Joseph Ellis's Past Statements About CharacterHistorians/History
Ellis's Past Statements About Character
Reading through some of Ellis's statements over the past few years reaps rich ironies in light of the Boston Globe disclosures.
In October 1999 Ellis savaged Edmund Morris's biography of Ronald Reagan in the Washington Post on the grounds that the book irresponsibly takes liberties with the truth:
Dutch reads like a novel because, well, that's what it really is. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is a docudrama, a prose version of Oliver Stone's"JFK," which splices together historically accurate evidence from oral interviews and legitimate archival sources with fabricated letters and fictional creations. Perhaps the book's dust jacket or an accompanying press release will apprise readers that this authorized biography is primarily a work of Morris's imagination. But the 672 pages of text and the 168 pages of notes piled up before me say nothing of the sort. Quite the contrary, the text artfully disguises Morris's blending of fact and fiction, real and fabricated dialogue. And the endnotes cite made-up letters from Gavin Morris alongside scholarly accounts of Berkeley's aspiring revolutionaries. In the blurred post-modern genre within which Morris is working, the gap between history and fiction has been everlastingly closed. The effect might even be called Reaganesque, a biographical endorsement of Reagan's habitual tendency to confuse what befell the character he played in Hollywood films with what really happened.
What we have here, in effect, is a book reviewer who has made up stories about himself criticizing an author who made up stories about himself in a biography about a man who made up stories about himself.
A year earlier Ellis appeared on Fox News to discuss the impeachment of Bill Clinton (Ellis opposed impeachment). In the course of the interview, conducted November 6, 1998, Ellis agreed with host Tony Snow that Clinton shares several character traits with Thomas Jefferson. Snow asked if one of those traits is hypocrisy.
Ellis: Well, I wouldn't say hypocrisy because hypocrisy means that you catch on to the fact that the contradictions are really more than contradictions. But I think that a certain amount of psychological agility, the capacity to play hide-and-seek inside yourself, served Jefferson pretty well, and it serves modern-day politicians probably just as well.
Snow: So you think Clinton in some ways is a reflection of his namesake.
Ellis: William Jefferson Clinton, you mean.
Ellis: And he did begin his first inauguration at Monticello, and he - -I think Jefferson is Clinton's favorite founding father. What's the line? I mean,"I know Thomas Jefferson, and you're not Thomas Jefferson."
I think that there are some stunning similarities, but I think the big one is the one you're pointing to, that both Jefferson and Clinton are capable of sustaining apparently contradictory positions and not being troubled by it --in fact, being almost serene.
Ellis is the author, among other books, of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. But it is now Ellis's character that is at issue and he who has become the sphinx.
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