CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — The Zen Master At Table

I’m trying to imagine a dinner party hosted by Thomas Jefferson. Perfect food, cooked in the avant-garde French fashion, and a flight of fine wines.

And Jefferson presiding, a man of perfect manners who seems to have no discernible ego. He does not hold forth about anything. There is nothing boisterous about him. He never calls attention to himself. In fact, he seems too meek to be the president of the United States.

Like some modern Socrates, he spends the afternoon (these dinners were by daylight in the Age of Jefferson) drawing everyone else out, asking generous, thoughtful questions, making sure everyone at the dinner party gets to shine a little in the course of the evening. Afterward, everyone who attended goes away thinking he or she had been Jefferson’s favorite guest. And what wines!

I’ve spent my life around alpha males. We specialize in one type in my native North Dakota — the big man who knows more about how things should be done than government, who has hunting stories to tell, who drinks a beer and then collapses the can in front of you like a human trash compactor, who actually swaggers in his supreme self-confidence and looks upon any evocation of nuance or subtlety as just, well, a bunch of hogwash.

Then there is the more national variety of alpha male. Knows how to get things done, knows what money can buy, takes all the time he wants in putting his luggage in the overhead bin, orders a double Maker’s Mark — he’s particular about his grain alcohol — and opens the Wall Street Journal as if he commissioned the whole thing for his private edification, laughs louder than necessary at stories that express his arrogance by seeming to be self-depreciating.

You know the types.

I perform as several historical characters, among them Meriwether Lewis, Theodore Roosevelt, John Steinbeck, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and, of course, the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. They were all masters of their world, men of great mind and extraordinary achievement. You could rank them according to their ego projection, with Roosevelt at the very top — always over the top — then Oppenheimer, Lewis, Steinbeck and finally Jefferson.

Oppenheimer always had to be the smartest man in every room — and usually was — but his arrogance was made acceptable by his gigantic desire to know, to see into the heart of the cosmos and his sense that whatever was at the center of quanta must be supremely elegant.

Steinbeck didn’t need to assert himself much. He was actually quite a quiet man. He just wanted to keep at his art and he did not want you to get in the way of his art. It was pretty much that simple for the author of the “Grapes of Wrath.”

Lewis was a driven man, tightly wound, self-punishing, impatient, mission-driven. But take off his Army epaulettes, and he was so meek that he could not even successfully court a woman, and he covered his insecurities with alcohol.

And then there is Thomas Jefferson, a kind of Zen leader, not fond of power, not fond of alcohol, not fond of talking, not fond of celebrity, not fond of money. He sought to be a kind of invisible master, and he didn’t mind who got the credit — certainly did not want it for himself — so long as the enlightened thing got done in the end. He bent over backward in every situation to play down rather than play up his mighty talents, and he never thought of himself as the indispensable man in any situation. Soft-spoken, exquisitely polite, modest, generous, hospitable, thoughtful, sensitive to the needs of others. Before he opened his mouth or dipped his pen into ink, he asked himself, “What’s the most affirming thing I can say or write that shows genuine respect for the recipient without doing disservice to my sense of truth and my vision of this country?”

He wrote freedom’s single most important document, the Declaration of Independence, without calling attention to himself or taking credit. He wrote one of the most important documents in the history of freedom of conscience, the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, and issued no news release when it passed into law in Virginia in 1786. He created one of the greatest universities in the world in his retirement, and called it the University of Virginia, not Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Brown, Yale or Stanford. He made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and, rather than announce his greatness from a tower, fretted about whether it was a strictly constitutional transaction or not.

Theodore Roosevelt was as intelligent as Jefferson, maybe more so, and he was better read than Jefferson. TR read a book a day all of his life, and he had a steel-trap memory, as well as many steel traps! But he was a colossal egotist and something of a blowhard. One White House guest said, “You go to the White House, you shake hands with Roosevelt and hear him talk — and then you go home to wring his personality out of your clothes.”

No one ever said that of Thomas Jefferson. Just the opposite, in fact. Guests reported that Jefferson was a little inaccessible at first, even cold, but after a short time, he warmed up and made you feel like a million dollars. And he poured you the very best wines you ever drank.

There are many types of great leaders. Three is nothing wrong with outsized personalities. Unless you are the Roman farmer Cincinnatus or the Athenian philosopher Solon, men who were recruited to become leaders against their better judgment, you have to have some fire in the belly to become the leader of anything. But here’s the difference.

If you were invited to Theodore Roosevelt’s White House, you would get solid food and a presidential personality the size of Mount Rushmore. If you were invited to Jefferson’s White House, you would get the best meal you ever ate and seven wines, and you would remark in the taxi that Mr. Jefferson only spoke a dozen scattered sentences during the evening, but drew everyone into the conversation and seemed to think you were the most interesting person there.

Put it another way. You would go away wishing Jefferson had spoken more, and Theodore Roosevelt less. At Jefferson’s table, you would be an honored guest. At Roosevelt’s, you would be given the honor of dining with Theodore Roosevelt.

I’ll take Jefferson every time.

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