Beyond wooden teeth

Posted: Jul 05, 2002 12:00 AM
This Fourth of July and throughout the weekend that follows, PBS will be airing a fascinating look at our indispensable Founding Father, George Washington. The man many know only as the remote and austere face on the dollar bill was neither the most brilliant nor the most learned of the founders. He was not a military genius like Napoleon -- in fact, he lost most of the battles he fought. And he was not a literary genius like Lincoln, whose words still move us. But by the end of this broadcast, if you have not already read Richard Brookhiser's superb book, you will understand and, yes, feel the greatness of the man. Washington may well be the greatest American who ever lived -- and among the most admirable men of any time or place. Filmmaker Michael Pack examines Washington thematically. The first three segments analyze Washington as a warrior, a politician and a man of charisma. Later ones look at manners and constancy. Was he a great warrior? Certainly the sites of his great losses are not marked. The camera takes us to the scene of a rout in Brooklyn. The British slaughtered the undisciplined and untrained Americans. Over the unmarked mass grave now stands an auto body shop. But as in everything else he turned his hand to in life, Washington soon figured out generalship. And as one history buff explains, "He won the battles he had to win." One way he did was by drilling and training. The notion of a ragtag guerilla army firing on British regulars is a myth, according to Brookhiser. Washington had to professionalize the army in order to begin winning battles. As a politician, Washington demonstrated both high principle and shrewd judgment again and again. In putting down the Whiskey Rebellion, for example -- a tax revolt that many at the time compared to the Boston Tea Party -- Washington combined a show of overwhelming force with a careful appeal to public opinion. The rebellion, which might well have destabilized the new country, was denied oxygen by Washington's leadership. Like many a great leader, Washington was also a skilled actor -- the quality that is examined in the "charisma" segment. He understood the power of his stature (at 6 feet, 3 inches, he towered over most of his contemporaries) and his commanding manner. But he put these traits into the service of his principles. After the Revolutionary War was won, a revolt was brewing among the officers of the Continental Army. Denied pay for many months, a number were considering marching on Philadelphia to force the issue. If they had succeeded, our experiment in ordered liberty might have been snuffed out then and there, and the great United States of America would have become just another military dictatorship. Washington well understood the stakes. In a dramatic gesture that is re-enacted for Pack's camera, he took the plotters by surprise and showed up at their meeting. It was a brilliant performance. Washington at first rebuked them, then indirectly appealed to their love and reverence for him, and finally touched what Lincoln would later call "the better angels of their nature." Washington's nature, of course, was not flawless, and the program deals forthrightly with his greatest failing -- the ownership of slaves. Pack's camera follows Brookhiser to the family reunion of descendants of Washington's slaves. Though he freed them all in his will, he unjustly profited from their labor all of his life. "Slavery was the great crack in the American founding," Brookhiser acknowledges, and Washington's conduct -- while not as egregious as, for example, Jefferson's (who did not even free his slaves posthumously) -- is a stain on his memory. Washington's greatest act -- among many -- was his insistence upon giving up power and returning to his farm after two terms in the presidency. Though we shrug it off today, Brookhiser points out that for the nearly 2,000 years since Cincinnatus returned to his plow, no leader had ever done what Washington did. Congress wanted to bury Washington in the Capitol Rotunda. The platform that would have held his sarcophagus is still there. But Washington declined. He understood better than his contemporaries that for this democracy to flourish, the Capitol must not be a mausoleum for any man. His love of liberty trumped his vanity. It's worth getting to know a man like that better. Pack and Brookhiser have opened the door.