Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: 'Washington - A Life'

Dusting Off an Elusive President’s Dull Image

The New York Times
September 27, 2010

By Ron Chernow
Illustrated. 904 pages. The Penguin Press. $40.

When George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States, he had only one original tooth left. It was “a lonely lower left bicuspid,” according to Ron Chernow’s vast and tenaciously researched new biography. But Mr. Chernow was not content merely to write about the tooth and its larger implications, which range from questions about Washington’s apparent reticence in later life (did his dental troubles keep him from speaking?) to his harshly pragmatic attitude toward slavery (he purchased slaves’ teeth, perhaps for use in dentures). Mr. Chernow also paid a personal visit to the tooth at the medical library where it is stored.

His thoroughness in “Washington: A Life” is prompted by the Papers of George Washington, a research project that has been under way at the University of Virginia since 1968, has passed the 60-volume mark and is nowhere near complete. Mr. Chernow argues that this project has unearthed enough new material to warrant “a large-scale, one-volume, cradle-to-grave narrative” about Washington, despite the excellent work of biographers including Joseph J. Ellis and James T. Flexner and the reading public’s impression that the story of Washington’s life is already well known.

The sheer volume of new research easily validates Mr. Chernow’s effort. But “Washington” also has a simpler raison d’Ăªtre. It means to dust off Washington’s image, penetrate the opacity that can most generously be called “sphinxlike” and replace readers’ “frosty respect” for Washington with “visceral appreciation.” In other words, Mr. Chernow, who made a similar effort to inject excitement into the Alexander Hamilton story, has taken on an even greater challenge this time.

“Something essential about Washington has been lost to posterity, making him seem a worthy but plodding man who somehow stumbled into greatness,” Mr. Chernow writes at the start. And Washington truly “ranks as the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved.”

But it soon becomes clear in “Washington” that there are legitimate reasons for why Washington’s popularity (at least among biography readers) has been eclipsed by showy and protean figures like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Those founding fathers liked to make their ideas and opinions widely known; Washington once claimed indignantly that his face never betrayed his feelings.

Washington seldom had simple reasons for taking action, and whatever his motives, he rarely liked to tip his hand. He was not well educated. He was not a philosopher. And “in a century of sterling wits, George Washington never stood out for his humor,” Mr. Chernow writes, “but he had a bawdy streak and relished hearty, masculine jokes.”

He was also known as a harsh taskmaster, a regalia-loving clotheshorse, a fanatic for fastidious details (he chose the living creatures that surrounded him, whether soldiers or white horses, by exact physical specifications), a literal slave driver and a chilly commander. Mr. Chernow tells the possibly apocryphal story of how Hamilton conned his fellow founding father Gouverneur Morris into glad-handing Washington with “a friendly slap on the shoulder” and lived to regret it. Washington famously did not like to be touched.

But that was the old Washington. The new one that emerges from Mr. Chernow’s account is more human and accessible. And although “Washington” never takes an overly psychoanalytical tack, it does find one big reason for its subject’s lifelong aloofness and hauteur: his mother, Mary Ball Washington.

“With more to brag about than any other mother in American history, she took no evident pride in her son’s accomplishments,” Mr. Chernow writes. “His Excellency! What nonsense!” she once exclaimed about her famous son.

“Washington” has an enormous span, even if some of its content is familiar from other overlapping biographies. (Mr. Chernow often falls back on his earlier insights into the Hamilton-Jefferson infighting that colored Washington’s presidency.) But it captures the ambitious, proud and sharp-elbowed prodigy that Washington was in his early 20s, when his renown during the French and Indian War catapulted him into military leadership.

And in a book that pays meticulous attention to the decisions made by Washington during wartime, with a step-by-step march through the eight years of Revolutionary War battles, Mr. Chernow arrives at a carefully considered assessment of his subject’s capabilities. He sees the successes and failures of Washington’s military decisions. But he places much higher value on the great man’s political instincts and shows how they rarely failed him. And he argues that Washington’s ability to hold his soldiers together and set a proud, stoical example mattered more than any individual battle could.

At 900-odd densely packed pages, “Washington” can be arid at times. But it’s also deeply rewarding as a whole, and it does genuinely amplify and recast our perceptions of Washington’s importance. When his presidency begins, “Washington” becomes a mini-“Team of Rivals,” complete with stellar cast and monumentally important issues to be faced. This new portrait offers a fresh sense of what a groundbreaking role Washington played, not only in physically embodying his new nation’s leadership but also in interpreting how its newly articulated constitutional principles would be applied. A more ostentatiously regal leader could never have accomplished as much as this seemingly reluctant hero achieved.

“Washington” also devotes great attention to the harsh criticism that Washington faced as soon as the luster faded and the governing began. As president, missing his beloved Mount Vernon and incurring great financial losses to serve as head of state, he was carped about so relentlessly that even his way of tapping a fork at the dinner table could become fodder for malicious gossip.

Mr. Chernow describes both the pettiness of these complaints and the gravity of other, more important ones, most crucially Washington’s behavior as a slave owner. The book doggedly follows the changeable, inconsistent, sometimes flagrantly dishonest Washington through a morass of contradictory gestures, and Mr. Chernow works hard to parse this material with a judicious eye.

The best he can do, and the best Washington allows, is this revealing passage: “With a politician’s instinct, Washington spoke to different people in different voices. When addressing other Virginia planters, he spoke in the cold, hard voice of practicality, whereas when dealing with Revolutionary comrades, he blossomed into an altruist.”

How fully can these contradictions be fathomed? The father of our country remains a moving target for historians, no matter how many of his letters and papers come to light.

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