GARY HART ON JEFFERSON AND 'JEFFERSON'

By EW Staff
Updated April 07, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Jefferson in Paris

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With a credit like the Declaration of Independence under his belt, you’d think Thomas Jefferson would enjoy an eternal honeymoon with the media. But no — what’s politely known as ”the character issue” is back to haunt the nation’s third President, as it did during his lifetime.

”He was hounded by the press. His nonconformity drove them crazy,” says Gary Hart, left, himself no stranger to the slings and arrows of the fourth estate. Hart’s 1988 run for the presidency ended after he dared the press to stake him out: Miami Herald reporters did, scuttling his candidacy when they caught the married senator spending the night at his Washington, D.C., townhouse with model Donna Rice.

Watching Jefferson in Paris in Denver last month, Hart reflected on the man he regards as a role model. Although the film takes off from the now-common notion that Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of his Virginia slaves, were lovers who had several children together, ”it’s still total conjecture that he had a black mistress,” Hart notes. ”We simply don’t know. A lot of it goes back to the salacious press.” An unfriendly 18th-century journalist first linked the master of Monticello and Hemings.

Does Jefferson in Paris, then, merely take perverse joy in debunking a hero? ”Not really,” says Hart, who was ”pleasantly surprised” by Nick Nolte’s performance. ”[The filmmakers’]intent wasn’t malicious, but it’s too bad the movie didn’t focus on the monumental figure Jefferson was. You can almost hear the story meetings: ‘Let’s flatten this guy out and make him a conventional person.”’

Hart, 58, who practices international law and hosts a radio interview show in Denver, favors epics like Judgment at Nuremberg, his friend Warren Beatty’s Reds, and Lawrence of Arabia. He considers debate over slave ownership by the author of the phrase ”All men are created equal” to be bogus. ”Jefferson was a profoundly moral man, and came to firmly denounce slavery, at great personal cost,” he says. ”We need Jefferson today. Now is the time for a revolutionary figure to redefine the future of this country. The film could have made that point, but it frittered away the chance.”

Could Jefferson have survived today’s media? ”Who would?” asks Hart, who steadfastly refuses to comment on his own career’s undoing. ”The question that society has to ask itself is, ‘Would he have subjected himself to these conditions? Would he even have sought national leadership?”’ Perhaps sounding a credo for himself as well as his hero, Hart insists: ”What Jefferson did in his private moments is his business.”

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Jefferson in Paris

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