O Captain, Our Captain

George Washington was a genius and a titan, but it was politics, not war, at which he excelled


It was said of Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck that he was the subtle son of his feline mother posing all his life as his heavy, portentous father. Similarly, the George Washington who emerges from this truly magnificent life is an acute, consummate politician who posed all his life—with next to no justification—as a bluff but successful soldier. The pose came off because Washington himself so desperately wanted it to be true, but Ron Chernow wrenches back the curtain to reveal the real Washington, a general almost bereft of tactical ability yet a politician full of penetrating strategic insight. In this (English, anti-Revolutionary) reviewer’s estimation, Washington emerges a far greater man.

Washington: A Life

By Ron Chernow
The Penguin Press, 904 pages, $40


‘Washington’ (1975) by Alex Katz

Six-feet tall, immensely strong, with the muscular thighs of a superb horseman—he was an almost obsessive rider to hounds—Washington was "made like a hero," as Mr. Chernow puts it, despite having a small head in proportion to his frame. Nor did his "weak, breathy voice" and lack of oratorical ability detract from his image as a man of action.

A formidable but unloving mother and the death of his father when Washington was 11 instilled in him a ravening ambition. There was, believes Mr. Chernow, a "constant struggle between his dignified reserve and his underlying feelings," especially a tempestuous temper. Thomas Jefferson recalled him being "most tremendous in wrath."

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