Brookhiser on Washington: no act of salvation

February 18, 1996|By Tom Linthicum | Tom Linthicum,sun staff

"Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington," by Richard Brookhiser. The Free Press. 224 pages. $25 First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

So said the House of Representatives by resolution in December 1799, upon the death of George Washington. And so have said generations of American school children ever since as they have paid requisite homage to the man known as the "Father of his country."

Now comes Richard Brook-hiser, striding across the American ideological and literary landscape, determined to save George Washington and restore him to his rightful place in the pantheon of our greatest heroes. And while he is at it, Mr. Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review, is equally determined to turn Washington's life into a conservative morality play.

Mr. Brookhiser's premise for "Founding Father" is that "there has been, if not a diminishing, a distancing" of George Washington from us. "He is in our textbooks and our wallets, but not our hearts," Mr. Brookhiser writes.

And so Mr. Brookhiser sets forth his "moral biography" of George Washington, written, he says, in the tradition of Plutarch. Mr. Brookhiser says he has two goals: to explain his subject and "to shape the hearts and minds of those who read it."

To that end, the author embarks upon a journey that begins conventionally enough, with Washington's accomplishments during the Revolutionary War, the debate over the Constitution and his presidency. After that, we are off on a somewhat fanciful tour of Washington's nature (strong-willed with a hot temper usually held in check), morals (ever courteous and "goaded to good behavior ... by concern for his reputation") and his ideas (strongly held but often conceived by others).

Finally, we reach the biggest stretch of all - a discussion of the implications of political "fatherhood." Mr. Brookhiser postulates that because of the sorry and uncertain state of fatherhood in today's society, Washington's honorary title of "Father of his country" is the "greatest barrier" to appreciation of him. From there, we skitter past observations on fatherhood by Seneca, "the poignance of bastardy and the irresponsibility of careless coupling" in King Lear and are led pell-mell to the conclusion that Washington, in effect, adopted us all as the children he never had.

Mr. Brookhiser drums home his conservative themes in two ways. First, he holds up Washington as a paragon of courage, morality, civility and wisdom - a model of behavior for this misguided age. True enough, but hardly the stuff of revelation. Second, from the vantage point of Washington's life and times, he launches acerbic observations about our own. Even Newt Gingrich takes a barb for daring to suggest that freshman Congressmen read material on computers, management and futurism as well as the Declaration of Independence, the "Federalist" and "Democracy in America."

Mr. Brookhiser also sets out to defend Washington from his detractors. Two of his primary targets are Mason Locke Weems and Thomas Paine, contemporaries of Washington. Both are long dead and long refuted. Aside from a bit of sparring with Samuel Eliot Morison and Sir Arnold Toynbee, Mr. Brookhiser's other defenses are aimed at unnamed "debunkers" and "humanizers" of Washington. But even though Washington's reputation may have suffered at the hands of some 20th-century biographers who sought his every wart and indiscretion, there has been no shortage of works in the last two decades that have given Washington his full due. And so, we are left to wonder: why this book? Why is Richard Brookhiser so determined to save George Washington and from what? And who is going to save George Washington from Richard Brookhiser?

Tom Linthicum, administrative editor at The Sun, is in charge of budget and personnel. He was the paper's metropolitan editor for eight years and before that, a local reporter.

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