- Historic Sites
Richard Brookhiser has spent four years trying to capture for the television screen the character of perhaps the greatest American.
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
Bismarck supposedly said that it was better not to know how governments and sausages are made. I spent almost four years helping make Rediscovering George Washington, a film by Michael Pack that I wrote and hosted and that PBS will air this July Fourth. That’s the length of a college education, and that’s what it felt like, a crash course in moviemaking, a refresher course in storytelling, and a series of continuing education credits in the subject I thought I knew going in: George Washington’s life and times. I did some construction work, developed a strange new respect for Parson Weems, and learned that most Americans, however little they might know of the details of history, have a tough and unsinkable respect for the father of his country.
I had known Michael Pack since the early eighties, though we had not worked together until we began collaborating on this project. Historical documentaries were new to both of us. I was a political journalist who had turned his attention to dead politicians, writing Founding Father, a book on George Washington, in 1996 and Alexander Hamilton , American , which would be published in 1999.1 had appeared as a talking head in several documentaries and as an occasional pundit on some talk shows, but I had never worked behind the camera. Michael and his company, Manifold Productions, had been doing documentaries for 15 years, generally on political subjects. The project he was in the midst of when we began was the study of a normal year in the life of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, though when the year he chose to document proved to be anything but normal, the show became The Fall of Newt Gingrich . He had never done a show on early American history.
The first decision we made, before a camera rolled, even before the money was raised, was that we could not present George Washington’s achievements as a straight narrative. There was too much to cover. From the moment when the Continental Congress picked him to lead the Revolutionary armies in June 1775 until his death in December 1799 was more than 24 years, 16 of which were spent as Commander in Chief or President. During the eight years of “retirement,” he was still the most famous man on the continent, and he interrupted his leisure to perform such services as chairing the Constitutional Convention in 1787. If you add to that near quarter century of national pre-eminence Washington’s colonial career in the French and Indian War and the Virginia House of Burgesses, you have a public life of 45 years. We did not have the money for a series, and we could not fit this panorama of activity into the hour we originally planned, or even the 90 minutes the show became. The welter of events in Washington’s life became evident when we viewed earlier documentaries on him that used the narrative approach. At several points in these screenings, even though I was already familiar with the events the filmmakers were discussing, I had trouble keeping up. If you tried to tell Washington’s story chronologically, he became first in war, first in peace, and last in viewer comprehension.
We decided to focus instead on character. We would not present every major problem Washington faced but try to analyze the abilities and the disposition that enabled him to face them all so effectively. John Adams, who nominated Washington for Commander in Chief in 1775 and who served (sometimes unhappily) as his Vice President, emphasized Washington’s character in a shrewd but admiring letter to Benjamin Rush. Time and again, Adams wrote, the people’s “love of the marvelous” tempts them to believe in leaders who claim to be selfless and public-spirited, even though they are often “deceived and abused” in their trust. “Washington, however, did not deceive them.” We wanted to explain how he inspired people and why he did not let them down.
This structural decision had technical consequences. The conventions of storytelling in historical documentaries are well established. Ken and Ric Burns have brought them to a sumptuous high gloss, but they animate almost everything in historical television, from World War II battle stories on the History Channel to celebrity biographies on A&E. Such shows employ three techniques: interviews with experts, historians if the subject is long dead, friends and hangers-on if he is recently departed; clips of TV and newsreel footage, or still shots of photographs, paintings, and prints, depending on the target era; modest re-enactments, to give a period flavor. Add a narrator and appropriate music, and you have a show. (The limiting factor—besides talent—is money. One to two hundred thousand dollars will get you lots of stock footage. The bigger the budget, the more stops can be pulled.) For a show on the Founding period, the musicians are fiddlers, the talking heads are professors, and the re-enactors are soldiers in Revolutionary gear, marching or firing their muskets. When we got to meet some Revolutionary War re-enactors during the filming of Rediscovering George Washington , they told us that their world is so compact—much smaller than the world of Civil War re-enactors—that they can often recognize individual uniforms from a shot of marching breeches.