George Washington getting makeover as an action hero

Mount Vernon group uses technology to redo first president's image

September 15, 2002|By Stephen Kinzer | Stephen Kinzer,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOUNT VERNON, Va. - Say goodbye to the stern and remote George Washington, the boring one who wore a powdered wig, had wooden teeth and always told the truth.

Embrace instead the action hero of the 18th century, a swashbuckling warrior who survived wild adventures, led brilliant military campaigns, directed spy rings and fell in love with his best friend's wife.

That is the new message from the people who run Mount Vernon, the estate where Washington spent much of his life and where more than 1 million people go each year to learn about him. Stirred to action by what they say is an appalling decline in what visitors know about Washington, they have embarked on a radical course.

Their goal is to reposition the father of the country for a new era. Among the tools they plan to use are holograms, computer imagery, surround-sound audio programs and a live-action film made by Steven Spielberg's production company. The film may be shown in a theater equipped with seats that rumble and pipes that shoot battlefield smoke into the audience.

"We used to be so discreet that we didn't want to display Washington's dentures," said James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon. "When we finally broke down and showed them, they turned out to be a sensation. That taught us something."

Criticism, support

The new plans have stirred some critics to warn that Washington is being transformed into a "G.I. George" and Mount Vernon into "MTV Vernon." But perhaps more tellingly, they have won support from many scholars who are in a state of near panic after watching Washington all but disappear from the national consciousness in the space of a single generation.

"When teachers and curriculum planners and textbook authors look at the founding fathers today, they see too many white males," said David W. Saxe, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University who studies American history textbooks.

"George Washington is dissipating from the textbooks. He's still mentioned, but you don't spend a week in February talking about him, doing plays and reciting the farewell address. In the interest of being inclusive, material about women and minorities is taking the place of material about the founders of our country," Saxe said.

Saxe called Mount Vernon's solution drastic but said he had put aside his concerns.

"What they're doing is sorely needed," he said. "They aren't overdoing it because you can't overdo it."

George Washington's stately, columned mansion sits on a rolling 500-acre tract overlooking the Potomac River.

The estate and its immediate grounds have been owned since 1858 by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, which has earned a reputation much like Washington's own: conservative, staid and remote.

A faulty assumption

For more than a century, directors of Mount Vernon concentrated on the limited mission of preserving Washington's home and explaining his interest in farming. The rest of his life, they could safely assume, was being fully taught in classrooms.

Over the last few years, however, several studies at Mount Vernon and elsewhere have made clear that this assumption is no longer valid. Fewer people than ever seem to know that Washington was a frontier surveyor who fought Indians and by his mid-20s was already one of the most famous people in North America. Nor do they realize that he shaped a ragtag band of farmers into an army that won American independence, presided over the Constitutional Convention and, as first president of the new United States, whipped 13 reluctant colonies into a union destined to become one of the world's most influential nations.

"He did something about an apple tree," said Jackie Whaley, an 18-year-old high school student from Texas who visited Mount Vernon on a recent morning.

Her friend Jenny DeStefano offered an answer. "He cut it down," she said.

Not so long ago, Washington's portrait hung in countless classrooms, his birthday was a separate national holiday, and his exploits and achievements were taught in almost every elementary and secondary school. Today, the portraits are gone and the birthday (along with Lincoln's) has morphed into Presidents Day.

By comparing textbooks used in the 1960s with those of today, researchers at Mount Vernon have concluded that Washington is now accorded just 10 percent of the space he had then.

42 percent recognition

A recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that while 99 percent of students at 55 top universities could identify the cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-Head and 98 percent knew of the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, just 42 percent could name Washington as the man who was called "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." More than three-quarters of those universities do not require a single course in American history.

And although several best-selling books have awakened new interest in the Revolutionary generation, Washington has not been among the beneficiaries.

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