Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Presidential Replay

Imagine two contenders for the presidency, one rather squat and plainspoken, the other lean, lanky and given to elevated discourse. Sound familiar?

At the Continental Congress in Philadelphia where they first met, John Adams was the older man, a known quantity, but far from exciting. Jefferson was a newcomer to the scene, younger and without much track record but a rising star.

History doesn't repeat itself. But sometimes the eighteenth century seems to have presaged the twenty-first. Contrast the personalities of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson with those of Barak Obama and John McCain.

Ideologically, Jefferson was more democratic, yet came off as elitist and aloof. Paradoxically, Adams believed in a natural aristocracy of brains and talent, but his everyday speech was simple and his manners homespun.

In his book Inventing America, historian Garry Will explains that the terms "conservative" and "liberal" are misleading labels in most cases, but rarely as skewed as when applied to these two.

"Adams had a theoretical caution but a headlong, informal, risk-taking manner in person," Wills observes. "He was quick to trust or suspect, to take or give offense, to act on a moral 'feel' for any situation."

Along with his cousin Samuel, John was a scrapper. He enjoyed not only the rough-and-tumble of parliamentary battle, but shared a warrior's exaltation for combat. He nominated Washington to be commander-in-chief of the continental armies, practically invented the United States Navy, and himself served as chair of the Board of War and Ordnance during the revolution—a post roughly comparable to today's Secretary of Defense. One feels that like McCain, he would have been comfortable commanding a fighter wing. And like John McCain, the other John was known as headstrong, egotistical, and given to occasional fits of temper.

"Jefferson, by contrast, was rather quick to spill literary blood, but slow to the point of timidity in facing actual violence," says Wills. This wasn't a question of physical courage; Jefferson disliked even legislative conflict and preferred to harmonize differences rather than wrestle with them. He was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence (with the concurrence of Adams) because of his soaring rhetoric. But his record as wartime governor of Virginia was spotty at best, and of all the titles he possessed, "colonel" was his least favorite. Says Wills, "He exasperated others by seeing inevitability where they saw only crisis, by a long-range vision that treated day-to-day struggles as already settled in their outcome. He brushed troubles aside as distractions from the main point of large patterns."

A preference for bipartisanship, a promise for revolutionary change but no killer instinct, optimism about a beaconing future that's vague on the messy details of how to get there … sounds a little like the junior senator from Illinois, doesn't it?

The choice facing Americans in November is like the choice voters faced in 1796. Adams won that election, but Jefferson bested him four years later. Then as now, both candidates were intelligent and capable. Briefly bitter adversaries, they ended up the best of friends. But one was a hot head (some would say much too combustible), while the other was a cool character, with an air that could be professorial rather than practical.

Most chroniclers agree that Jefferson ultimately made the better chief executive. Political scientists surveyed over the past half century consistently put the man from Monticello among the top half dozen to occupy the White House. Adams ranks further down the list. But the voters, not historians, will have to make the judgment this time around.

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