- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008


By Richard Brookhiser

Basic Books, $26, 272 pages


Richard Brookhiser is one of the half dozen top-tier writers of popular but thorough history - think David McCulloch or Doris Kearns Goodwin. As such he is under immense publisher pressure to crank out product to fill our appetite for good biographical narrative.

So we should forgive him if this book does not rise to the level of his previous histories of George Washington, the Adamses, Alexander Hamilton, and other Founding Fathers. Everyone deserves a breather now and then.

“George Washington on Leadership” is not, as it appears to be, yet another self-help guide for wanna-be CEO’s even though it provides familiar bullet-point habits of a highly effective Founding Father. This is no rival for Lee Iacocca’s “Autobiography” which has been the model for the ambitious executive since it was written in 1984.

Instead this is Mr. Brookhiser holding a relaxed conversation about his favorite topic - how did George Washington become George Washington? So what we have is a nice present for someone who already is a seasoned devotee of our first president as well as for the venturous first-timer dipping into the endless stream of Founding Fathers history.

One of the problems in reading history is the tendency to apply our contemporary frame of values on the reality of life back then. So there is a temptation to wince slightly when Mr. Brookhiser begins his catalogue of Washington’s strengths with a story about latrines and bodily functions.

Yet that is the point of Washington’s gift of spotting important tasks among the quotidian vexations of soldiering. It turns out that one of his fixations upon taking command in 1775 of the rag-tag Continental Army that had the British bottled up in Boston was not about drilling, or saluting, or shiny buttons. Rather it was on latrines and the desperate need to keep digging them, filling them in when full, and digging new ones.

Or as Mr. Brookhiser notes about the largely rural farm boys who made up his troops, “on a hundred acres one could be casual.” In coarse context, “Congress had created an army of 20,000 men. Given an average diet and average health, they would produce about 20,000 bowel movements per day.” It’s a sobering thought that Washington’s explicit orders about building and maintaining latrines in camp had to be constantly repeated and rigorously enforced time and again by intervention of the commander in chief himself over the entire course of the war. One could almost say the War of Independence was a War of Sanitation.

A lot of the strengths that Mr. Brookhiser says brought Washington success came from the common sense ability to recognize necessities and to take chances to make up for handicaps. He took men from farms, shops and fishing smacks and not only made soldiers of them, he created first class generals out of a surprising number. Henry Knox is a classic example of a bookshop owner whose gift for the use of artillery turned the American cannon into a force superior to British firepower on countless occasions.

Washington also had the gift of binding men to him emotionally. The Marquis de Lafayette arrived as a foppish French nobleman, became a son to the general, and turned himself into an able field commander. Nathanael Greene was another layman who failed in an early battle but - backed by his boss - went on to win back the South from a larger British force.

As schoolchildren we all learned of the more dramatic crises that Washington overcame during his eight years as our war chief. The bleak despair of Valley Forge, the desperate gamble at Trenton, the forced march that caught Cornwallis finally at Yorktown, they all pale before a lesser known confrontation when Washington almost lost a large part of his own officer corps and the war as well.

In 1783, a band of officers stationed at Newburgh, N.Y., began to plot a strike to protest the fact that they had not been paid; it was a strike that was dangerously near treason and the threat of desertion. The events at Newburgh were closely watched by other regiments of the Army elsewhere; if they went home, the war effort could implode.

As Mr. Brookhiser recounts, Washington faced them and made a dramatic personal appeal. The author reports, “His gestures fitted his argument. I have grown gray in your service, and now find myself growing blind, he told the officers when he put on his reading glasses.”

Washington reminded his officers, “I have never left your side one moment… I have been the constant companion and witness of your distresses, and not the last to feel and acknowledge your merits.” Reminded of his loyalty to them, they stayed loyal to him, if not to the cause.

Perhaps most interesting are the chapters Mr. Brookhiser devotes to Washington’s life during the presidency and afterward when other Founding Fathers drifted away from the common cause that he had led and began to follow their own ambitions. With prima donnas like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Gouverneur Morris and Alexander Hamilton, one should not be surprised if Washington’s portraits show him in a dour and faintly suspicious mood.

What must have frustrated all who chafed in Washington’s shadow was his seemingly effortless skill at checkmating their challenges with seemingly simple common sense actions. It may be that Washington was simply smarter than his rivals and the story Mr. Brookhiser tells points us to some proofs in a very readable manner.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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