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Opinion: Demanding Dignity From Leaders Comes With a Complicated History

But it’s worth a try...

Our slave-owning third president, Thomas Jefferson, is a reminder that our leaders have always been flawed, Curtis writes. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)
Our slave-owning third president, Thomas Jefferson, is a reminder that our leaders have always been flawed, Curtis writes. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)

The room — 14 feet, 8 inches wide and 13 feet long — has no windows. It had been a restroom at the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. But now, the small room adjacent to Jefferson’s, the one historians believe once belonged to Sally Hemings, will be restored and given its due, as will the enslaved woman who evidence indicates was the mother of six children of the third president of the United States.

As the current president, Donald Trump, is often lambasted for lowering the dignity and honor of the office, the news coming out of Monticello — where the role of its enslaved people is belatedly a part of the historical presentation to visitors — is a bracing reminder that our leaders have always been flawed. Founding Father Jefferson wrote stirring words of equality while owning fellow human beings.

We are still waiting for Trump’s Declaration of Independence to fill out the other side of his spotty ledger.

If lips are moving …

Americans do expect a base line of manners and truth-telling from leaders and are repeatedly and unrealistically disappointed when they disappoint — and it has been that way for a while. In President Trump’s case, his behavior has always been transparent, to the point of X-ray clarity. He maligned, bullied and fudged facts during the campaign and long before — and still won the Electoral College.

Why the after-the-fact surprise, then, with his popularity now hovering at around 40 percent in most polls, with the strongest support from die-hard Trump voters? Why a slight break in the GOP wall of standing-behind-your-man as emails and contradictions point to involvement with a foreign power by those close to the president — though it is from usual suspects John McCain and Lindsey Graham? Why recriminations from independent voters who overlooked the obvious because they craved change?

Perhaps the judging is particularly harsh because of comparisons to the behavior of his predecessor, and the dashed hopes, even from those who hated the first lady’s garden and protested President Barack Obama’s every move, that the 2008 election provided proof that America, in part, had atoned for its sins.

The entire Obama family’s comportment — to use an old-fashioned word — certainly maintained a sense of decorum and dignity. News of Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer is a reminder that the Obamas followed the written and unwritten rules.

Could the first African-American family to occupy the White House be anything less than pristine?

Remember how President Obama was criticized for putting his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office or wearing a tan suit, Michelle Obama for baring her arms and trying to improve children’s diets, their children for acting like the kids they were during a turkey pardoning or a daughter for wearing her hair in twists?

Those complaints seem almost quaint in retrospect.

But as historians will tell you, American progress never has traveled in a straight line, or without a few steps back. Jefferson, in his time, was preceded by John Adams, who, though far from being an abolitionist, never owned a human being. No. 3 was then, with exceptions, followed by a procession of slave owners, including friend and neighbor James Madison, whose Montpelier has also been updated to include a new exhibit “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” with displays and recreated slave quarters.

Perhaps that’s why the country’s mood is so contentious and so glum; we can’t even agree on what forward and backward mean or what progress looks like.

The nepotism rules put in place after President John F. Kennedy named his brother Robert F. Kennedy attorney general are being bent if not legally broken with the junior Trump taking meetings, daughter Ivanka Trump sitting in at international conferences and son-in-law Jared Kushner, with the president’s ear, owning a political portfolio that rivals many Cabinet members.

Protecting the vote

Voting, once the province and privilege of white land owners, has been expanded over the years. Yet in 2017, Rep. John Lewis, who endured brutal beatings for making it so, has a ringside view of strict state voting laws surfacing across the country and a federal voting commission led by the king of voter-purge lists, Kris Kobach, lusting after personal information best left in the voting booth.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who did not live long enough to see himself move from agitator to hero, once challenged America to live up to its promises. What would he make of where the country now stands?

There are the die-hard Trump supporters, who dismiss or welcome the interference of a foreign power in U.S. elections, so strong is the partisan reflex that places loyalty to one man and one party above patriotism.

There are many Republican members of Congress, who would rather bypass town halls, so fearful are they of facing constituents — or dodging reporters’ questions on the Trump story of the day, so reluctant are they to jeopardize their power and to-do list. House and Senate committees are still untangling the Russian interference in U.S. elections and more, and who knows where that will lead — or if enough Americans will be paying attention. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his House counterpart Paul Ryan already seem to have lost interest.

An acknowledgment hundreds of years later at Monticello doesn’t completely change history; but it fills in the blanks that were deliberately left out by those who had control. What will the history books say about this moment — about the “American way,” as defined by the president, Congress and this country’s citizens, following the lead of its leaders and arguing among themselves?

We have time — in real time — for the moral corrective we always say we want, instead of waiting for our descendants to ask why no one ever opened up the tiny, windowless room to the sunlight.

But do we have the will?

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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