Q. Do you consider Jefferson to have been a great president?
I do. He doubled the size of the country [the Louisiana Purchase] without firing a shot. He came through the crisis of 1800 while arguing successfully that the will of the majority should prevail. He built West Point. He created a culture in Washington in which lawmakers actually spoke to each other. He wasnt perfect, but I havent found a president who was.
Q. During the 1790s and early 1800s, there was a great deal of feuding between Jeffersons Republicans [the ancestors of todays Democrats] and the Federalists of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, which is similar to the situation in Washington today. Are there any lessons from Jeffersons time that can be applied today?
I think President Obama is beginning to follow a kind of Jeffersonian example here. One of the things that Jefferson did is that he had dinner every day that Congress was in session with members of Congress. Im not suggesting that social contact is the road to political Valhalla. But it is a political fact, and Jefferson believed this, that things tend to work better when people know each other, when people hear the principal on the other side making a case for something.
The other point, and I think its very hard for members of Congress to understand this in this age of political purity, but you have to be willing to depart from dogma. If you want to be totally philosophically consistent all the time, politics is the last business to go into. I dont believe political choices by and large are as stark as political rhetoric portrays them to be. Sometimes they are civil rights, slavery, war and peace. But often theres a lot of ambiguity, and I think what Jefferson mastered in his 40 years in political life was an ability to be comfortable with that ambiguity in many ways.
Sam Jacobs is a Miami Herald editor.