was profound, unnecessary, not particularly advantageous politically, often very controversial and not at the center of the significant social problems the United States faced as it braced for the 20th century.

Roosevelt knew what he did not protect would be destroyed, exploited, compromised or turned into luxury mansions for the super-rich. He believed the great natural beauty of America belonged to all of the people, and he insisted that the United States practice democracy in its public lands and not turn the most sublime places over to the most privileged as their private pleasure grounds.

There is no one quite like him. I once asked the great environmental legal theorist Charles Wilkinson of the University of Colorado if it is possible to exaggerate TR’s achievement in conservation. “No,” he said, “his achievement and his influence have been incalculable.”

Stanford’s President Jordan was one of the founders of the Sierra Club. He had the ear of the president of the United States. He used his power — including his intellectual gifts — on behalf of the Enlightenment. TR could not visit every property he chose to designate for protection, but he had a brilliant environmental network, and he trusted his friends in the field.

Steinbeck does not write about Theodore Roosevelt. He was a friend of FDR and later JFK and LBJ, but my  instinct is that Steinbeck would have found TR’s massive personality trying.

I did not know what I am now writing when I ventured to Pinnacles National Park. Had I known I would have been better prepared to drink in the glories of the landscape. But I knew the Pinnacles belong to the whole people of the United States thanks to Theodore Roosevelt, and I know he would have loved the place had his hectic life permitted him to climb up into the empyrean of the condor.