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Behind the Scenes -- January 1996

An Interview with Richard Brookhiser


How did you come to write a book on George Washington?

It really goes back to college. When I was a freshman at Yale, in the spring of 1974, I took a course from Garry Wills. He was getting ready to do his big Jefferson book, Inventing America. A lot of his lecture material ended up in his book. He also brought Washington into it in a way that was very compelling and attractive. Wills made me think about Washington. Then when I was a senior I took another course from a fellow named Ronald Paulson, about iconography in eighteenth-century art--Hogarth, Blake, James Gillray--and I wrote a paper for him about Trumbull paintings on the Revolutionary War which hang in the Yale art gallery. Looking at those paintings was a very visual way of getting a sense of what Washington's contemporaries thought of him. They make you think: What were they on to that we've forgotten or obscured over time? Then the idea slumbered until 1989--the 200th anniversary of his inauguration--when I wrote an essay for Time. I did the back page of Time--about 900 words on Washington and what a great guy he was. That was sort of the 900-word version of my book; the paper I did for Paulson was my 600-word version. Now I have the 63,000-word version.

If Washington were running for President today, do you think he would get elected?

Well, yes, of course. Colin Powell has these sky-high popularity ratings and he didn't beat Iraq. George Washington, with a much dinkier country and a far crummier army, did beat the British Empire. So if you're comparing the military achievements of these two guys, it's almost embarrassing for General Powell. People were also impressed by the fact that Washington stepped down--he surrendered his commission at the end of the war as Congress directed that he do. That impressed people all the more.

Can you make a comparison between Colin Powell and George Washington?

There have been a number of generals who have gotten to be President and also people who have had military service. They fall into two categories: the people who have had no political experience--Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower, and Powell; the people who have had political experience--Washington, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Roosevelt. So there are the novices versus the non-novices, and I think the big difference between Powell and Washington is that Powell has no ideas, doesn't see why he should have any, and doesn't care about them. He has no ideology. He's a smart man but he sees no need to have an ideology. Of course Washington did see the need. That's one of the things we've forgotten about Washington. He wasn't just a figurehead tugged about by Jefferson, Hamilton, or Madison, or whoever could capture the rope, but he read these guys and understood what they were saying and he chose among their works. Washington was very much a player in the realm of ideas. Even if he was not himself a writer or an original theorist.

You talk a lot about Washington's physical characteristics? Are there any politicians in our time who carry themselves as well as Washington did?

It is kind of an odd comparison but there is one: Nelson Mendela. You have to remember that he's royalty. When you see him speaking, he carries himself a certain way. He has a certain bearing and dignity. I think a lot of this is background. He's a chief's son or a king's son. He was royalty--he was raised that way and you can still tell that. Another example of a politician who carries himself well is Boris Yeltsin. He demonstrated physical courage when he clamored on top of that tank in '91. Yeltsin is a great disappointment. Like Colin Powell he had no grasp of ideas and so he sort of let himself drift. He's gone to hell basically. But at that moment of the coup he was the one who got up on the tank when the army was circling around. There was sort of a physical courage about the act that was very impressive.

Do you think Bob Dole's military heroism will figure in his campaign?

I think it will. It will help him in pursuit of the nomination and if he wins that it will help his pursuit of the Presidency too.

Why do you think military experience is still a factor in elections?

It gives them a dimension of seriousness. Both the President and Senator Dole have endorsed the intervention in Bosnia, but I think people will feel--if there should be trouble--that Dole knew what he was getting into in a way that Clinton never did. Dole's military exploits give him an edge. Obviously you have to have something else. Bush had it too--he was shot down. People were somewhat impressed with that and rightly so. George Bush did have his moments but he also succumbed to drift and incoherence. You need other things, of course, but military experience does help.

Do you think Bob Dole's injury from his military service is a constant sign to people?

In a very subtle way. He doesn't make anything of it. His whole strategy for the last fifty years has been not to conceal it necessarily, but not to make it evident. He's always holding a pen or a folder. He always holds something so his arm is doing something. He carries it in such a way that he doesn't make a thing of it.

What do you think we can learn from Washington's life that's applicable to the present?

After I finished the book, I thought of the four-word version--"He really meant it." Everything that he advocated, everything that he talked about and did as a public figure, he really meant. It's kind of sobering to realize how serious he was about all this stuff. He did not sign the Declaration of Independence but he certainly endorsed it. He had it read to his troops. He really believed in the rights of man. He wasn't convinced that government according to those rights would work, but he was going to give it a shot in America. There was a real willingness to put his money where his mouth was and to put himself on the line to really do it. That's very impressive. It's not like he had an opinion on term limits or on the welfare state, or anything specific, but this attitude of his is what most impresses me.

Do you think Washington could have handled the media of the present day?

The drastic change is the all-pervasiveness of the media. The frequency and insatiability of it. It's after you 24-hours-a-day, which wasn't the case in his day. However, the press was every bit as aggressive and probably worse. American journalism has gotten far more polite and scrupulous, honest, and ethical. It was terrible two hundred years ago. Journalists just made stuff up. They lied. They were scoundrels. The worst of talk radio is far better than these characters were. So Washington certainly wouldn't be surprised by modern-day vilification.

Interview by Marty Hergert


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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