Pages of History

January 7, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: They rolled through my city en masse: A collection of original historical documents from the National Archives. I read about them, got the brochures from the Central Los Angeles Public Library, where they have been on display. I made a mental note, “I would try to go during the holidays.” I would take a niece, a granddaughter; a festive and instructive outing. After all, they were drawing crowds. They had wonderful stuff: John F. Kennedy’s handwritten draft of his inaugural address delivered on January 17, 1961, which I remember watching on television.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: The torch has been passed, to a new generation of Americans…

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I can close my eyes and see that cold Washington day: His face so young; she so lovely in her pillbox hat; the poet Robert Frost; our parents so excited, so optimistic. And farther back, the German military surrender at the end of World War II, signed in Berlin on May 8, 1945.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt…

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: An administration begun on such high hopes, a war ended in relief and grief. These were the original documents. I must go see them. I must take those kids.

This was history unfiltered by time or interpretation. But I dawdled, fell to working and shopping until galvanized by the rare appearance of another document. Part of the same show, but so fragile it could only be on view for four days, there it was: The Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863.

An astonishing thought that 140 years ago in some faraway room, the hand of that president– that tall, bony, eloquent president– authored this very document declaring that all slaves be free.

I stared at it, all that it said, and all that it said about us as a country, still so new then. And I felt so many things: Pride, shame, sorrow — pride, because a sitting president, with the stroke of a pen, outlawed evil at the heart of the American experiment.

Shame, because slavery had ever existed here; and sorrow, so much sorrow, for the reverberating damage done to so many people. That was the thing, standing there looking at it.

One felt the full contradiction of our founding as a nation. Those extraordinary men, our founding fathers, with their foresight and love of freedom yet, simultaneous tolerance for, and even embrace, of slavery. In his new book, author Garry Wills calls Thomas Jefferson our “Negro president,” arguing that his election in 1800 was made possible by an electoral college vote that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person even though they could not vote.

In short, he says, not only was Jefferson’s economic and personal life predicated on slavery, so too was his political life. It would take 63 years before another president emancipated those slaves with this document.

What’s astonishing to think about or remember is just how complex, contradictory and flawed even great men and women can be: Men of vision and wisdom morality and wisdom. We insist these days on such a reductionist, simple-minded view of our leaders.

We don’t plumb the depths of their ideas or motives, don’t reckon with their flaws. They are either all good or all bad. They are either on my side or against us. Just look at the hectoring chat shows. Look at the bestseller lists. The ideologues left or right reign supreme.

Al Franken vs. Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter vs. Michael Moore. It’s a ratings-driven, money- chasing, celebrity-celebrating squabble-fest that encourages the most doctrinaire, not to mention un-poetic thinking about a country both noble and tarnished. We are ineluctably both as this fading piece of paper makes so pointedly and painfully clear.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.