Jewish World Review July 4, 2002 / 24 Tamuz, 5762
"Indispensable"? Advanced thinkers instruct us that we are not supposed to believe anyone is more important than anyone else. Not democratic. We are supposed to prefer "history from below," meaning "history with the politics left out," explaining the past not with reference to event-making individuals but in terms of the holy trinity of today's obsessions -- race, gender, class.
But Brookhiser begins his film standing at Yale in front of a portrait of Washington and says: "An empire might break on that forehead." Then he explains why an empire did: Washington's character.
Character, particularly that of someone dead two centuries, is difficult for a camera to capture. Besides, Washington's army, unlike Caesar's or Napoleon's, lost more battles than it won. It is said that America won the war because of its superior retreats, such as the one after the British landed an army on Long Island -- an army larger than the population of New York City. Still, Brookhiser's script summons Washington to life.
Brookhiser's camera takes us to the Brooklyn scene -- now an auto body shop -- where brave Marylanders enabled Washington to escape to fight another day. Washington's next defeat occurred at what is now 34th and Lexington Avenue. Brookhiser refutes the myth that Washington's troops usually fought "Indian style," in forest skirmishes and ambushes. As in most 18th-century battles, close combat -- the bayonet -- caused most casualties.
Washington understood that the creation of a nation depended on creating a regular army that could slug it out with Britain's. The tide began to turn in New Jersey, at Monmouth.
The most powerful person in American history, Washington had less formal education than any subsequent president, other than Lincoln. This 6-foot-3 leader of soldiers who averaged 5-foot-8 was charismatic before the term was coined. Abigail Adams, no swooning teenager, described Washington with lines from Dryden: "Mark his majestic fabric. He's a temple sacred from his birth and built by hands divine."
He was not the only one of that era who learned showmanship from studying theater and popular entertainments such as Punch and Judy puppet shows. Joseph Addison's play "Cato" was the source of Nathan Hale's dying words ("I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country") and Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty, or give me death!" In the play, Cato held mutinous officers in line by force of personality, as Washington was to do at Newburgh, N.Y.
Brookhiser, a senior editor of National Review magazine and frequent contributor to other magazines and to C-Span, is also known for his slender, sprightly biographies of Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Adams dynasty. The longest, on Hamilton, is just 240 pages long. His next subject will be Gouverneur Morris. Brookhiser's capsule summary of Morris is characteristically pithy: "Peg-legged ladies' man who polished the Constitution's language."
Brookhiser does not write "pathographies" -- biographies that present historic figures as the sum of their pathologies. His Washington adopted a noble character, then grew into it. Intensely interested in manners, Washington pioneered a civic etiquette suitable for a democracy in which pre-eminence was to be based on behavior, not birth.
And of the nine presidents who owned slaves, only Washington freed his at his death. Brookhiser visits a family reunion of descendants of those slaves -- one of whom is a guide at Mount Vernon.
Congress wanted Washington's body to rest in a room beneath the Capitol rotunda, like Napoleon's in the Invalides. But Washington's remains are at Mount Vernon. So, Brookhiser says:
"The Capitol is not his tomb but the people's house. This reflects his wishes and the goal of his life. Washington wanted to establish a government that would prove that mankind was not made for a master -- not even the mastership of a hero's memory."
"They wanted me to be another Washington," whined Napoleon in his exile, as stunned as the rest of the world by Washington's voluntary yielding of power. The final component of Washington's indispensability was the imperishable example he gave by proclaiming himself dispensable.
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