Out of America: A Jefferson by any other name

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MONTICELLO - This must be the only place in the US where you get change in the form of mint condition dollars 2 (pounds 1.30) bills. But that is not why half a million people a year trek to a hilltop in rural Virginia and queue for hours for the privilege of spending a few minutes inside a square neo-classical villa, smaller and less impressive than you have been led to believe.

For some reason the banknote that bears the effigy of villa's designer, builder and owner never caught on, although it remains legal tender. But for Thomas Jefferson himself, the third President of the United States, the public's adoration has never been greater. Starting with Bill Clinton.

In America's pantheon of heroes, Jefferson occupies a unique place. He was neither great warrior nor supremely successful self-made man. He was not a martyr like Lincoln or Kennedy. His private interests - among them science, architecture, foreign languages and gardening - are not (with the exception of the last) mainstream national activities.

Yet, as no other, he softens the country's image of itself. He is the appointed purveyor of ideals, the philosopher-king who wrote the Declaration of Independence and codified the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, before leaving the presidency to resume his preferred life of gentleman-farmer. They don't come like that any more.

America recently celebrated the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth in 1743. No matter that the commemoration was a year late; punctuality has never been a virtue of this president, and in any case his devotional credentials were impeccable. Fifteen months ago, at Monticello, Mr Clinton began his inaugural celebrations, wrapping the great man's mantle around himself in a symbolic journey that retraced exactly Jefferson's northward route to his own inauguration in March 1801, the first held in Washington. Mr Clinton has borrowed much from Jefferson, including quotations by the score and his own middle name. However the similiarities go deeper.

At first glance you might not think so. Monticello looks a most un-Clintonian place - graceful, dripping understated elegance and full of things foreign. But whatever else, President Clinton has a positively Jeffersonian thirst for knowledge. Effortlessly you can imagine him at the Monticello dinner table; perhaps a mite wary of the fine French wines Jefferson had brought back from his stay as minister in Paris, but dissecting the latest trends in European thought with a zeal that matched his host's.

Less easy is it to imagine Jefferson in the glasshouse madness that is the 20th-century presidency. 'When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property,' he once said of elected office. But in those days, there were no television cameras, special prosecutors and hundreds of journalists poised to descend on Charlottesville to comb his every dealing, at the first drop of a subpoena. And just as well. There is the Jefferson of legend; and the Jefferson who kept contemporary scandal sheets as busy as Mr Clinton, and for rather similar reasons.

Today it's Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and other ladies of Little Rock; then it was Sally Hemings, the slave girl who accompanied Jefferson to Paris, and was said to have born him half a dozen children. Jefferson brushed off such talk with a line Clinton could never get away with in this prying age: 'The man who fears no truth has nothing to fear from lies.'

There was even a whiff of 18th-century draft-dodging. Mr Clinton's travails over the Vietnam war are well-documented. But Jefferson's foes were maliciously insinuating that as a legislator and then governor of Virginia, he had wriggled out of fighting in the Revolutionary War against the British.

The parallels don't end there. In 1992, Republicans whispered that Mr Clinton once had sought foreign citizenship. Nearly two centuries before, Jefferson's foes spread the equally baseless rumour he had accepted French citizenship from Robespierre in person. If Jefferson were elected, wrote a Connecticut paper of the day, the Jacobin Terror would be revisited upon America: 'Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest all will be openly taught and practised.'

The lines could have been lifted from the conservative railings at the Republican Convention two years ago, over the socialist Bacchanalia awaiting America were one W Jefferson Clinton to enter the White House. One way and another the campaign of 1800, the first time that power passed from one party to another, was among the nastiest in US history.

But that is now forgotten. America's mythologised Renaissance Man adorns Mount Rushmore: in 1992 leaders of a dozen former Communist countries came here to pay their respects to the Architect of Democracy.

In his own land, Jefferson's reputation vies with that of Washington. And therein lies the comfort for Mr Clinton. Foreign dignitaries may or may not beat a path one day to Arkansas and the Sage of Little Rock. But if history looks half as kindly on him as on his namesake, he will be thankful.