- 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
THE DESCENDANTS OF WASHINGTON’S SLAVES WERE MORE CHARITABLE THAN THOSE OF THE WHISKEY REBELS.
Michael Pack was both the Director and the Producer. The Director oversees everyone else involved in the project, and the Producer oversees the Director. In Neo-Platonic terms, the Director is the Creator, while the Producer is the Almighty. These responsibilities call for a personality that is wily and tyrannical, a cross between Max Bialystock and Mussolini. Michael is in fact a thoughtful and considerate man—not an obvious candidate for such jobs. But there were many times when the recalcitrance of the world required him to show his inner guile and steel. The world did his bidding.
As the host, I was the Talent. I learned this when after months of planning, I arrived for our first shoot—an annual re-enactment of the Battle of Monmouth, which was fought in June 1778—at Monmouth State Park in Manalapan, New Jersey. We built an episode around Monmouth, rather than desperate Trenton or heroic Princeton, because Monmouth was the first battle in which Washington’s troops fought as professionally as the British (the British never willingly went head to head with him again). Michael picked me up at the nearest train station early on the evening before the re-enactment so we could get a last-minute look at the site. On the way over he gave me a lecture. This, he told me, would be my first shoot. People in the crew would be doing all manner of things tomorrow, and my natural impulse would be to help, or at least to pay attention to what was going on around me. I was to resist that impulse, for I was the Talent, and my job was to stay focused and fresh, so that I could perform when the camera rolled. I was evidently a special being, like a supermodel or a prize heifer; the enterprise depended on my composure and calm. I nodded solemnly.
When we arrived at the state park, we walked with the ranger in charge of the scene of tomorrow’s “battle”: a wide field, sloping down a hill from the visitors’ center. Michael wondered how he could get Gary elevated for bird’s-eye camera angles. The roof of the visitors’ center was out of bounds. Gary could not be in a tree on the field, since he would spoil the illusion for the spectators and the re-enactors. “Could I put up a scaffold on the sidelines?,” Michael asked, the Duce in him stirring. “Fine with me,” the ranger said. Michael’s assistant then found two companies in the phone book that rented scaffolding. One would put up a 20-foot four-level scaffold, for $1,500. The other would give us the pieces of a 20-foot scaffold, for $150. Michael chose the second. A truck duly appeared with a load of metal stems and joints. The supplier showed us how they fitted together and drove off, leaving Michael, his assistant, his assistant’s assistant, and the Talent to assemble the 20-foot scaffold in the gloaming, while the ranger helpfully observed that in 20 minutes the sun would set, and we would lose our light. The first level was child’s play, and the second was easy. The third and fourth were alarming, which is why I didn’t go up to them; but the scaffold, thanks in part to the Talent, got built. And could I shower in Evian water, please?
I was also the Writer of the show, but I had been prepared for the manipulations my prose would undergo by my career in journalism. Years ago a wise colleague at National Review said that the world did not hang on every “goddamn golden syllable” that we might write. Articles are always being cut and stretched, not only to make them better but to make way for new pieces, to fill holes left by the sudden disappearance of old pieces, and to accommodate artwork or ads. My voice-over running commentary in Rediscovering George Washington would be similarly tortured, for reasons of time (the film equivalent of space). I would also have to rewrite myself to match the flow of a shot. If I had written, of the Whiskey Rebellion, that “the house of the inspector for excise was attacked and burned by the rebels,” but the print illustrating the deed had been shot so that the camera panned from the rebels to the burning house, then the voice-over would have to become “the rebels attacked the inspector’s house and burned it.” In documentaries the picture is worth a thousand words.
The great learning experience of the show was learning new things about Washington’s life and times. Washington is a unique subject. There is always more to learn about him, and it is always more of the same thing. Studying him is like exploring a deep pool of extremely clear water. You find sunken bits of this and that—policies he formulated, people he dealt with: Here is a thought on religious freedom, there is a remark by Aaron Burr. But the pool never changes shape, and the medium never becomes murky.
Some old stories, long dismissed, turned out to be true, or at least highly likely. Washington’s first biographer was Mason Locke Weems—Parson Weems, as he is known—an Episcopal clergyman and a bookseller. Weems was a moralist and a shill, and both traits inform his History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington , which has made it the bane of later biographers. James Thomas Flexner was scathing on Weems in his fourvolume biography of Washington. More recently Carry Wills has put in a good word for him, and one of the historians working on the Washington papers at the University of Virginia admitted to me that the trouble with Weems is that he isn’t always lying. Though he never met Washington and had only one exchange of letters with him, he did a fair amount of homework, interviewing distant relatives and aging acquaintances, and some of his stories check out.