Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington

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Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. By RICHARD BROOKHISER. New York, London, and Toronto: The Free Press, 1996. ix, 230 pp. $25.00.

NEWT GINGRICH in early 1995 recommended to first-term Republican congresspersons that they read, together with six other texts, James Thomas Flexner's biography of George Washington, Washington: The Indispensable Man (Boston, 1974). Richard Brookhiser, senior editor of the biweekly conservative magazine National Review, author of The Outside Story: How Democrats and Republicans ReElected Reagan (Garden City, N.Y., 1986) and The Way of the WASP: How It Made America, and How It Can Save It, So to Speak (New York, 1991), and editor of a collection of essays by William F. Buckley, Jr., did Gingrich one better and wrote a Washington biography instead (see his "Tout Newt," National Review 47 [20 Mar. 1995]: 67-68). But Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington is less a primer for politicians than a manual for all Americans, or so the author wishes. As the book jacket declares: "At a time when paternity, self-government, and the very idea of greatness are ignored or misunderstood, Founding Father recovers a figure who embodied all three." This is all quite something for a person who was never a father, who was hardly a democrat, and whose very idea of leadership was silence. Yet Brookhiser, employing, with much facility, a pundit's arrogance and a journalist's prose, refuses to get caught up in these niceties. Founding Father, he tells us, is moral biography along the lines of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans-the object of which is "to explain its subject, and to shape the mind and hearts of those who read it" (p. 12). Eighteenth-century Americans, who read Plutarch, understood "the power of example," he points out, and we should, too (p. 13).

Brookhiser complains that historians and biographers have humanized Washington in such a way that Americans have become so distant from him that "we impute coldness to him, and we respond to him coldly" (p. 5). Ever since Thomas Paine, Washington has had his critics. In our own time, W. E. Woodward was one of the first to debunk Washington. He began his 1926 biography rather unceremoniously with the assertion that "George Washington came of a family that must be called undistinguished, unless a persistent mediocrity, enduring many generations, is in itself a distinction" (W. E. Woodward, George Washington: The Image and the Man [New York, 1926], p. 9). Thirty years later, Joseph Charles chimed in with the assertion that the "political exploitation of Washington's name in the first decade of the new national government has misled posterity even more completely than it did his contemporaries" (Joseph Charles, The Origins of the American Party System: Three Essays [Williamsburg, 1956], p. …