Being George Washington
A Live Blog Review
11/25/2011 2:23 PM
This review is not about Glenn Beck.
Whatever, you think of Glenn Beck; many of the parents of my students listen to him on radio, subscribe to his television network (GBTV), and read his books.
In this new book Being George Washington, from now on BGW, Beck engages in an old classical tradition. He uses historical example to teach an important lesson. Glenn Beck, like Plutarch or Weems, is less interested in the details than in the big picture.
Why did Washington matter and what can we learn from him today?
Two notes: I am not a historian so cannot “fact check” the book, but
it is not a history book in any case. The book is sermon using a historical figure, in this case George Washington, as an example. I am competent to critique a sermon. Second, I am typing these notes as I read. The time stamps are real time. I will not proof this piece, but will give my thoughts as a go in “live blog” form.
11/25/2011 2:31 PM
Beck argues he is Washington and that we all can be Washington. What does that mean? Beck claims Washington was a flawed man that became great by moral rectitude and endurance. His flaws range from the vile, owning slaves, to the ridiculous, immoderate consumption of ice cream, but Washington’s accomplishments were profound.
Is the book going to recommend a civic Pelagianism, we can save our nation by good works? I hope not. Beck will certainly include God, but will God only be allowed to play a role?
The book has a chatty style, but is very readable. It contains many “hooks” to tie Washington’s life to the present day that seem forced (like the mention of Twitter), but this is much better written than the Palin autobiography I live blogged earlier.
11/25/2011 2:36 PM
Washington is presented in battle. The book uses a “fictionalized” account of the disastrous Battle of Monongahela.
Washington is presented as a brave leader, one protected by Providence. He also learns the British can be defeated. The Man of Destiny begins his career in defeat.
The “you are there” style of history can work, but the prose here is clunky. There are too many stock phrases used to make it work for me.
Oddly, Beck as Beck read more cleanly.
11/25/2011 2:50 PM
Chapter 1: Victory or Death
The book jumps to the Revolutionary War. It assumes some knowledge of the chronology of the times: good for it! If the French and Indian War is unknown to the reader, he is going to feel lost. Why was Washington fighting with the British in the Introduction and against them here?
The book assumes you passed seventh grade Social Studies and remember some of it.
The prose continues to overuse stock phrases. Adjectives are everywhere: “bony face froze in fear.”
The Revolution is in trouble. Washington is being attacked by British troops and second-raters in the patriot cause.
(Can anyone stand Granny Gates? Only Gentleman John Burgoyne could have lost a battle to him.)
11/25/2011 3:04 PM
Chapter Two: the Harder the Conflict, the More Glorious the Triumph
Getting ready to attack Princeton, Tom Paine is read to the troops. Paine, like Lafayette, managed to be in the right cause, but for no good reasons. He defended that cause well, but that became an excuse for any number of foolish decisions later in life.
Paine, however, like the arch-hypocrite Jefferson could write better than he lived and Beck quotes him at this glorious best.
This chapter is really working. The tough weather faced by the Americans is astounding as was the bold stroke of Washington’s attack. Even knowing how it turned out, the suspense builds.
Just as the tension builds, James Madison (!) wounded, the battle is over. We are shown the results of the battle for both sides: confusion on the British, hope for the Americans.
The pacing here is poor . . . we built up slowly and ended too quickly. The near loss of Madison was a fact I had forgotten, if I ever knew it. The genius of the Constitution almost was lost as a young man.
11/25/2011 3:21 PM
Chapter 3: When None Expected Much, He did the Unexpected
(I take a break from reading here.)
Back to Becks voice, as he preaches the lesson from the last chapter in what sounds like a transcript of his speaking.
Beck rightly points to the humility of Washington as compared to the vainglory of his subordinates.
Beck manages to deploy every stereotype of the English, including an attack on the royal family. Really, Elizabeth II has been a better head of state for fifty years than almost any American president (see Carter, Jimmy or Ford, Gerald) in the same role. The English appear to be the last group that you can stereotype physically (teeth!).
Beck presents Washington as a man with a firm moral code who was also brave and could act. He was trustworthy, but not impotent as a result. This is presented as the clue to how Washington sustained the trust of the nation during the Revolution, even to the point of getting extraordinary powers.
Would Glenn Beck today allow a president, even one with the character of Washington, such powers? Would the right take down a leader in an emergency just for asking?
Washington believed in his destiny, and following a long American tradition Beck presents the evidence of God’s protection of Washington. Napoleon and Hitler each believed they were under a lucky star, but bloated by this belief became tyrants. Beck is right to note Washington’s moderation in the face of his “luck.”
Some of us use power and fortune to gain more power presuming on Providence. Washington learned humility from it.
An interesting feature of this chapter is that contains a back-and-forth on Washington’s spy network. Apparently, a few argue that he got key intelligence from a man named Honeyman, but most historians disagree. Since Beck uses him throughout the chapter, the digression to say: “Well, no, probably not,” was interesting.
The book’s blend of historic fiction and fact-checking is odd, but may work. Beck is making the point that Washington relied on providence, but did not presume on it. The General used Intel to aid his cause. It is not relevant to Beck’s point whether the legendary Honeyman was the spy Washington used or not.
Beck does seem happy to pass on legends (Betsy Ross giving her all for the cause?) if they are too good not to be true. At least he notes they are legends. . .
Beck makes an interesting point here about legends and history. Betsy Ross is a placeholder for the persons who did make the first flag and delay a commander to allow victory. The Patriots did suffer, they did need shoes, and a fictional character simply humanizes the story.
As long as we remember the difference, no harm is done. On a personal note the book “Johnny Tremain” helped me in just this way as a boy far more than many lessons in school.
Beck points out that though we may not achieve as much as Washington, we can have his greatness of character. This will allow for personal greatness, even if nobody notices it.
Again, a good point, if hastily made.
11/25/2011 3:47 PM
Chapter 4: A Valley Forged of Despair
(I do some chores here.)
Sigh: “windswept countryside.”
Does anyone actually still know what it means for a garment to be threadbare? Why do we keep using expressions past their sell by date? Will we still use “sell by date” long after no product has one?
Valley Forge was not a valley. Like learning the date of the October Revolution in Russian history, hearing this fact is one of the amazing moments in any American history class.
So small were the new states, that the Valley Forge encampment was the fourth largest city while it existed.
Washington was a gambler, another vice. How many great men share it?
Daniel Morgan saved Washington, but more the loyalty of his troops saved Washington. They would fight only for their commander. How did he inspire such devotion?
One thing Beck points out: Washington won when Steuben and others made the Americans an army. There was a reason English professionals fought as they did. Unless the circumstances were right, amateurs always lost. Washington gradually made the American army professional.
11/25/2011 4:08 PM
(I stop to do some Christmas shopping!)
Beck recounts the genuine horrors of Valley Forge.
He compares Washington to Job: a man formed by suffering. I do think that Beck misses the point of the Job story. The point of Job is not hanging in there to get more treats later: Job sees God. The treats do come, but they are incidental.
Job becomes fit by suffering with integrity to speak to God, but then learns how unfit he really is! God reveals that without His love no man could stand. Job learns the humility of love.
Washington and his men, I think, learned that lesson at Valley Forge. They did not fight from that point forward for the treats to come, few would get such prizes. They fought for each other out of love born in humility. The General had led them to Dante’s icy hell and out and they loved him.
That did not keep them from complaining, they were free men, but Washington and his men gained a great bond of love. This actually increases the power of Beck’s central point that Washington’s character meant he could be trusted with an army that loved him.
Napoleon couldn’t, Washington could.
Beck’s Washington was a man of sorrows. His health alone makes tough reading. But Beck is right that Washington learned from each earlier bout of suffering to survive and even to thrive. He learned lessons he used later.
This is very valuable.
Beck says “Put your country above yourself. Always.”
Washington did and we should do so as well.
This is true, if we remember that we should put our God above our country. Always. I think Beck assumes this, but it is worth stating.
Beck is calling for an end of selfishness.
A man who loves himself and his reputation more than his neighbor is no good for leadership.
An oddity about Washington: he owned slaves, but enrolled freed African-Americans in the army. He was better than his heritage, but never escaped it fully.
Washington is also presented as an innovator. He was not a great general, but he defeated better commanders by breaking the “rules.”
Unlike many such men, Washington also knew that the rules mattered and so he found people to teach his troops the rules!
Beck points out that Howe loved comfort and played by the rules. Both were fatal to the Tory cause.
The uselessness of the Congress of that period makes our present group look wise. Beck rightly lacerates them, but misses the point. Government by committee never works, but we need the great men to be George Washington. The ideal situation for liberty is a good great man working for a committee, because it produces the needed balance!
Washington deferred to the fools in Philadelphia, because he knew that liberty required it.
Give Beck credit for pointing out that the evidence of Washington in prayer in a grove at Valley Forge is sketchy and extra credit for a Washington quote thanking the great “Author” for Divine aid there. The image of Washington at prayer is true to his attitudes, even if he did not kneel in a literal grove.
The truth of the story matters. We should get it right, but some “skeptics” miss the point of the myth (if myth it was). Washington prayed and thanked Providence for victory. Such humility can be faked, but Washington’s cautious use of power is evidence it was not.
Chapter 6: Whom Can We Trust Now?
(After dinner and a movie!)
When I taught seventh grade social studies a lifetime ago, the saddest story was Benedict Arnold.
Most college students now know nothing of the man, I am lucky if they know his name means “traitor.” Beck tells his cautionary tale in this chapter.
Arnold was the hero of Saratoga, the most important victory of the early days of the War. He saved the battle and the Revolution and was crippled for the rest of his life from wounds suffered there.
The monument of his boot always set my students to thinking about the corrupting nature of fame.
This is a much better chapter. Beck tells battle stories badly, but corrupt city life well. He does seem to blame loving a woman for every problem so far. Falling in love is as fatal to a man in this book as it is in a Joss Whedon television program.
This was far and away the best chapter of the book so far. The pacing was excellent and the suspense well done. Washington’s actual words are blended into the fiction well.
11/26/2011 9:15 AM
Chapter 7: A Tale of Two Founders
I return to the book after a night of jollification with my family. My brother in particular reminds me of George Washington. Daniel is a man of rectitude and high honor. He has passed up many chances because they did not fit his ideals.
In a different age, he would be sought out. In this age, people wonder if he is foolish. I know him to be a gentleman.
In any case, I return to Beck.
Beck draws his conclusions from the story of Arnold and they are sound.
First, Beck points out that life is made up of choices. Arnold was dealt a bad hand, but he chose to become a hero. He did. When further struggles came, Arnolds tried to parlay his heroism into riches. He failed. Instead, he became a traitor.
Second, Beck points out that one bad choice for Arnold was his wife. It is overlooked in this age, but a man or woman can be measured by the person they choose as their closest ally. Washington chose wisely, Arnold superficially.
Third, Beck notes that Arnolds teaches us to be on constant guard. Arnold was undone by greed motivated (perhaps) by love and ego.
Quashing ego is important at all times, but in a leader vital.
God help me.
The chapter gets lost by talking about George Washington and mercy.
The execution of Major Andre seems a poor time to point out this fact. An anecdote from the French and Indian War seems out of place.
Eventually Beck gets to the point: Washington was a man of honor. He would not allow Andre to be treated differently merely because he was a nice guy or of high social status.
Washington chose honor, Arnold wealth. Arnold ended reviled, Washington the “father of his country.”
Credit to Beck for leaving a comfortable job and risking it all on a project he believes to be vital (GBTV). But I wonder if naming everything after Glenn Beck is wise? It makes marketing sense, but is
it the way of Washington? Did Washington pick the name of the city in D.C.?
(Here there is a bit of unchecked legend spreading. Did Arnold really die in his patriot jacket?)
11/26/2011 9:32 AM
Chapter 8: the War Turns at Yorktown
Getting someone to fix a leaking toilet, delayed reading this chapter: the times that try men’s souls or at least the busted toilet that tried men’s bowels.
The decision to attack Yorktown is dramatized in this chapter. Beck reminds us that the war was a near thing and that much depended on the will to fight. The British navy meant England could never lose, but the British were growing weary. The American cause with French aid could win, but only if they could find a way to force a decisive Saratoga scale victory. If the Brits stayed near the coast, that seemed impossible.
The French fleet came and Washington headed to a British army unaware it would soon be trapped in Yorktown.
Three ideas from this chapter:
First, endurance wins wars.
Second, to endure Washington had to keep an army in the field. It is common to denigrate Washington as a general, but nobody doubts that only he could have kept the army intact.
Third, mobility matters. Control the sea (and now the air) and you cannot really lose. America and the Vietnamese “lost” the battle for Vietnam, but America won the Cold War because our army could leave intact. Magnificent retreats can win a war, even if they mark a lost battle.
Libya made that lesson plain again. If you cannot protect yourself from the sea and air, you have no army.
11/26/2011 11:31 AM
Chapter 9: Yorktown Falls
(One aside: the new Cloud Reader on Amazon makes this job easy. It is a nice piece of software.)
Cornwallis strikes me (and his later career suggests) as a competent commander trapped by fate and genius. Good men lose to great ones . . . and to Providence?
A family note:
A Reynolds was probably at this battle to see the end serving with the Patriots. My family had come to Virginia in the early seventeenth century from England and now were Virginians fighting for the greatest Virginian to become Americans.
Back to Beck:
Yorktown, Beck points out, was not the end of the war, but the British could no longer win. It was a matter of how badly they would lose or what terms they would give the new Americans.
Chapter 10: The World Turned Upside Down
Washington, and the French fleet, wins the battle.
Beck points out that Washington had a rare combination of humility and preparation.
And it is at this point I would ask Beck: did you use a ghost-writer? If you did not, then this is a job well done. If you did, then where is the humility in having your own name as the only one on the cover?
Why don’t we know his name? Washington was quick to praise God and his subordinates, but the inside of the book tells me that “Glenn Beck” is a trade name!
This chapter says that Americans can spot a phony. I don’t know. Are these your words, your research Mr. Beck? If not, if it is a collaboration, then what is the harm in letting us know your actual role?
I know how hard it is to write.
Part of being George Washington, it seems to me, is giving credit where it is due.
If Beck wrote this book himself, then this is a great thing and I am sorry our culture of ghostwriting makes me suspect him when he is guiltless. While not history, this is a fine work using history to make good points, but I fear that the message would be undercut if a Cult of Beck allowed other people’s work to be sold as Beck’s.
What harm in telling us the Lafayette or Knox who made this decent work? If you supervised, then take that credit. We know Walt Disney did not draw the cartoons himself!
But enough of that . . .
Beck points to the religious reaction to the Revolution. He is right to comment that we are, and always have been a religious people. To secularize our history is to do injustice to it. It also points to a limit to historical writing.
Historians use only natural causes when explaining events. They are right to limit themselves in that way, but it is up to writers, philosophers, and theologians to look for the hand of Providence.
Augustine warns us that it is not easy to see. Habakkuk cautions against seeing God only on the winning side. Beck does not fall into most of these traps. He sees that defeat can shape character as much as victory.
If he sees God’s hand in forming America, then I agree with him. We may be wrong, but there is evidence to support the claim. A free Britain must be glad that in 1941 there was a nation ready to help with all the bravery of Canadians (who fought so well for the Empire), but the power of this massive Republic.
11/26/2011 12:00 PM
Chapter 11: Grey in your Service
Washington faces an enemy greater than the British: Congressional impotence.
The Articles of Confederation left Congress with too little power to support the Army. Beck reminds conservatives that we need a strong central government. If it has grown too strong lately, it once was too weak.
I hope many of us get the point. The libertarian delusion is just that and those who would not vote Washington the supplies and power he needed to wage war nearly snatched defeat from the hand of Victory.
This was far and away the best chapter so far. It is a familiar story to my generation, but perhaps not to younger folk. Washington’s men were tired of waiting to be paid and supplied. They were tired of being put off and Congress had grown fearful of them.
Civil war threatened.
Washington tried to talk them out of it, but words were no good. It was when he had to pull out his glasses to read a message from Congress, and his men realized that the Iron man had grown old in their service that they came toward him. They loved him and that was enough.
I think that the greatness of Washington is here. His men trusted him and could love him without fear that he would use them for bad or personal ends.
He grew grey in their service. I am a bit ashamed to admit that I cried when I read this chapter.
Chapter 12: A Moment of Crisis, a Lifetime of Preparation
Beck is honest enough to point out that historians question whether civil war was really averted by Washington that day. Perhaps, this is true.
But the event happened and it seemed to men, both at the time and in the next one hundred years, that something big had happened.
Perhaps, they were telling themselves stories, but this they knew: Napoleon went from President to Emperor to Tyrant and Washington went home.
Napoleon grew corpulent in his tyranny and Washington grew gray in their service.
These were facts and men gave them meaning. Historians are right to wonder if the meaning was overblown, perhaps America had other chances or less dramatic tipping points, but Washington still went home.
It mattered. It still matters.
Beck points at the start of the chapter to Washington’s prudence and I rejoiced. Prudence is not much in fashion. I certainly have not been a prudent man for most of my life, nor does Beck strike me as one!
And yet, I am learning the value of that great virtue: moderation. Perhaps Beck is learning it as well.
Beck makes the point that Washington did not simply cling to the Confederation: he questioned with boldness. Well done, Glenn Beck. A call to Socratic courage is much needed on the right just now.
11/26/2011 12:29 PM
Chapter 13: To Please All is Impossible
This part of the book is so much better written. What happened? Gone are the overdone adjectives. Gone is the choppiness. Did this part get written first and the first part added? Was the first part butchered in hasty editing to shorten a too short book?
It seems odd that such a brief book is getting better. The desire to appeal to God during the trying days of the Convention and Hamilton’s reaction to it were illuminating. Some men are always “practical” in meetings, other men pray, and some men are Washington and do both.
A thought: since you do not use dialectic much in the book do not use the word “Miz” when a slave speaks.
Washington is shown as willing to compromise, even on big issues, and this was a good thing. Shouldn’t this end facile use of the “flip-flop” charge?
Men of good character use politics to get what they can. Politics is an art, not a science after all!
Think Beck, think. This means Romney, Huntsman, and others may not be “RINO” types. Yes?
Shouldn’t we look at that their lives, their character?
11/26/2011 12:46 PM
Chapter 14: Little Short of a Miracle
This chapter falls short of the last few.
First, Beck is right to point out that Washington had little formal education, but was educated. Formal education can limit a man and our present system of credentialing is nearly useless for most Americans.
But Beck is wrong to attack the curriculum of schools like Bowdoin. It limits him too much. The problem is not learning what women’s studies can teach us, but that other ideas are not taught. The response to Bowdoin should be to learn more, Washington and women’s studies, not less.
Get a classical grounding and then go out and think about everything.
Beck was right to question everything and one thing he should question is whether all “new” studies are merely ideological. Isn’t there something to be redeemed there.
Fear nothing, Glenn Beck.
Formal education is good: reading well, writing well, and thinking well. Part of thinking well is thinking outside the box . . . and that includes the box that all of these new studies are nonsense or ideology. Much is, but some isn’t.
Let’s get the good and leave the bad.
Beck is right about two things: being there and having patience.
Washington demonstrates both. I need to learn both. Washington also worked hard.
In every generation there are looters, moochers, and workers. May I always be a worker and honor workers.
Beck points out that an honest conversation can be hard to have.
People are always ready to jump on any word. I am not sure that news shows like his have not been part of the problem. Academic conversations are easy to grab out of context as many of us have experience. Still, it seems that usually Beck gets the gist right. Van Jones is a leftist and Beck is not wrong to call him one or use his words.
However, can talk radio allow for conversation that does not fall into tropes the listener expects? Can Beck maintain an audience if he departs from orthodoxies?
I don’t know. We may find out if he risks it.
(And now I break for some family time.)
11/26/2011 5:06 PM
Chapter 15: A Final Farewell
Washington went home having done his duty.
The “indispensable man” knew that the nation would eventually have to dispense with him and so he made us fit to exist without him.
Nothing much greater can be said about anybody.
I can hear Beck growing in this book. He could not fit he conventions of FOX, but he also has an undisciplined man. He is the sort of man who will hear out cranks, visionaries, and prophets. What will come of this? What if the dialectic could seize him and moderate him? What if he really became George Washington? Just that he picked Washington and praises his quiet and firm manner is either self-referentially incoherent or growth.
Could a talk-show host become the silent and moderate man?
This pathway might make Beck a good man at last or drive him mad, but it is an interesting road.
Washington’s wisdom in the Farewell Address is a very good roadmap.
However, it is hard to see how Beck squares his allegiance to Israel with it. Israel is a great ally and good friend of the United States, but at times Beck seems to give them a blank check.
Is that following Washington’s wisdom? Israel is not the United States or even equal to “the Jews.” Shouldn’t Americans act in their own interest?
Now in the Middle East that interest will often be with Israel. We must never allow the maniacs who would wipe Israel out to prevail, but prudence must dominate our thinking about the Middle East and not sentiment.
Beck highlights two facts that are important. First, rebellion when we still can vote and are still represented is wrong. Respect the law. Second, the Constitution is binding on us while we still can change it. We give our consent by living under it and reaping the profit.
I hope those on the more extreme right and left will listen to Beck.
If conservatives lose an election and were to rebel, conservatives would line up behind our President Obama to crush that rebellion. So long as my franchise and my right to worship God is protected, I must be peaceful and a man of hope.
That Washington freed all his slaves when he and his wife died was a credit to him. He lacked the courage to live without them, but he lacked the wicked heart to chain his heirs to the peculiarly evil institution.
I confess to having paused here and prayed that the soul of the Father of our country rest in peace.
11/26/2011 5:36 PM
Chapter 16: A Humble Agent of Heaven
Beck stresses Washington as a man of self-reliance and character. Beck urges people to prepare and also to help their neighbors. Beck urges rectitude and morality on us. He does not urge that government impose laws on us to make us good, but that we become good by following God.
He argues for the continued relevance of the Constitution of 1789.
Is there anything better for our age?
And yet, I speak as a fellow sinner, doesn’t Mr. Beck frequently break Washington’s rules of civility on his radio show? Doesn’t he?
Am I missing something here?
Is it ok to do on the radio what Washington never did in life?
God help me to be more consistent in my own expressions . . . . more civil.
11/26/2011 5:53 PM
Conclusion: True Greatness Lies in the Soul
The title is enough. That is right.
Service to the poor.
Country over party.
An appeal for Divine favor.
(At this point, Beck veers dangerously close to saying America is uniquely God’s country. There Lincoln would correct him. Only to the extent that we are good are we great, but that is true of Andorra.)
There is no credit to be gained in reviewing a Glenn Beck book, but I liked it and so I shall review it. Beck is one of the most interesting people out there . . . willing to try new things out. He is a kind of court jester to our public life, but the court jester was a truth teller not a clown.
Beck owes no elite anything.
My friends on the left will be dismayed I gave him any attention. To those folk, I plead that he is a man created in God’s image and if I can love and attend to the ideas of my enemies daily (from Marx to Nietzsche), I must surely attend to a compatriot.
Millions will read this book, more than will ever hear a word I say will listen to Beck, and that matters.
A few friends on the right will be dismayed that I have friends on the left. My parents raised me to distrust any person so narrow they could not find common cause with any decent person. I have no tolerance for the narrow.
A few friends on the right will be dismayed that I am critical of Beck, but I am at times. He seems too uncritical of certain ideas and too apt to trust cranks. The real treason of the clerks have left him rightly skeptical of academics, but left him too susceptible to the lightly read.
I believe he thinks hard enough to see through the cranks.
I also liked this book, though I am not its target audience. I hope nobody uses it as a text, but more than a few learn from it moderation, prudence, and an ability to get along with political rivals. Those are all lessons the book outlines.
This is not a work of history, but a civic hagiography.
Some use that as an insult, but I mean it as a complement. Washington was a great American and a decent man by the standards of his time. He was flawed, but most of us will never be as good.
Holding up this man as an example, without hiding those flaws, is a good thing and Beck is to be commended for doing it. Homeschool parents should NOT confuse this with history, go read a history book to get the grist for the mill, but an application of history.
Check out the facts on Washington. If Beck got some wrong, correct him, but don’t lose sight of the fact that history is for the living not the living for history. We must learn from history and to learn somebody must teach us lessons.
That Glenn Beck does it for millions tells us something about the impotence of our established educational institutions. They may do history well, but they don’t apply it or at least apply it in a way a traditional Americans can hear.
Can it be done better? Surely, for this book is too hastily written to be great. Could I do better? I have not yet, so I commend Beck for doing what he had done.
Did he have a ghost writer? If he did, I don’t know his or her name. I know who helped Washington write his Farwell. Can Beck tell us his helpers?
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