'He was a man of action'

A PBS documentary rediscovers George Washington

It's been said many times before, but, well, George Washington was a really great man. He was so great, he actually lived up to his highest ideals – as they unfolded to him.

"Rediscovering George Washington" (PBS, July 4, check local listings) reminds viewers just how vital the great man was to our national identity. And it's also a glorious story of extraordinary wisdom.

Historian Richard Brookhiser and director Michael Pack integrate the historical record with the current realities of ordinary (and famous) Americans. The reconsideration of American history is a hot topic since Sept. 11, and this film is worthy of our best Independence Day celebrations.

Mr. Brookhiser does not follow a chronological pattern to reveal Washington's character. Instead, he divides the film into sections such as "politics" and "constancy," examining Washington's skill as a general, a politician, a farmer, a self-taught scholar, a man of conscience and principle, and a hero in his own time.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of Washington's character was that he "was a man of action who absorbed the best ideas of his day and then made them real and lived up to them," Brookhiser says.

Yes, Washington was a slaveholder who profited from the labor of slaves until his death. But of the nine United States presidents who held slaves, he was the only one to free all of his slaves in his will. He did come to realize that slavery was inconsistent with the ideals of the republic. And he did try to rectify the wrong he had done.

Brookhiser visits the descendants of one of Washington slaves, who explain that Washington was a good man who should not be judged by current standards. It's an amazing scene.

But the film is full of amazing moments. Brookhiser presents many paintings of Washington, explaining how they capture the world's view of the great man. He compares one of the paintings to a painting of Napoleon by the greatest French artist of his day. It's a telling moment – aesthetically, humanly, historically, and politically. Brookhiser wants us to grasp the difference between the leader of the American Revolution and all other revolutionary leaders.

Washington was the first such leader in 2,000 years to relinquish great power once he had held it. And he did it twice – both as a general at the end of the war and as president, who stepped down from office after two terms.

One of the best things about the film is the integration of Revolutionary War reenactments, interviews with the reenactors, and the facts of history. "The American Revolution came out well," said Brookhiser in a recent interview, "but it didn't have to ... it could have gone another way."

He wants to get people to think differently about Washington, who is no cartoon hero. His life was not an inevitability. Things could have gone much worse, and there are good reasons why they didn't.

One inescapable revelation of the film is just how little most of us learned in school about Washington's life, his political savvy, and his strategies of war.

For too long, Washington was treated by historical "debunkers" as a not-so-bright farmer who accomplished all he did by luck or the good work of others.

Brookhiser wants us to understand "how hard [Washington] worked at his life and at his career. It was so important to him to get it right. It's not just a matter of his success in the world – it's a matter of the success of a revolution and of a country's happiness."

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