It's hard to decide whether Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson is generating more public discussion this week. Lincoln, of course, because of Lincoln, a film about the sixteenth president and the Civil War that has left historians and others debating its accuracy and wondering how it manages to leave black people out of the story altogether. And Jefferson because of Henry Wiencek's recently released book Master of the Mountain--which according to some misrepresents the third president as a monster and according to others doesn't go nearly far enough in acknowledging his monstrosity. In both cases, it's pretty clear that American audiences prefer to continue revering our past presidents as mythological political heroes, figures we can turn to for stories about American moral and ideological purity, bereft of any complicating details that might taint or compromise that fantasy.
But if you ask me, the most compelling readings of both Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson this week were on Showtime's television series Homeland. I'll admit to being a bit behind on my viewing of the series (and those who are keeping up may by now have little interest in my take on what happened several episodes ago), but the show seems to me to be offering a sustained reflection on why it's a mistake to fetishize America's political figures.
In the fifth episode of season two of Homeland, Sergeant/Congressman Nicholas Brody's teenage daughter Dana begins a flirtatious relationship with Finn Walden, the son of the Vice President of the United States. Both of them attend an elite private Quaker school (a denomination characterized by its ethic of nonviolence) populated largely by the children of diplomats in the wealthy suburbs of (I assume) Virginia. When Dana quizzes Finn about how many children Thomas Jefferson had, he responds by asking her how many children he had with Sally Hemings, his slave mistress (a detail that presumably will not be included on their American History exam). They joke that they should visit Monticello together, and when the two text each other later, Finn refers to Dana as Sally, and she calls him TJ. On their later date, Finn takes her to see a movie she's never heard of: Once Upon a Time in America, an Italian epic chock-full of American violence. In their efforts to escape their security detail on the way there, Finn acts out the brutal features of the plot itself when he slams his Lexus into a pedestrian and promptly drives away, intent on preserving his father's image and political future.
The entire exchange points to the grimy and horrific details that lie beneath the surface mythology of presidential Americana, but it also suggests that those are the details that really turn us on. In fact, while the two were flirting over Jefferson's long-term sexual conquest of his slave in the library of the Vice Presidential estate, Dana's war-hero-turned-Congressman father was breaking the neck of a terrified Syrian tailor in the wet and muddy woods outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania--site of the Civil War's most brutal and bloody battle, and of Lincoln's eulogy for the dead.
The man he killed, Bessel, had sewed Brody the suicide vest in which he'd planned to blow up the Vice President as an act of retribution for Walden's horrific act of killing 82 children in a Middle Eastern drone strike that the U.S. government refuses to acknowledge ever happened. Brody ironically kills Bessel in the course of trying to save him, losing his patience when the man's cries of pain keep interrupting his efforts to lie about his whereabouts over his cell phone to his wife, who awaits his arrival at a political fundraiser. It's a compressed, one-man version of the battle at Gettysburg carried out by a guy who has trouble distinguishing friend from enemy. A respected political leader commits a cold act of murder and sublimates it into a domestic narrative about his constituents and a flat tire.
Homeland keeps reminding us that buried in the nation's most revered historical sites--Monticello, Gettysburg--and in the memories of its most worshiped political figures, are gruesome acts of unthinkable violence. It also suggests that those who explicitly see and name this violence--like CIA agent Carrie Mathison--are in danger of being called crazy, committed to mental institutions and subjected to electroshock therapy that induces forgetfulness. In the end, though, is she just as turned on by the violent grit and grime beneath the heroic myth as the teenagers? The real symptom of the bipolar nation may be in recognizing the horror, and then being attracted to it anyway.