- 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
Our film would make use of all these techniques, but a show on character would have to do more. Lacking a narrative framework, it would have to find other hooks for the viewer’s interest. Washington was a master of holding people’s attention, with his physique, his uniforms, his dramatic gestures, and his silences. How could we do the same? The technique we hit on was to bring the past into the present. This adds an element of surprise; one thing people don’t expect to see in a historical documentary is the present. It can also show the ongoing relevance of history—in our case, how character traits and leadership skills reverberate across the centuries.
Whenever we discussed a facet of Washington’s character directly, we tried to show a modern application. Manners were important to Washington all his life, easing his rise in the world and smoothing his adult interactions with hundreds of people not necessarily congenial to a Virginia planter. His youthful guide to good breeding was The Rules of Civility, a list of 110 rules of etiquette originally written in sixteenth-century Europe and copied by him into a notebook in the 1740s, when he was a teenager. What would teenagers in turn-of-the-millennium Virginia think of them? We went to a high school near Fredericksburg, where Washington lived when he transcribed them, and asked. They thought what any random group of Americans might think: Why go to such elaborate and artificial lengths to be polite? Washington would say, “Think again.” Or if we were discussing some episode that illuminated a particular skill of Washington’s, we tried to get contemporary takes on it. Washington was a resourceful politician, adept at building support for his actions and wrong-footing critics. The Whiskey Rebellion, a violent protest against the whiskey excise that shook the trans-Appalachian backcountry in 1794, two years into his second term, showed how a master politician untangled a cat’s cradle of passions and possible courses of action. How strong were those passions? We shot a discussion with descendants of Whiskey rebels in western Pennsylvania who were still angry more than two centuries after the fact. My wife called this part the “militia scene.” The rebels’ descendants weren’t shooting now, but their ancestors had, and their arguments would be familiar to a range of modern Americans, from ordinary tax protesters to Idaho Panhandle survivalists. How savvy were the actions that Washington took? We filmed a seminar at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania—just over the mountains from the main outbreak—at which colonels kibitzed his information campaign and the force levels he applied. The Army War College was interested in the Whiskey Rebellion because “homeland defense” had become, in the mid-nineties, a military priority. If we had shot the seminar after September 11, the discussion might have been even more intense.
What about slavery, to our eyes the great question mark over his character? On one hand, Washington fought for American liberty; on the other hand, he owned slaves all his adult life. On the other other hand, he freed all his slaves in his will, one of the few slaveholders of the Founding era and the only slaveholding President to do so. What to make of this record? Every year, the Quander family, an extended black clan concentrated in northern Virginia, Maryland, and eastern Pennsylvania, holds a reunion. Many of the Quanders are descendants of Nancy Quander, whom Washington named on a list of his slaves the year he died. We went to a Quander family reunion and asked them what they thought of Washington and his connection to their family. On the whole they were more charitable than the Whiskey Rebel descendants.
A theory of technique is fine, but making it real involved a lot of collaborative nuts-and-bolts work. Authors usually have nothing to do with anyone else’s work. They write their books and maybe do tours. Every other aspect of making a book is terra incognita to them. Writing and hosting a documentary plunges you into the whole process. It’s as if an author also had to work at the printing plant and the warehouse and meet with the sales force.
Each job in a documentary attracts characteristic personalities. The cameraman, the soundman, and the editors are Artists. They have the perfectionism and attention to detail that only bohemians bring to their work. If every business were run with the care that these craftsmen lavish on making their work look or sound just right, Enron would still be in business. If, before making this film, I had to walk into a room in an art gallery, to talk about the paintings of George Washington that hung there, I would have walked a straight line. Under the direction of Gary Griffin, our cameraman, I walked an S curve—because that route took me around the naked marble backside of a Greek slave girl who happened to be sharing the room with the general. What does she add to the story? Logically, nothing. But she looks good; she creates a split second of shock; she makes the shot more interesting. Dozens of such decisions, over 90 minutes, make the difference between a real movie and video wallpaper.