(Photo credit: Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC, courtesy Mustafa Khayat, Flickr Creative Commons)
It’s funny the impact a memorial can have on you. Sometimes you see one portrayed in a book or TV show or film and, perhaps because of the context within which it was shown, and because it looks cool, it leaves a real impression in your mind. Then you forget all about it until, maybe years later, you see the memorial in person from a particular angle or in a particular way, and the mediated memories come flooding back. That’s what happened to me with the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.
The first time I became aware of the Jefferson Memorial, it was in a movie. It was 1992, the movie was set in Pennsylvania, where I was an exchange student at the time, and it had a British connection. So of course I had to go and see it. The film was called Bob Roberts, a biting fictional satire of the American political system. In the film, Bob Roberts is a conservative populist folk singer with a shady past who is running for Senate. He is being followed around by a British documentary film crew as he campaigns across the state, building a fanatical base of support. At one point Roberts (played by Tim Robbins) fakes an assassination attempt against himself and feigns paraplegia in order to increase popular sympathy for himself and his radical right-wing cause. To the British documentarians, the activities of the candidate and his followers seem increasingly bizarre and even dangerous to American democracy.
In the film’s penultimate scene, the Brit is chatting to a cult-like group of young Bob Roberts acolytes who are standing in a nighttime vigil outside the Washington, DC hotel where Roberts is staying. He asks the youths about their devotion to the candidate and, full of British restraint and reasonableness, wonders aloud whether Roberts and what he represents isn’t bad for their country. Before they have a chance to respond another Roberts follower suddenly appears before the group announcing that some investigative reporter who had been trailing Roberts has been shot dead. They all cheer wildly.
The final scene shows the documentary filmmaker silently and sadly making his way up the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. It’s nighttime. No-one else is there. With one of Roberts’ martial folk songs, “We are Marching,” as the soundtrack, the camera slowly pans across the inside of the dome, revealing, word by word, a famous Jeffersonian call to liberty inscribed on the marble frieze: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The camera comes to rest on the massive bronze figure of Jefferson in the foreground, before switching to a long shot of the forlorn foreign visitor standing inside the dome, right in front of the statue. He is dwarfed by its massive size. Standing erect, he seems to be paying silent homage to the figure and the memory of the great man. The intended message of the scene seems clear: America is losing faith with the best intentions of its founding generation, and politicians such as Bob Roberts do a disservice to the highest ideals of the United States, as personified by Thomas Jefferson.
This all came back to me in an instant on my most recent visit to the Jefferson Memorial, in 2013. I’d been to the site a couple of times previously over the years, but both times it had been in broad daylight. One of those experiences had also been marred by the racket of heavy construction work being done down by the Tidal Basin, and by a park ranger who seemed to want to talk about anything but the Jefferson Memorial on his tour. Also, both times I’d been there previously the place was just too full of people, not all of whom were pleasant.
This time was different. This time I was visiting at night, and I think that’s what made the difference. The place was quiet, with just the light hum of late evening traffic in the background. Spotlights and floodlights cast strong shadows and sharp contrasts against the massive columns, interior walls and the great dome, just as they had in the film. I was cast back to 1992, and I recalled in stark detail that final scene, even though by then it had been 20-plus years since I’d seen the movie. As I slowly spun around, head raised, reading and re-reading the frieze quote above, I remembered the anxiety I had felt at the time about the American political system, and wondered anew what Jefferson himself would have made of it all.
For a political junkie like myself, at the time trying to get to grips with how this massive country actually functioned, Bob Roberts left a strong and slightly frightening impression when I first saw it. As a satire the film was slightly over-the-top, as most satires are. Some rejected it as simple anti-conservative propaganda, and the film certainly took most of its potshots at the right wing. Tim Robbins, who directed as well as starred in the film, is a well-known liberal activist. Still, he insisted at the time that the film was intended as an indictment both of the domestic news media—which is made to look very lame—and the political system as a whole rather than just one side or the other. Maybe that puts him in the same camp as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Regardless, the film is more than two decades old now and yes, it does look a bit dated. The world—and America’s political system—has moved on and changed, though perhaps not for the better. But what hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years, or 200 years for that matter, has been our national obsession with Thomas Jefferson.
Visually, that final scene of Bob Roberts captures the Jefferson Memorial’s impressive scale and location. At 26 feet high, the statue with its black granite pedestal towers over visitors. The structure that houses this statue is based on neoclassical principles—not surprisingly, as Jefferson was a fan of that type of architecture. It borrows heavily from the look of the Pantheon in Rome and Jefferson’s own Rotunda building at the University of Virginia, though in this case the structure is partially open to the elements. Marble staircases lead up to a large portico and a circular colonnade of columns topped by a shallow dome. Just beneath the dome, inscribed on a frieze, is the “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny” quote portrayed in the film, taken from a letter Jefferson wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush about religious freedom. Behind Jefferson to the right, one of four interior wall panels displays the most famous section of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident …”). The site of the memorial is equally impressive, standing in splendid isolation at the south end of Washington DC’s Tidal Basin, directly south of the White House.
The memorial was officially dedicated in April 1943, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt doing the honors. However, wartime shortages meant that the bronze statue would have to wait another four years before it was completed and placed in the memorial. For FDR, the creation of the Jefferson Memorial was something a pet project. Roosevelt had long been an admirer of Jefferson and incorporated the founder into a number of his speeches. Roosevelt sought to contrast Jefferson’s legacy favorably with that of Jefferson’s contemporary nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. This was the period following the Great Depression, when the banking system—a system intimately associated with a Hamiltonian vision of America—had brought the country dangerously close to collapse. As Hamilton’s stock fell in the 1930s, Jefferson’s rose. (This was the also the time when Jefferson’s face began to appear on the nickel.)
This raises a key issue about Jefferson: In political legacy terms, just whose side is he really on? Putting aside the vexed question of slavery (which requires a whole separate entry) Jefferson has always been regarded by most Americans as a champion of personal liberty and republican democracy. If FDR—not to mention Bob Roberts director Tim Robbins—is anything to go by, you’d think Jefferson should be placed firmly in the progressive camp. But Jefferson was not a Democratic president, not in any modern sense of the word. Nor was he what we’d today call a Republican. Although Roosevelt did a good job of twisting his vision of Jefferson’s legacy to fit his own contemporary political agenda, that was always an imperfect fit. Jefferson has been appropriated by politicians on the right as well as the left, especially in recent years.
This whole question of “What would Jefferson do?” gets very difficult when you try to map his 18th century positions onto the 20th and 21st centuries. How can Jefferson be considered a liberal when he was such an elitist and believed in a smaller, weaker federal government and a fairly strict construction of the Constitution? How can he be considered a conservative when he hated the banks and the entrepreneurial spirit they fostered, paid almost no attention to the country’s military needs, and held religious beliefs that put him at odds with most ordinary Americans?
Perhaps one reason why Jefferson’s reputation has remained high with most Americans in recent years (in spite of being heavily criticized by historians) is that he can’t be easily pigeonholed into the simplistic categories of modern-day politics. Jefferson could also in his time be notoriously multifaceted in his beliefs, holding what at times seemed totally contradictory opinions on a subject. Somehow, that obfuscation has allowed politicians from both sides to cherry-pick his ideas and cloak themselves in the mantle of this great founder.
Or let’s put it another way. Imagine the following pitch for a satirical film: In Texas a rabid, big-government Democrat with a shady past runs for Senate by igniting a popular revolution based on enticing poor Anglos and Mexican-Americans with government handouts and a promise of guaranteed job security and health care for all. She (yes, it’s a she for the purposes of the scenario) is also a popular country singer and uses her talents to attract traditional right-leaning voters. She will stop at nothing to turn Texas and then America into a nanny state where big government dominates all and private enterprise and individual liberty are all but snuffed out.
In this scenario a documentary film crew with traditional conservative sympathies follows the candidate as she rallies support for her radical socialist agenda. At the end of the film, when she arrives in Washington, DC, victory in hand, evidence mounts of her underhand and even criminal activities, but no-one is listening—certainly not the liberal lamestream media. The head of the documentary film unit leaves behind a rabid rally for the new senator and sadly makes for the Jefferson memorial. As he enters, the camera ranges across the inside of the dome, revealing Jefferson’s words: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The soundtrack of a proto-socialist country song by the new senator plays over the scene as the camera comes to rest on the figure of Jefferson. A shot follows of this sad man standing before the statue, wondering what our great founding father would have done at a time when America seemed in peril as never before. Fade to black. The End.
The trouble with Jefferson and his legacy is that this scenario is just as plausible as the one presented in Bob Roberts. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.
Francis D Cogliano (2006). Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy. Edinburgh University Press.
Todd Estes (2011). What We Think About When We Think About Thomas Jefferson. Oakland Journal 20, 21-46. Available at http://www.oakland.edu/upload/docs/Department-of-History/faculty/20_thomas_jefferson.pdf
Chris Roberge (1992). Tim Robbins campaigns for Bob Roberts and political change (interview). The Tech. September 15. Available at http://tech.mit.edu/V112/N44/robbins.44a.html