George Washington is the leading man in historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s first venture as a TV producer, a docudrama that follows his growth from ambitious young soldier to statesman.
Spoiler alert for “Washington,” airing 8 p.m. EST Sunday through Tuesday on the History channel: The future president does tell a lie, and it’s a dismaying whopper. In the series that combines reenactments with expert commentary, myth gives way to checkered reality without diminishing his stature.
Nicholas Rowe (“The Crown,” “Young Sherlock Holmes") plays Washington in re-creations of pivotal moments in his adult life, with historians including Jon Meacham and Annette Gordon-Reed and former Secretary of State Colin Powell among those providing context and insights.
Although producing is new to Kearns Goodwin, her knack for narrative is on display in books including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt chronicle, “No Ordinary Time,” and “Team of Rivals,” about President Abraham Lincoln’s wartime cabinet that included William Seward and Salmon Chase. It was adapted for Stephen Spielberg’s Oscar-winning “Lincoln.”
Goodwin spoke with The Associated Press about the making of a leader and connecting the dots between history and current events. Excerpts from the interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: Why did you choose to profile George Washington, and why now?
Goodwin: In any kind of difficult time like now, being able to look back at leadership that was strong, that got us through troubled times, that you can learn from how that leader worked, is a good thing. We lived through a time when we might not have become the country we have. The revolution could have been lost. The presidency might have been really different. What ends the series is (Washington's) farewell address, and it is so timely a warning against party strife and what that can do for possible corruption or the influence of foreign nations, and the importance of retaining that sense of an American patriotism.
AP: You don't mention the current president, Donald Trump, or his administration in interviews. Are you leaving it to your readers and audience to contrast the past and present?
Goodwin: I like to use the echo of history. There’s such similarities between the turn of the 19th century, the turn of the 20th century and now. There was a gap between the rich and the poor, immigrants coming in from abroad. There’s new inventions that are making people nervous. There's people in the country feeling cut off from people in the city. There's a nostalgia for an earlier way of life, producing populism and anti-Wall Street, anti-immigrant (fervor). What eventually gets us out of that is that Teddy Roosevelt comes along for a square deal for the capitalist and the wage worker, rather than William Jennings Bryan or some of the real conservatives on the other side.
AP: In researching the Washington series, what surprised you about him?
Goodwin: I knew the facts about George Washington, but I never conjured him alive in my mind. I think in part it has to do with the pictures we see. He's old, he's stiff. I now can picture Washington as a young man. He’s young, and he's making mistakes and he's covering them. There was a student at a college, after I'd given a lecture on (former presidents), who asked, ‘How can I ever become one of them? They’re on Mount Rushmore. They’re too distant.’ But when they’d go through a run for office for the first time, they were going to lose. They were going to be cocky or they'd made misjudgments. And that’s what one of the experts says in the series: This is Washington, warts and all. He wasn’t born great. He took a journey to greatness.
AP: You spend years researching your books, essentially living with the people you write about. Do you ever get bored with them?
Goodwin: You have to choose your subjects. I happened to be up in Seward's house in upstate New York and I knew he had a thousand letters to his wife, and I got interested in him. And I got interested in Chase. It took two or three years before I had a team of rivals. But then you don't get bored because you've got a whole bunch of people that you're studying, and you're looking at them and their relationship to Lincoln in a different way. If I were going to write about George, I would have had to have George and something other. But this (TV project) was perfect.”
Lynn Elber can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/elber
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