RICHARD BROOKHISER ON GEORGE WASHINGTON
MARCH 28, 1996
David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Richard Brookhiser, senior editor of "National Review," author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: George Washington, when died, Congress adopted a resolution proclaiming that he was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen. And now you've come along and said, well, he's still in our textbooks, he's in our wallets, but he's not in our hearts. I agree. But tell me, the fact that Washington has faded some from memory, what is--does that say more about him or about us?
RICHARD BROOKHISER, Author: Well, it says something about both. I mean, it says something about him to the extent that he was a very self-controlled public figure, especially as his career went on. He was self-controlled because he had this enormous reputation and prestige, and so any casual remark of his or anything off the top of his head, that could have real consequences, so he kept his own counsel. He was self-controlled also because he had a violent temper all his life, and reining that in was something that was very important to him. He never quite, he never made it go away. It was always there, but he had to keep ahold of it. The sense of distance is partly our doing, because I think we crave a certain intimacy with, with our leaders that past generations didn't really seem to need and we because we don't feel we get it with him, we turn to someone like Lincoln, who was murdered, or, or, Roosevelt, who had polio, or Jefferson, who is alleged to have had a mistress. You know, we fasten on things like that.
DAVID GERGEN: So he's very reserved. What gave him a sense of nobility also makes him more distant.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: To us, yes. And his contemporaries, they knew that the reserve was a process, that that was an end result. Gov. Morris said that thousands have learned to control their passions but few had passions so violent to contend with. You know, so his contemporaries knew what was going on, and they appreciated the efforts he made, but we just see that result, and we assume well, he must have been like that, must have been some marbled guy.
DAVID GERGEN: And, Richard, you're a journalist. And many other historians have gone back and written standard histories of Washington. You've now come along and written what you call a moral biography, very much in the tradition of Plutarch writing about the noble Grecians and noble Romans. I'm curious about why you wanted to write a moral biography and what you think Washington's moral lesson or lessons offer us.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, there are, there are standard biographies of him that are excellent, you know, and if you want to know the whole life and every aspect of it, you know you can consult those, and I did. I relied on them. But, you know, for all the efforts of, of the historians and the standard biographers, there's still this, this blankness to the man's image. So I thought it would be worthwhile to go back and, you know, not to uncover any new, new facts but to just put the ones that we know into a different light and to focus especially on the highlights of this public career and what it was about, about his character that enabled him to do them. You know, I'm not interested in details, if they don't relate directly to that.
DAVID GERGEN: How do you think he speaks to us as a moral example?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, we, you know, we don't realize that a lot of the rules that we live under were precedents established by him. You know, we assume that when the President or, or any high official, when their term ends, when they're voted out of office, or, you know, after a certain number of years, they will just step down. They will give up power, you know, commanders in chief will give up power at the ends of wars. We just assume that. And, and that was, indeed, the political theory of Washington's day. You know, all the intellectuals of his time in America believed that that should be the case. But it had to be established in reality. It couldn't just be ideas or theories. And so it was very important that we had the leader of both the revolution and also the first President willing at the end of those two tours of duty to step down and give the power back. And this, this made real the principles that everybody believed and espoused.
DAVID GERGEN: Gary Wills, whom you know, as a former professor of yours--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Right.
DAVID GERGEN: Has written about this with regard to Washington as well, that, in fact, his true authority came from the fact he was willing to leave the stage, and go back to Mt. Vernon, like the Cincinnatus figure.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he could--he could have had a third term, no question that he could have had a third term, which would have meant he would have died in office, because he died only two years after he left the Presidency.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Probably he couldn't have been a king, although people advised him, one of his own officers wrote him a letter suggesting that he do this at the end of the war, but if he had been a different man and played his cards right, he could have arranged it to be, you know, leader for life or slid into a President for life role or something of that kind. That could have happened. And, in fact, his own officers at the end of the war were urging him to lead the army to demand from Congress back pay that they hadn't gotten, you know, and he told them, we've been fighting this for a regime of laws, and we have to continue to obey them.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, as Wills has pointed out elsewhere, other countries, when they move from essentially being ruled by monarchies to try to move to a republic, they had very bad experiences. The French went, of course, from a king to Napoleon. The Russians went from a king--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: With a lot of detours--
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: --along the way.
DAVID GERGEN: But the Russians went from czar to Stalin.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Right, right, and it's very interesting that the French Revolution, which began months after Washington was first inaugurated, the Bastille fell months after. And Lafayette sent Washington the key, and people assumed that this was just the French addition of what had happened in America, and it turned out not to be the case, and then Napoleon, when he died years after Washington died, he said, one of the things he said in his retirement was, "They wanted me to be another Washington."
DAVID GERGEN: Exactly.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: And conscious that he had not been.
DAVID GERGEN: But the lesson was then that Washington respected the republican form of government more than he wanted power or glory for himself.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Yes, yes.
DAVID GERGEN: And that's where, that's where his real moral contribution was.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Yes. Because he, you know--and the most striking thing I think about him is his seriousness. I mean, if I had to rewrite the book in four words, they would be, "He really meant it." You know, and all the ideals that he espoused, the ideals of the Declaration, or all the talk about the rights of mankind, all the rhetoric of his period, he really meant it. And he really put himself on the line, his time, potentially his life, his reputation, over and over again, because he really believed in this experiment, and he was determined to make it work.
DAVID GERGEN: There was something else that I found interesting, and that was that he was spare in his words. I guess Adams said to him, "He possessed the gift of silence."
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Right.
DAVID GERGEN: And I was interested--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Which Adams didn't possess.
DAVID GERGEN: Exactly. But DeGaulle has written this wonderful book about leadership called The Edge of the Sword, and it--more about military leadership, but it's about other kinds of leadership too, and he says, "Nothing more enhances authority than silence.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, and it's--it's very interesting that Washington was at the Constitutional Convention, and he was the President, he was the presiding officer, and he only spoke three times. He spoke at the beginning to thank them for the appointment. He spoke sometime in the middle to chew the delegates out because someone had left a copy of the agenda lying around, and the proceedings were secret, so he held it up and said, you know, let him who owns it take it, left the room, and then the delegate who noted this in his journal, felt in his pocket, and thought, mine's not here, and he went back to his inn and found it in another coat, so then he was relieved. Then Washington spoke the third time at the end to, to propose a minor change in the Constitution. And I think this was his way of setting his seal of approval on the rest of it.
DAVID GERGEN: But think how different that is from today, when one is measured by how, how garrulous almost you are, about how revealing you are, how you really sort of pour out your soul on "Oprah" or how many talk shows you've been on.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Right, and, and Jefferson noted as an old man, he said that he had served with both Washington and Franklin in, in legislatures, and he said, I knew neither of them to speak more than 10 minutes of the time or to any but the main points.
DAVID GERGEN: You've written a moral biography. In today's world, how can one gain moral authority? How can our leaders gain moral authority of the type that Washington had?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, they have to, I think, first understand what they're doing. And one thing we've forgotten about Washington is how very interested he was in ideas. You know, even though his education was very truncated and he called it defective, he knew who the intellectuals in his generation were. He knew how to pick their brains. He stayed on top of everything they wrote. And then once you understand what you're doing or what ought to be done, then you really have to follow through. You really have to be serious about it, and that, that goes back to that earnestness I mentioned before.
DAVID GERGEN: He really meant it.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: He really meant it.
DAVID GERGEN: Thanks very much.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Thank you.