Rediscovering George Washington
by Richard Brookhiser , The Free Press, 230 pages.
A traditional campaign biography divides the candidate’s life story into thematic sections (“Log Cabin Days,” “Courage,” “Duty”). What the political writer Richard Brookhiser calls his “moral biography” of George Washington is really just such a campaign life done very well, organized around the themes of war, the Constitution, and the Presidency. Brookhiser’s fluent appreciation of Washington is intelligent and inspiring without evoking the stony old caricature. Why does Washington remain more distant than his vivid peers Jefferson, Adams, or Madison? “Washington’s remoteness is partly his doing, partly ours. He wanted to put a gap between himself and his contemporaries. At the end of his second term as president, Mrs. Henrietta Liston, the wife of the British ambassador, told him that she could read the pleasure he expected from retirement in his face. ‘You are wrong,’ Washington insisted, ‘my countenance never yet betrayed my feelings.’”
Washington was looked on as a man apart earlier than we often imagine. Levi Alien called him “our political father” in 1776—before, Brookhiser notes, there was even ,a nation to be father of. That same year, Stoughtonham Township in Massachusetts became the first of hundreds to take the general’s name. Washington’s legacy was the American Presidency itself, and Brookhiser explores the eighteenth-century models available for political fatherhood—patriot king, patriarch, or slave master—and how Washington, childless in life, became for his country “the kind of father . . . who, when his children become adults, lets them go.”
Today, when “the appetite for closeness has become insatiable in the age of People and Oprah, of kinder, gentler presidents who feel our pain,” Brookhiser is quite satisfied with his stoic hero as he finds him, and Washington seems fresh, almost knowable, in his hands. He would throw the general’s tricorn in the ring today, if he could. Who wouldn’t?