Secret America

When presidents, both living and dead, can't even keep their DNA private, there is no realm we can call our own.

Published December 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Near the end of the new film "Enemy of the State," Jon Voight says, "Someday the only privacy left will be the one inside your head," and then adds, "Maybe that will be enough." "Enemy of the State" really doesn't have as much on its mind as this sounds; while the blitzkrieg of Tony Scott's direction is well-suited to the obsessive, technological vertigo of his subject, and while the film resolves itself more cleverly and with more wit than most comparable thrillers, it's interesting how -- given that Will Smith is one of our most likable actors and Gene Hackman one of our most reliable -- the two have absolutely no chemistry at all. But for all its hyped-up electronic paranoia, there's a visceral ring-of-truth about the movie's portrayal of the assault on secret America presently waged on any number of fronts, President Clinton's sex life being only the most tiresome.

As it happened, the night after I caught a matinee of "Enemy of the State," "The McLaughlin Group" was taking up the matter of another presidential libido whose mysteries have been laid to rest by a recent, well-publicized DNA test -- except for those who won't let it lay to rest, including the boisterous Mr. McLaughlin. By now the rest of us have moved on from the question of whether Thomas Jefferson really slept with his slave Sally Hemings to what was always the more profound point anyway: why it matters so much to us. Over the decades the main argument Jefferson historians like Dumas Malone have made against the alleged Jefferson-Hemings liaison was that Jefferson simply wasn't the sort of man who would do that sort of thing, even as he should also have been the sort of man who wouldn't have owned slaves in the first place. But since this ownership was never something anyone could dispute, of course, it was long ago excused by the context of the time, while the idea that Jefferson might have actually had with an African-American woman a personal relationship that lasted many years remains, to use McLaughlin's word, a "besmirchment."

Since the recent DNA test that proved the relationship, Joseph Ellis, the author of a fine 1997 book on Jefferson called "American Sphinx," has revised his earlier doubts, as only an intellectually honest historian could do. So it now seems rude to take to task the case he originally made, given that he's taken it to task himself -- but for the sake of making a larger point, we'll do it anyway. Ellis' original skepticism was a more convincing version of the Jefferson never would have done that sort of thing variety, made not on the basis that it was morally incomprehensible given Jefferson's general wonderfulness, an argument Ellis tacitly acknowledged as absurd, but that it was psychologically incomprehensible -- that Jefferson simply wasn't wired to indulge the carnal appetites the Hemings relationship presumably entailed. In fact, a different reading of Jefferson could lead one to believe he was exactly so wired: a highly-repressed man bound by a deathbed promise to his departed wife not to remarry, torn between his obviously irreconcilable populist ideals and aristocratic life, constantly trying to idealize and refine his most basic yearnings. Almost invariably, such determinedly rarefied men harbor darker yearnings inside them somewhere, though whether they ever have the opportunity or nerve to act them out may be a different matter.

The point is that the man who created the open America is also the man who created the secret America, the America where everyone is a state unto himself or herself, absolutely sovereign on the terrain of his or her imagination, including the sexual imagination. Jefferson was the first great American with the first great American secret, a secret that went right to the heart of what America was supposed to be about, as opposed to what it was really about. Assuming the DNA test is conclusive, it's telling that after the Hemings story broke in 1802, while Jefferson was president, he apparently continued the relationship, since a number of other children -- virtually all of whom later insisted Jefferson was their father -- were born to Sally. Even more telling, and the single thing that was always the most compelling evidence the story might be true, was the silence. "Jefferson denied the affair!" an increasingly distraught McLaughlin bellowed at his stupefied audience a week ago; in fact, over the 24 years that the story hounded him, Jefferson is on record as having denied it exactly once, very early on and then in a vaguely Clintonian fashion -- a denial directed less at the rumor itself than at the political foe who spread it. After that, Jefferson said nothing. His daughters by his deceased wife said nothing. The years passed in which nothing was mentioned in all his voluminous papers, papers in which he wrote about anything and everything else under the sun -- nothing in all the letters or correspondence among his family and friends. It became the Great Unmentionable of Jefferson's life.

Part of me appreciates the DNA probe into Jefferson's secret life because part of me relishes the result, believing as I do that it confronts America with certain things America is better off confronted with, and believing as well that, while it was his ownership of slaves that truly besmirched Jefferson's legacy, a very human involvement with one of them may partially redeem that legacy. But another part of me finds the probe disturbing. It's disturbing because the open America that we believe in exists only because the subterranean secret America exists too, an America in which one has the freedom of his secrets, the freedom of his dreams, the freedom to imagine his darkness. Before there was an America, and on many occasions since, people have had to swindle their own secrets from those in power, shuffling them from one room of the mind to the other always a step ahead of the authorities; their secrets officially belonged not to them but to the state or church or party, whose right-of-access justified any harassment, intimidation and torture.

For all the indications throughout Jefferson's personal documents concerning his deep ambivalence about slavery -- and he was clearly more tormented about it than either defenders or critics, for reasons having to do with their own agendas, ever wanted to concede -- there was never any ambivalence about the implicit right to a secret life. Obviously, by this we must mean a secret life that isn't lived out at the expense of others -- which unhappily can't apply to the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, given the immorality not of what they intimately shared but of the chains that bound Hemings to Jefferson, at least in part against her will. (It must be noted that the affair began around 1790 in Paris, where in fact Sally was not a slave but a free woman; and that for whatever reason, given the option of remaining a free woman in France, she chose instead to return with Jefferson to America as a slave.) Nonetheless the right to "life" that Jefferson wrote of in the Declaration of Independence implicitly includes a right to secrecy because otherwise it's only a right to survival. Presented as part of a ménage à trois with liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the "life" Jefferson valued was something more than just existence, it was a sensual creation, a thrilling work of authorship, a cumulative invention of ecstatic experience.

Today, in an age when so-called friends secretly tape their phone conversations with other friends and then stand on the courthouse steps asking America, "Who am I? I am you"; in an age when an untethered prosecutor can haul parents before grand juries and compel them to testify against their will about the sex lives of their children; in an age when a $40 million taxpayer-funded investigation can illegally disseminate secret unsubstantiated grand jury testimony for the purpose of public incrimination; in an age when the government can subpoena from book stores lists of what people are reading for the purpose of prosecution -- the conflict between the media and political culture on the one hand and the rest of the country on the other is a war over the secret America.

Any doubts one may still have that the media establishment and political establishment are now two heads of an otherwise biologically unified Siamese twin vanish when viewed in the context of this conflict. Significantly but not surprisingly, it is sex that's the final rampart; and because sexual repression is the grail of the conflict, it's the right that's taken the battle to heart. The extent to which the right's social and political character over the last 25 years has been defined by sexual fury is now incontestable almost to the point of being empirical; as much as anything else, the political right in America today is an anti-sex movement, an outraged response to people's insistence on a right to pleasure. This is a relatively recent development, traceable back to when the right abandoned the Goldwater libertarianism of the '60s to embrace the moralism of Pat Robertson and William Bennett and Gary Bauer and Kenneth Starr in the '80s and '90s; and as an anti-sex movement, the modern right is therefore a movement that is, by definition, hostile to the individual right to have a secret.

Before the left gets too sanctimonious about it, however, it may wish to consider its own complicity. There was much about the '60s that was lovely and exhilarating; having been a teenager at the time, I still have Proustian moments driving down the Sunset Strip when it all comes back to me, the feeling in the air that was unlike anything since. But like all ages, it had its excesses and stupidities, and to an extent the modern antipathy to secrecy was born in the '60s out of a totalitarian notion of "truth" that suggested a secret was a lie, that something held in private was uptight inhibition at best and hypocritical repression at worst, that any impulse or utterance even momentarily checked by reflection or circumspection was necessarily dishonest and that everything harbored in the privacy of one's mind had to be sentenced to the sunlight, which was another way of saying, by extension, that the deepest, darkest part of you wasn't yours, but belonged to everyone.

The result was that personal sexuality became the province of the political, not unlike the way it once became the province of the religious, in part because of a women's movement that set its sights beyond entirely valid social and economic goals and sought to transform every nuance of the sexual psyche into either a revolutionary or reactionary act. Seven years before Starr investigated what books Monica was buying, a congressional committee investigated what videos Clarence Thomas was renting.

Thus mass ritual confession. Thus encounter groups, thus the cruel ruthlessness that "outs" people's sexuality, thus the tabloid Zeitgeist. Thus the current age of secret-as-commodity, when a secret's value is measured in terms of how much time it gets you on television. Thus an age when the only identity we have anymore is to be found in our secrets, and once those are revealed, identity becomes as ephemeral as whatever signal broadcast them, whatever electronic command downloaded them, whatever ink committed them to type. Whatever dust from your grave was disinterred for a DNA test. Sally died for Jefferson's secrets. And then he died for yours.

By Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

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