For founding father Thomas Jefferson, DNA analysis has now made a long-suspected truth self-evident. At his historic home at Monticello, the news has been met with disappointment, but also some relief.

FROM MYSTERY TO HISTORY

November 07, 1998|By LISA POLLAK | LISA POLLAK,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Say you work for the president. You admire the guy, spend a lot of time in his house and like to think you know him as well as anybody. Sure, you've heard the rumors about his sex life, but there's no definitive evidence, and so that's what you tell people. Some take your word; some accuse you of hiding something, but you're telling the truth as far as you know it -- what else can you do?

And then -- just your luck, it's a weekend -- the news breaks. DNA evidence indicates a sexual relationship. Wham. Your guy's private life is front-page news; your phone is ringing off the hook; you need a press conference, a statement, a spokesman and an explanation (not to mention some rationalization, contextualization, justification and pontification). And don't forget the truth; you're here to tell the truth, because if your guy stands for anything, it's the truth.

In other words, it's spin time. And the setting this week was not the White House, but the "essay in architecture" on a Virginia mountain known as Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson -- founding father, author of the Declaration of Independence, third president, renaissance man, opponent of miscegenation and father, the world is now almost certain, of at least one child, likely more, by his slave Sally Hemings.

No, the Clinton and Jefferson situations are not the same. But our recent education in the rhythms of the presidential sex story made it impossible to listen to the staff and guides at Monticello this week -- election week, no less -- and not hear a certain similarity in the way loyalists to a president react when the most disturbing aspects of his sex life become public. It seemed like every statement from a Jefferson admirer grappling with the news sounded like something we've heard recently from the Clinton people. Consider the following: "I believed him, because I thought he was a very honest and an honorable person, and then to find out, hmm, it's pretty conclusive that he really did have this relationship, I felt a little betrayed. Not that anyone is going to be perfect because none of us are, but I did feel a little sad and let down, betrayed, whatever word you want to use."

"I don't want to believe it but I'm afraid that it's probably ... certainly it's pretty strong evidence. I'm ... I'm ... I'm very surprised."

"It only makes him a human being. Maybe it makes him more real that he had faults. ... It makes him a man, a real person. Somebody that puts his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us."

"I don't think it's going to have any long-range effect with his standing with the American people."

"If it's true, it's true. So be it and move on. You live with it."

The words of Dee Dee Myers? Tom Daschle? Mike McCurry? George Stephanopoulos? No. These are the sentiments of Monticello tour guides and Daniel Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.

Behind the scenes this week at Monticello, when guides took breaks in between tours, reactions to the news sounded a few different themes. There was the nobody's- perfect- and- he's- human take, the judge-him-on-his-public- life- and- not- on- his- private- life take, the everybody-was-doing-it- back-then-and-he-was-a-product- of-his-time take, even a he-would-have-wanted-us-to-know take.

"To reduce the mysteries of the past and move us all closer to the truth is in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson," foundation president Jordan said in a statement.

Most staff members at Jefferson's house cheerfully tried to portray the DNA news in the best possible light, even as it contradicted the long-held arguments of prominent scholars that Jefferson didn't have sex with Hemings.

Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, head tour guide: "Up until now we have been presenting the possibility that Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemings as a mystery, a question mark, and that's made most of the guides feel very uncomfortable, because you don't know, and some visitors would doubt that. Assuming that the results do prove to be reliable, this will give us the opportunity to say, 'Great, we do have some solid information and we cannot wait to share it with the public.' "

Share they did, incorporating the news immediately into tours, fielding dozens of calls and visits from reporters. (Though to the increasingly ubiquitous '90s question of "What do you tell the children?" one guide responded, "I'm not mentioning it.")

Still, in a week when voters told Washington they didn't care about the Clinton scandal, many Monticello visitors were more ,, interested in knowing "what about this piece of furniture? What are the vents over the bed?" In many cases, "they already figured this was true," guide Pat Early said, "and they're not really all that concerned. It's like, well, OK, and they've gone on with it."

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