They don't make American presidents like George Washington anymore, and they never will. As Richard Brookhiser points out in his book "George Washington on Leadership," he did it all and he did it well:
"He ran two start-ups, the army and the presidency, and chaired the most important committee meeting in history, the Constitutional Convention. His agribusiness and real estate portfolio made him America's richest man. ... Men followed him into battle; women longed to dance with him; famous men, almost as great as he was, some of them smarter, did what he told them to do. He was the Founding CEO."
Brookhiser, a Time magazine columnist and senior editor at National Review who has specialized on the American Revolution, has also written a highly praised biography of Washington, "Founding Father," as well as "Alexander Hamilton, American," and "America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918." I talked to him Tuesday by telephone from his home in New York City:
Q: Is there evidence you’ve found that George Washington was either an alien or an angel sent down to Earth to make sure we won the Revolution?
A: (laughs) No. No such evidence.
Q: Can you quickly remind us what great things Washington did -- before he even became president?
A: Well, the greatest thing was he was the first commander in chief of the brand new Continental Army. America had never had an army before. There had been 150 years of fighting in British North America, but that was always done by the militias of individual colonies or by the British army against various enemies -- French, Indians, combinations of both. In the spring of 1775, fighting has broken out around Boston. The battles of Lexington and Concord are fought. Congress picks one of its own, George Washington, to be commander in chief. He is sent up to Boston to take charge of the militias that are already there and of troops from other states that are to come. His job is to create an army out of these materials. And he does this and about a million other things over the next eight and half years until the war ends in 1783. It’s the longest war we’d fight until Vietnam. It’s longer than the Civil War and our share in World War II put together. It’s longer than Iraq. There are many, many defeats and screw-ups in the course of this war, but Washington sticks with it and ends up victorious.
Q: Was there ever a time when Congress thought about replacing him?
A: Yes, there was a thing called “The Conway Cabal.” It’s still not clear who all was involved or exactly what the game plan was. Thomas Conway, despite his Irish ancestry and name, was a French officer. France came in on our side in 1777 and Conway was one of the officers who came over. Washington took an almost instant dislike to him. Part of the reason seems to be Conway’s high opinion of himself. Conway certainly made himself available to congressional critics of Washington, of which there were some. There seems to have been schemes afoot to give Conway an important job, to make him sort of parallel to Washington in the command structure.
Who knows where this might have gone. But it blows up, partly because Conway is just tactless and clumsy about it, and also because people realize that, “No. We’re not going to do any better than the man we have. In fact, we could do a lot worse.”
Q: He was already a hero.
A: He had already been a hero in the French-American War, which was almost 20 years earlier.
Q: He was also very wealthy.
A: Yes. There was a rumor in Congress that he had promised to outfit 1,000 men at his own expense. He could not have done that. Prosperous though he was, it was all tied up in land and he just could not have mustered that kind of cash. But what he did do at the second Continental Congress -- he was a delegate to both the first and second; the first was in 1774, the second meets in 1775 -- was come in his old French and Indian War uniform. That’s partly to show his availability for any command posts that may be available. But it’s also a statement to his fellow delegates that things may come to this -- You know, “Things are not getting better. They’ve gotten worse since we met last year, and we may have to fight to assert our rights. And that if it comes to that, I’m ready and I hope everyone else will be too.”
Q: What qualities made him such a great leader and where did they spring from?
A: The book is full of examples and I could have stuffed even more instances in. But I think there are two broad ones. One is his determination and consistency in pursuit of his goals. When he gets a goal in sight or in mind, he’s going to achieve that goal in almost every case. There is a singleness of purpose. Jefferson said years after he died that Washington took a long time to decide, but once he decided, he acted and he could not be swerved. This is something I learned only in writing this book.
I wrote a biography 12 years ago called “Founding Father.” I’ve written other books about the Founding in which he appears. But only when I really bore down on leadership in this book did I realize how flexible Washington could be in the choice of his means.
If things went wrong, if there were failures -- which there often were -- he would not only say, “Well, the luck was bad.” Or “The enemy happened to be stronger.” He was also able to say, “What were we doing wrong?” Or “What did I do wrong?” He didn’t always say that immediately. Those are very hard things to ask. But he would grapple with them. He was able to modify his game plan. Sometimes he was able to chuck it and take up a new one. So what struck me after finishing this book was the persistence in pursuit of his goals but the flexibility as to the means.
Q: Did Washington have any character faults or flaws?
A: Yes. The two that I discuss are his temper and his obstinacy. The obstinacy is the vice of a virtue, which is persistence. I said he also had the flexibility. But sometimes he didn’t have the flexibility. Sometimes he just got the bit in his teeth and he just kept going. I discuss this in terms of his strategy of how to win the war, how to give the British the definitive blow. For the longest time, he thinks this will come by taking New York City back. Really, the French make the call: “No. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to strike on the Virginia coast.” That’s where the battle of Yorktown happens, which is the last major engagement of the war and it persuades the British that the war was lost. So that is something that Washington had to bow to the reality of this ally -- who had the navy and they said, "We’ll send the fleet there. It’s not going to come to New York.” Then when Washington gets with the program, he throws himself into it with his usual energy. But he had to overcome this “New York, New York, New York, New York” that he had been thinking of. The other flaw is the temper. The thing about the temper is, no one ever remembers this anymore. Because we think Washington is like the face on the quarter or Mount Rushmore, which doesn’t look like an angry face. But he did have this temper. Everyone who knew him knew it was there. He never made it go away. Some bad traits we have are just there. You cannot make them go away. They are too deep. But what you can do is you can know they are there. You can be mindful when they are emerging. Many times you can pull them back. Sometimes you can’t. But when they pop out -- when it’s just beyond control -- you can step back afterwards. You can step back and say, “All right, fine. Now let’s get back to the issue at hand and let’s decide this rationally rather than angrily.” There are cases of him doing that both as commander in chief and as president.
Q: Does Washington compare to Lincoln and FDR, two presidents who are generally praised for being great leaders?
A: Sure. They had different kinds of problems. Washington runs a war for eight years. Then he’s president for eight years. So he has the longest service at the top. Lincoln is really just one term and Roosevelt is elected four times but he dies right after his fourth inauguration. So Lincoln has four years, Roosevelt has 12, Washington has 16. He does the war, he does the peace and he does the aftermath of the war -- which Lincoln didn’t get a chance to do because he was murdered and which Roosevelt didn’t because he died. Due to historical circumstances, Washington was able to show more follow-through than they did. Now is it harder to set a country up or put it back on the rails when it has jumped the rails? -- Lincoln’s problem. That’s a very deep question, which I am not going to give you a yes or no on. But yes, certainly he is comparable to those other men.
Q: Who is Seneca and what did Washington learn from him?
A: Seneca was a Roman philosopher. He was a pagan philosopher, but he was very popular with Christians because he was a very moralistic philosopher. He believed that the most important thing in life was to behave well and this was more important than how much money you amassed or even if you lived or died. He says that being tortured can be better than lying at your ease on your bed if you do the first honorably and the second dishonorably. He’s very strict about the importance of behaving well. He was translated into English. He was a popular writer. Washington read him kind of earlier in his life, in his teens, and I think what he learned from him is not to be so much bothered by difficulty. Seneca is always hammering at the idea that “Well, if bad things happen to you, you can still behave well.” He really goes back and back and back to that. I think the net of it for Washington would have been to say, “OK. If things go wrong, bad things happen. But that’s not the worst thing in the world and it’s more important that you behave well.”
Q: Are there any horrible tales of Washington falling off the moral wagon or any other wagon?
A: He suffers awful defeats in the French and Indian War -- at least one of them his own responsibility. The first major battle he fights, at Fort Necessity, he picks a bad spot to defend, and he fails. He fell in love with the wife of an in-law of his, which is potentially a disastrous situation. It ended up not being so, but that was something that happened to him when he was 18 years old. So he had to extricate himself from that. He has a rough (French and Indian) war.
Q: Where was George Washington on July 4, 1776?
A: Well, he was in New York City. He had come to New York City in the spring. The British had left Boston in March. His first assignment was to run the siege of Boston, which he did in the late spring of 1775. He drives the British off because he’s able to bring artillery to Boston and put them on the Dorchester Heights. The British see it’s impossible to stay, so they leave. But Washington knows the British will be coming back and he guesses correctly that they will be coming back to New York. They appear in the New York harbor in the late spring. They land on Staten Island.
So on July 4th, Washington's in Manhattan with a smaller army and a much greener army than the British have. He has about 19,000 men. They have 32,000. He has no boats. They have a whole fleet, including 10 battleships. Those are the odds. He has to defend essentially an indefensible area because it’s so spread out. There’s Manhattan. There’s Long Island. Where are they going to land? What do I do? One of his generals later on, as the fight is developing, says, “Look, let’s just burn New York and get out.” It was probably the best military advice, but politically you simply couldn’t do it. He’s in New York and he has the Declaration read to his troops on July 9.
Q: When you play the presidential ranking game, is there any question where you’d put Washington?
A: I would put him at one or two, Lincoln being the other one.
Q: How would Washington have fared in the TV age?
A: Oh, that’s something he could have adjusted to because he would absolutely have understood the importance of all the media. He was very conscious of his image and his presentation. That was something he was very good at. Public speaking he was not so good at. Writing? He was an OK writer. He wasn’t a great writer. But he had a presence, and he knew that. He used it and he played to it. He designed every uniform he ever wore. If you brought him back he would be sitting in front of televisions. He would be going online. He would want to understand -- "What is all this stuff? How do I make it work? How can I make it work for George Washington -- and for the United States"?