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Jefferson in Peril

PRESIDENT Kennedy once joked at a dinner for a group of Nobel prizewinners that there had never before been so much talent at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson had dined there alone.

Of course, America's founders were not the unapproachable marble statues or mini-deities they sometimes seem in grade school history classes.

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Sadly, however, current voguish efforts to show Thomas Jefferson's ''human'' side are misleading -- making the political genius less real, not more real, to an impressionable public.

Did Jefferson have intimate relations with a mulatto slave named Sally Hemings? He may have. The issue has been debated since Fawn Brodie's work in the 1970s. Now it is a main part of a lavish film, ''Jefferson in Paris,'' by the British production team of Merchant and Ivory. The question also arises in a new PBS documentary.

Yet played up, the issue can cheapen history, particularly in a medium like film. Inevitably, Jefferson's entire life and work get weighed against the vivid images on screen. The subtext becomes: The author of the Declaration of Independence was a hypocrite. This plays into the tendency to deconstruct anything that attempts to be noble or great. In this sense, the film ''dumbs down'' history. People come to know more about Jefferson's possible dalliance than anything substantive about one of the most powerful thinkers on liberty.

While interesting, it seems less meaningful to weigh a central figure in the birth of American democracy in this manner. Did extramarital affairs render Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights work less profound? Winston Churchill had a benighted view of Indians; but he was a historical figure of enormous character and importance. What would be the point of an epic film reveling in these weaknesses?

In commercial culture, the point is to make it sell. The commercial view is that sex sells -- better, perhaps, if a white male Founding Father is involved. Yet authentic sets and costumes do not necessarily tell the more genuine inner story. The recent film on T.S. Eliot's sad marriage, ''Tom and Viv,'' for example, offered little real insight into either partner.

The only slaves Jefferson freed at his death were Sally Hemings's children. He was $100,000 in debt and had the rest of them sold. Still, Jefferson felt the American experiment would end over slavery. He thought people would choose economic self-interest over justice. This may also be an issue for filmmakers.

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