For a moment there, I was really jealous of Glenn Beck.
At his rally in Washington, D.C. the chat show host told his fans that he had gone to the National Archives, the sanctum sanctorum for the nation’s most precious documents, and actually held, in his own two hands, ``the first inaugural address written in his hand by George Washington.’’
Oh my. To put your own fingers where George Washington’s were – a matchless, priceless experience, no? Anyone would be jealous of Mr. Beck’s privilege.
But it didn't happen. As politely as possible, the National Archives said so.
Beck, granted a VIP tour of the Archives, was simply allowed to gaze upon the extraordinary document, the speech delivered by the cannot-tell-a-lie Washington [the cherry tree story itself was a fabrication of Washington’s adulatory biographer Parson Weems]. But as for laying hands on it, or on any of these documents, ‘’those kinds of treasures are only handled by specially trained archival staff,’’ said archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper.
Staff who wear gloves and other protective gear and doubtless work in an environment so immaculate that your average operating room is probably a teeming landfill by comparison.
The founding documents that are on public display in the Archives – the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence – are in bulletproof, helium-filled bronze cases that are lowered into a bomb-proof vault every night.
And now here’s where Glenn Beck can be envious of me.
There were perhaps 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence printed up hastily by a young Philadelphia printer named John Dunlap on the night of July 4, 1776. Fewer than 30 of those are known to survive, and only five of those are in private hands.
And I got to see one of them. Not from behind a red velvet rope. Not from ten or even five feet away, but nose to nose.
Thanks to the good offices of good friends, I was invited to see one of those privately held copies in one of those brief periods when it wasn't on tour. It lay in a climate-controlled sealed case, on a low table. To get close, I had to kneel, which was the right impulse anyway. Reverence was entirely in order; this is one of the great documents, the great moments, in human history.
I put my hands on either side of the secure case and looked long and closely at the Declaration of Independence, in the same way you’d hold a loved one’s face and look back into that pair of eyes.
I’m always practically moved to tears by these conjunctions of the then and there, and the here and now. To stand within the same walls where Shakespeare once stood, for example, or to sit in the same restaurant where Thomas Jefferson dined, places me, through the thin conceit of time, in their company.
So to lay my own eyes on such a momentous object as this was to stand at the fulcrum of history. Whose eyes had, like mine, also beheld this ``Dunlap broadside’’ when it was fresh off the presses 23 decades before? Thomas Jefferson’s? John Hancock’s? Was this the copy that was dispatched to General Washington in the field, or to the capitals of one of the 13 colonies?
Think of how a fan is thrilled by some small, fleeting contact with an adored movie star. To the movie star, it probably makes no difference, no impression at all. But to the fan, it is a moment of a lifetime. My small moment with this document, which existed for centuries before me and will survive long after I’ve vanished, gives me some tiny claim on its venerable history – and this country’s.
Speaking of venerable, James Ellroy -- who, like our first president, is quite the dandy dresser -- has finished his magisterial trilogy of modern American history and how brings us his own story, his mother’s murder and his life with and without and about women. ‘’The Hilliker Curse’’ and James Ellroy, both here on Tuesday.