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War for Men's Minds

The Ghost of Thomas Jefferson
by Ross Elliot

"Sir?"

President John Thomas Jefferson Smith turned to his uneasy secret service agents and waved for them to go away, outside, back into the night. He wanted to be left alone, in this dimly lit memorial, in this quiet place.

He turned back to face the statue of his namesake, his lifelong hero. Only an hour ago, in the Oval Office, he had felt an irresistible need to come here, to be in the presence of this towering bronze figure, to contemplate, perhaps to forestall, what was to come.

High above, chiseled into the white granite and encompassing the rotundaís full sweep were the words that now spoke to him most deeply. He knew them off by heart but looked at each of the words as he solemnly recited them.

"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility ó"

Then another voice.

" ó against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

The president turned to see a stranger step out from within the statueís shadow.

"That has always been a favorite of mine," said the stranger, smiling gently.

"Who are you? What is your name?" the president asked.

"My name? Oh, Iíve been called many names. But you can call me friend if you wish, Mr President."

His instinct should have been to summon his guard, but the president, without reason, felt not the slightest danger from this man who spoke so calmly, assuredly, and radiated such a benign aura.

"Well then, friend, how do you come to be here?" he asked.

The stranger frowned slightly. "Well, let me see Ö I was out walking, when quite unexpectedly, I found myself in this place." He looked around: "Itís very grand." He looked up at the statue, raised his eyebrows: "Perhaps a bit too grand. Do you mind?"

The stranger did indeed seem out of place, and yet somehow, by his easy manner, perfectly at home. His clothing was simple, unusual, and accentuated his slim, tall figure. His hair was long and tied back. He was of mature years, yet ageless. His face was the face of every man and familiar.

"No, I donít mind at all."

"Then we are well found," said the stranger.

"Indeed," agreed the president.

The stranger smiled at the president and the president smiled back.

"And, how do you come to be here, Mr President?"

"I have a decision to make. A difficult decision. I thought coming to this place may help."

"And, is it? Helping?

"I fear nothing can help me at this moment."

"You mentioned a decision?"

"Do you pretend not to know?" said the president, unsure if he was being mocked.

"Current events elude me. Please Ö"

The presidentís demeanor changed, stiffened. The politician in him came to the fore. He stared into space.

"The Senate, the House of Representatives and forty-seven of the fifty states have resolved that a new amendment, the thirty-third, be made to the Constitution. It comes into force at midnight tonight. It gives me certain powers. I must decide whether to assume those powers," the president explained.

"Powers?" asked the stranger.

The president continued as if he was discussing something distasteful.

"Specifically, that in an emergency, I may issue a decree to suspend the Constitution, or any part thereof, indefinitely."

The stranger pursed his lips. "I see. Do you know that the Romans had a similar procedure in times of emergency? During such times the consul was referred to as dictator."

The president bristled, ever more the experienced politician. "This has been done in accordance with the proper constitutional procedures. It is legal," he said.

"Donít you find it ironic that by using the proper constitutional procedures you can render the constitution null and void?"

"An overwhelming majority support these measures," the president offered.

"Ah, democracy Ö and if the majority should vote away my life, must I consider it lost? Are rights not an individual endowment? Am I at the mercy of my brothers? Are they my keepers?"

"Emergencies threaten to overwhelm us," the president continued.

"Yes, emergencies, they do test our mettle," agreed the stranger.

"There were two suicide bomb attacks this week; more than twenty so far this year. God knows how many more to come."

"Will denying the right of free speech or the right of people to assemble prevent such attacks?"

"The economy is weakening. No one is investing in production or employment. The great corporations are failing. People are running scared and crying out for stability."

"Will suspending the requirement for search warrants and for due process allow people to feel more secure in themselves and their possessions? Will that strengthen their confidence or encourage their productivity?

"Violence tears our society apart. Terrible crimes are committed. No person is safe."

"Will denying the people the right to bear arms, to protect themselves and those they hold dear, will that make society safer? And, when criminals and the state alone have weapons, who will suffer then?"

"People will be secure. I would not allow abuses of rights!"

"Rights? Of which rights do you speak, Mr President? The rights you have suspended?"

The president did not answer. He turned away.

"Oh, the declaration!"

The strangerís exclamation was one of delight. The president, surprised, turned back and followed the strangerís gaze to the famous excerpt writ large on the wall.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights Ö" said the stranger with soft assuredness.

The presidentís eyes returned to the stranger and realized that the stranger had not read the words off the wall but had been looking at the president while he recited them.

"Inalienable, Mr President," the stranger repeated.

"That was written over two hundred and forty years ago."

"Does inalienable not imply forever, Mr President?"

"Circumstances change. We must be practical. We need security. Security, safety and stabilityóthat is the constant clamor."

"And you mean to sacrifice independence and freedom of action to achieve security? Will that be the way of it?"

"Surely it is not too much to ask to preserve our way of life Ö"

The presidentís response was a question, not a statement, and the stranger knew it.

"If man cannot be trusted with the government of himself, how, then, can he be trusted with the government of others?" asked the stranger.

The president knew that admonishment well, had used it himself on more than one occasion. He looked up at the statue then back at the stranger. They seemed to exist as one entity: one a hammer, the other an anvilóand he, caught between.

"I told you, I would not allow abuses."

"When you and your successors are all powerful, which you will surely be, you will have become the incarnation of the very abuse you seek to prevent. All else will follow."

The president stood, head slightly bowed.

"Perhaps I have lost my faith in freedom," he said flatly, finally.

"And in your faith lies your most grievous error. Freedom requires not the ignorance of faith but the courage of enlightened, determined menómen who have the honesty to identify the true basis of human happiness and prosperity. It is our natural inclination to seek safety and security in times of trouble and uncertainty, but it is the manner in which we achieve these things that marks us as honorable or cowardly. As we succumb to the illusion of security there will be those who will use unfettered powers to shackle their fellows and reduce them to slavery. Your current difficulties should illustrate this point well. You can see over the edge of the abyss. Toss away your last remnants of liberty and you will surely be pulled down into it."

"We are already in decline."

"Then reverse the trend. Wherever freedom has taken root, been nurtured and protected, man has achieved greatness in every aspect of his existence. Our phenomenal feats of production and material wellbeing; the wondrous extent and vitality of culture; magnificent works of art, music, theatre, architecture; the life-affirming discoveries of science and philosophy; all of these beautiful flowers have grown in the fertile soil of liberty. When men are free to associate, to trade their ideas and their goods, when their actions are by choice and not by decree, only then does true brotherhood and peace prevail. Do you wish to sacrifice your pride as a free people on the altar of fear? Is that the legacy you wish to leave to posterity? Will you be our first Caesar, Mr President?"

"This is not Rome!"

"No, this is greater than Rome!"

"Yes!"

"But greatness will not save you if ideas are against you."

The stranger spoke truth and the president knew it.

"The Founding Fathers must have foreseen the possibility Ö"

"Mr President, the Founding Fathers were men, not gods. I can assure you of that. Alas, their works were not perfect. What they did not foresee is that a man who swore to uphold the constitution and the rights of man would break his oath by renouncing them."

"I have not renounced them!"

The president locked eyes with the stranger, and the stranger saw that the presidentís face revealed not anger but pain.

"But you will have the power to do so and that right soon. Yes, a most difficult decision, indeed," said the stranger.

"Is everything all right, Mr President? I heard voices." It was the presidentís chief bodyguard.

For a long moment the president continued to contemplate the stranger.

"Mr President?"

The president turned to his bodyguard who was seemingly unaware of the strangerís immediate presence.

"Iím fine, just thinking aloud. Iíll be along soon."

The guard retreated.

"You could have had me arrested, Mr President," said the stranger.

"You are dangerous, friend, but no threat."

It was a compliment and the stranger smiled his warm smile.

"The hour is late, Mr President. You came to this place to make a decision. Is it made?" he asked quietly.

The president took a deep breath. "Yes, suddenly, yes. This place was helpful Ö you were helpful. You belong here."

"We all belong here, Mr President, but in all things we act alone. We are individual spirits and as such we must each, in our own way, find the courage to do what is right and not to give in, not to martyr ourselves, and not to sacrifice others to our own ends. We must act, not out of fear, but with the strength and vigor that freedom allows us. Remember: it was you who came to this place, not I who brought you here," said the stranger.

"Will you walk back to my car with me?" asked the president.

"Thank you, but no. We are being pulled in different directions. Goodbye, Mr President Ö and I wish you well."

The stranger stepped back into the statueís shadow, became one with it, and was gone.

The president turned on his heel and walked back to the world.

By the time President Smithís cavalcade arrived the next morning, a large crowd of media, officials, dignitaries and ordinary citizens had gathered on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial and along the edge of the wading pool. There was an air of solemnity about the gathering that seemed at odds with the magnificent location and there was only muted applause as the president stepped from his car and walked to the podium at the top of the steps.

A hush settled over the assembly. The president stared into the distance, noticing how the flowering cherry blossoms on the far side of the pool waved in the gentle wind.

"What I have to say will take but few words. We are beset by many problems: terrorism, rampant crime, economic collapse, disillusionment and fear for the future. We have tried outlandish inducements and harsh penalties, convoluted regulations and an army of official watchdogs. We have listened to the proposals of expert committees and the cacophony of the consensus. None has worked. None has reversed our demise. It is time for radical measures."

The crowd fell deathly quiet and even the breeze in the cherry blossoms seemed to die away.

"I have decided to invoke the provisions of the thirty-third amendment," the president began.

Although this had been expected, the crowd stiffened as if in anticipation of a mortal blow.

"I therefore decree, that as of this day, the powers given to me by the thirty-third amendment are indefinitely suspended."

Expecting the worst, the crowd took several seconds to catch the meaning of the presidentís words.

Then, in the breathless quiet a lone voice cried out: "Say again, Mr President?!"

"Certainly," said the president, smiling. "I said: the provisions of the thirty-third amendment are indefinitely suspended."

A chorus of cheers rang out and grew louder as he added: "And, let us all have the courage to live, not in fear, but in freedom!"

The president turned around to gaze up at the statue, and the towering bronze figure, touched by the morning sun, seemed to bathe the new day in a golden glow.


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