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Off the Fiscal Cliff and Into the Swamp With Thomas Jefferson

12/13/2012 02:47 pm 14:47:35 | Updated Feb 12, 2013

The small man with a soft voice listens politely to the office seeker. There are jobs to fill and rewards to grant. This president understands the concepts of democracy as well as the requirements of its politics. After all, he did write the book. Suddenly, the man's arm shoots out and plucks a buzzing fly out of the air. Genteel, quick of mind, thin, with a long face, we are in the presence of the extraordinary Thomas Jefferson, as described by the pointillist Jon Meacham in a most rewarding new biography, Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, Random House unabridged audio -- 19 hrs. and print edition -- 800 pages.

Meacham writes with exquisite detail that not only grabs the fly but the listener and reader. How does the man possibly know about the fly incident? Research, research and more research into the archives of the U.S., England and France in addition to unpublished transcripts of Jefferson's presidential papers.

It's all here: creating the Declaration of Independence, laying the foundations for our fledgling democracy, his sexual relationship with his late wife's enslaved half-sister, Sally Hemmings, and their five children. But it's Jefferson's exceptional political skills that pop out in this well-told audiobook narrated with authority and tangible warmth by Edward Herrmann, whose voice seems quite in harmony with 18th century America.

It's one thing to articulate an audacious new vision for an embryonic democracy, it's quite another for Jefferson and his colleagues to actually make it happen -- given the fiercely independent mindset of the original colonies. Today's politicians would be wise to look at how this most gifted politician handled the fiscal cliff of his day.

At issue was Alexander Hamilton's ground-breaking and scary scheme for the new federal government to assume ALL the debt for ALL the colonies. It was the nation's first major political fission and threatened to destroy the fragile experiment. Some of the northeastern states did not want to assume the debts of some of the southern states. Jefferson said there might be room for compromise and things could be worked out. "The beginning of wisdom," Jefferson thought, "might lay with a meeting of the principals out of the public eye." So he convened a private dinner with the principals. Today this is called backroom deal-making. But Jefferson believed "Men of sound heads and honest views needed nothing more than explanation and mutual understanding to enable them to unite in some measures which might enable us to get along." Ya think? "If everyone retains inflexibly in his present opinion there will be no bill passed at all for funding the public debts, and without funding there is an end to the government." That's not a cliff, that's an ABYSS.

So what did Jefferson and his collaborators do? They met privately and -- that's right -- worked out a deal in a smoke-filled room. In return for locating the new federal capital around Virginia on a parcel of Potomac River swampland they called the city of Washington, the southern states agreed to Hamilton's repugnant Assumption plan. It's what you might call a grand bargain. Instead of going over the dreaded cliff, they waded into the swamp and look what happened: the United States was saved and democracy thrived.

Déjà vu anyone?