June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
Richard Brookhiser has spent four years trying to capture for the television screen the character of perhaps the greatest American.
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.
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.
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.
One we checked is the story that Washington, as a young man, could throw a stone across the Rappahannock. In later popular memory the missile becomes a silver dollar, and the river can be the Potomac (which would take a bionic arm) or even the Delaware (myth gridlock: Was he finding the range for the Army’s boats?). Here is the ur-version of Weems: “Col. Lewis Willis, [Washington’s] playmate and kinsman, has been heard to say, that he has often seen him throw a stone across Rappahannock, at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg. It would be no easy matter to find a man, nowadays, who could do it.” We were interested in the story because Washington’s strength was an element of his charisma, one of his more important traits (before you can lead, you must be noticed).
We found that the Rappahannock, behind Ferry Farm where Washington had lived as a boy, is about 400 feet wide, a throw from deep center field to home plate; modern dredging has made the river narrower than it was in the eighteenth century. In 1936 Hall of Famer Walter Johnson threw a metal weight across. We got the pitchers from the local high school baseball team, who were Washington’s age when he lived there, to try; the results tend to confirm Weems.
Some stories have been shamefully forgotten. The other battle we treated, besides Monmouth, was the Battle of Long Island (August 1776), an example of what could happen to the Continental army before it became professional. Washington was trying to defend New York against an immense British land-sea force. The two armies met on the western tip of Long Island, in what is now Brooklyn. The British managed to outflank the American line, and panic set in. Total defeat was averted only by an act of unusual valor: One Maryland unit managed to hold off the onrushing enemy long enough for the survivors to escape to the safety of Brooklyn Heights. Outnumbered by more than five to one, the Marylanders repeatedly attacked the British; only 10 of the 400-man unit made it back to Brooklyn Heights themselves that night. Washington, unable to send them reinforcements, watched the doomed gallant action and during it exclaimed, “My God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!”
The dead Marylanders were laid in a mass grave on farmland that was in time built over. In 1952 Congress directed the Army to make the site a national monument if it was ever found. It has been found. But in the way of bureaucracies, one thing didn’t lead to another, and the heroes still lie beneath the Brooklyn rust belt. We filmed what stands over their graves today—an auto body shop.
Forgetting the Marylanders is shameful. But, in another place, we found a commendable refusal to honor the dead in the wrong way. Early in the nineteenth century, Congress planned to make the Rotunda of the Capitol a memorial to the Founding Father. Washington’s casket was to be taken from the family vault at Mount Vernon, where it had been laid in 1799, and reburied in a sarcophagus visible through a hole in the Rotunda floor. A white marble plug marks the spot on the floor where the hole was cut, and two floors down an empty catafalaue still awaits its intended occupant.
The Washington family scotched the plan, insisting that Washington had wanted to remain at Mount Vernon after death. Surely they were right. One of the greatest achievements of his life—as great as anything he accomplished in battle, at the Constitutional Convention, or during his Presidency—was to step aside when his jobs were done. A permanent presence, like the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides or even the kitschy larger-than-life images in the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, would have been a political and aesthetic blunder. Washington’s relatives knew better than his admirers, and Washington, master of reticence and withdrawal, knew best of all.
The most surprising and hopeful thing I learned about Washington was the attitude of average Americans toward him. One technique Michael is fond of is vox populi, asking men and women in the street what they think about the film’s subject. Time and again the same pattern appeared. People knew next to nothing about the details of Washington’s career; when they did know something, it was often false (like throwing silver Hollars across the Potomac). Yet there was an enormous goodwill toward him, and the reason for this goodwill was a valid one: People sensed that, as Adams had told Rush, Washington could be trusted. One of the most impressive bits of vox pop came in Newburgh, New York, near Washington’s last headquarters of the Revolutionary War. It was there in 1783 that Washington deflated a potential mutiny of his unpaid officers, deflecting the new nation from the path of putsches and pronunciamentos that so many other revolutions have taken. The Washington headquarters site in downtown Newburgh is lovingly preserved; the city, like many an old industrial town on the Hudson River, is in less good shape. After shooting in the headquarters, we trolled for vox pop in a neighborhood barbershop and on the streets. A twentyish black man in an athletic undershirt told us he liked what he knew of Washington. Because of him, the United States was an independent country, and “I have the opportunities I have today.” A cynic, looking at that young man’s neighborhood, might not see many opportunities. But the young man did, and he correctly held Washington responsible, in some part, for creating them.
Americans often have the right instincts about their history. If a film like ours can help tell them why their instincts are right, we will have done our part.