The Community We’re Creating

On the first day of the annual Lewis & Clark cultural tour, in Great Falls, Montana, we go around and introduce ourselves—where we’re from, what we do, what brought us to this adventure. A few people just turn up somehow, but almost everyone arrives by way of the Thomas Jefferson Hour. Probably they come to watch Becky drown me—or more likely to prove for themselves that reports of my annual near-death-by-drowning have about the same status as barn sightings in western North Dakota.

It’s always gratifying, and moving, and humbling to meet people who have made it a weekly habit to listen to this broadcast.

Everywhere I go I have lovely encounters with our listeners. A man on the trip just now completed said he had been listening to me for more than ten years—that I had brought clarity, civility, and joy to his life—and he brought his whippersnapper daughter on the trip as a William and Mary graduation gift. I gave my usual response: “Dream higher.” But I was deeply moved. At least twice a year I meet someone who actually drives to a ridge somewhere to hear the program, because the NPR signal is not good at her or his house. A wonderful woman in Norfolk waited in a receiving line for almost an hour to tell me that the TJ Hour had been the factor that led her to reject a mere domestic status and to return to higher education to get not one, but by now several, degrees.

On my car at Lochsa Lodge the other day, the last day of our annual trip, someone left a note on my windshield that seemed to say, “you are a national treasure.” It was unsigned, and the handwriting was not great, so it might have read, “You are nothing but treacle,” or possibly, “You have committed treason,” or possibly even, “Your left from tire is flat.”

When people say generous things, I invariably respond with something I call “blushter,” a kind of blushing batting away of the praise. I do this because I am a naturally shy person. I do this because I regard myself as a radical under-achiever and so I merely want to flagellate myself back to my desk to really master Jefferson this time. I do this because so much of the success of the Jefferson Hour has to do with David Swensonas host, moderator, friend, and the audiences’ inside advocate, not to mention the one who edits out some of the verbal slippage. I do this because whatever is excellent in the Jefferson Hour sits on the shoulders of one of the most remarkable men who ever lived. Yes, he is indeed a paradox, in ways that John Boles has not plumbed, in ways that the late Alf Mapp, Jr., was unable to fathom, in ways that even Joseph Ellis (close) and Merrill Peterson could not penetrate. But he’s easily the most interesting of the Founding Fathers, and the one you have try to come to terms with if you want to understand American history—both our glorious aspirations in pursuit of unprecedented happiness, and our ignominious failures to live up to our unambiguously stated ideals.

My point is that we have, in the last twenty years, created a community of people who want to live in a more Jeffersonian world. The people I meet in my travels are grammatical, civil, thoughtful, and curious. They read books for pleasure—and not books with titles like C is for Crime Wave. They agree with Jefferson, at least up to a point, that reason must be our only oracle, and they believe that we are better off listening to science than holding up a snowball on the Senate floor to call Global Climate Change a hoax. They want America to live up to its ideals. They believe that we should be a soft power template for the world, without ever assuming that everyone else wants to be just like us. They love peace and tolerance and respect. They do not call names. They thrive in thoughtful argument and mutually respectful conversation. They have moral courage, but they try never to be strident. They love Nature and Nature’s law. They are optimists. And they believe that we can make the world a better place for all of its people, not just those of us with three car garages and Lasik surgery for our dogs.

To meet them is to cheer up about America. I come away from the annual Lewis & Clark trip re-charged. And it really has sent me back to my books to master, or re-master, or new-master Thomas Jefferson.