Washington miniseries on History, exclusive interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin

Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke with Monsters & Critics at the Television Critics Association winter tour about Washington
Pulitzer Prize-winner Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke with Monsters & Critics at the Television Critics Association winter tour about Washington. Pic credit: History/Annie Leibovitz

If only American history were presented and taught the way History’s six-hour, three-night miniseries event portrays our first president, George Washington.

Noted historians, academics, political figures, and past presidents share their wealth of insight from their own studies and research. When interspersed with well done and frankly gruesome reenactments, you get the sound and vision of what was a complex and formidable man.

Washington was by these esteemed accounts a studly man, tall for the times, imposing and athletic in build, and in possession of an unforgiving temperament of those who did not meet their obligations to him in battle. Despite that, he was quite passionate and loving for his wife, Martha, a wealthy widow. When the two wed, it united his political and battlefield reputation to her good fortune.

These highfalutin Virginians had it all until Washington observed how the British began to take more and more punitive pounds of flesh from the colonies, and his own fortune and future was jeopardized.

George Washington, the man

Tall and athletically well put together, Washington lost his father at age 11 and grew up in a modest farming circumstance with his clever and resourceful single mother. He yearned for a post with the British army, only to be turned down and denied any advancement. In battle he proved himself to be a leader and brave beyond his years.

The miniseries will examine Washington’s transformation from a young man seeking to rise as a military officer, into a determined revolutionary who led a poorly assembled militia army against the British Empire. Ultimately, Washington would become the reluctant leader of a new nation and lay the foundation for the rise of America as a great superpower.

His path wasn’t an easy one, to say the least. Historian Joseph J. Ellis says: “John Adams went to Harvard. Thomas Jefferson went to William and Mary. George Washington went to war.”

That remark summed up the wide discrepancy of region and class within the colony, as we learn from these assembled experts who shared that John Hancock was vain and shallow, and Washington suffered no fools or those who did not meet his requirements of a military post.

He was harsh but had their respect and learned very early how to lead men into war and make them follow his orders. He also was acutely aware he did not have the education and social standing that Adams and the others did and it rankled him.

The three-part miniseries will chip away at the marbled image of America’s first President and bring to life the man whose name is known to all, but whose epic story is known only by scholars and those devoted to history.

Narrated by Emmy award-winning actor Jeff Daniels and executive produced by world-renowned presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning bestselling author Doris Kearns Goodwin, Washington is the perfect three-day event to settle in with for this President’s Day weekend.

It’s also highly recommended viewing for families with children. A caveat though, as some of the battle scenes are quite realistic.

What is Washington about on History?

Most know the highlights of George Washington’s life –he was a general, crossed the Delaware, led the Continental Army to victory over the British, was America’s first President and is the face on the dollar bill –but this three-part film is the full arc of his journey and it weaves together dramatic live-action sequences, excerpts from Washington’s letters and insights from a roster of notable experts, historians and scholars to tell a very personal story about the evolution of our first president.

We hear from President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning historians Joseph J. Ellis, Annette Gordon-Reed, Jon Meacham, Alan Taylor, and others. Nicholas Rowe knocks it out of the park in his portrayal of George Washington in the series.

“As a presidential historian, it’s been my privilege to ‘live with’ some of our nation’s best leaders as I have sought to make them human and accessible so that we could truly see ourselves in their places and learn from the trajectory of their leadership. Imagine how excited I was for the opportunity to go back to the beginning to George Washington, the man who created the template for presidential excellence through his courage, ability to grow, to learn from mistakes and surround himself with strong leaders. I hope that viewers will be as captivated by his life and story as I have been,” said Goodwin in a press statement.

Exclusive interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin for Washington on History:

Monsters & Critics: Which three presidents, living or dead, would be invited at your dinner table if they could be assembled?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I’d say Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Nobody in the last 50 years. I knew Lyndon Johnson. I know Obama. I’ve met the Bushes.

No, I think it’s because they’re the ones I’ve spent the most time with, so I lived them.

M&C: Researching them?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I mean, it took me 10 years to do with Lincoln and seven or eight with Teddy and five or six with FDR. So there’s so many questions that I’d love still to ask them if we could have dinner together.

It’s interesting because the guys I wrote about, they each had a hero. LBJ’s hero was Franklin Roosevelt, called him his political daddy. FDR’s hero was Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy’s hero was Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln’s hero was Washington. Now I’d invite George to dinner. Now I’d have to invite George [Washington]. I’d have to have George there at my dinner.

M&C: Working as an executive producer and putting that hat on. Tell me about how you flex that muscle and how it’s different from researching and writing.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Oh, it’s hugely different. Well, we [she and Beth Laski]  formed a company together called Pastimes Productions and we decided. I mean, Beth Laski has a background in journalism and movies and all this world. She lives out here.

So I loved working on Lincoln, loved working on all the way, the Bryan Cranston movie, but had not really done this kind of work before.

I was a consultant and was involved with it in various aspects of it, pretty deeply. But this started because the History Channel came to us and asked us if we would get involved with them in some sort of project. It wasn’t even clear at the beginning because this was just a couple of years ago.

And then I was finishing the Lincoln book and finally done. And then we could have more conversations. And at that time they wanted us to get involved in a series of these miniseries on presidents.

And the one that was up right then was George. They’d started thinking about doing something on George. So we got in right at the beginning and worked with the guys from Rail Splitter, Matt and Tim, and with Eli and Rob on history and Mary. And then we were there for everything. We went to the Writer’s Block.

And then every draft. And then the writing of the script before they went for the filming. And then all the different cuts of it, from the rough to the fines or the locked and then putting the pictures in. It was really, it’s really intense.

They just finally, in the last few weeks, have been doing the final drafts of the final scripts and it looks to me like, “Oh my God, there’s so much to be done in this. Can never be done in this time.” Because it would take me six months or something.

But it’s the whole team and they get to do it. So it’s really been fun.

M&C: So is this going to be drama interspersed with interviews or is it re-enactment?

Doris Kearns Goodwin:  No. It’s drama interspersed. Technically a reenactment.

M&C:  How many interviews did you lace into the drama, the teleplay?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: President Clinton and General Powell. And it’s a really, it’s a great-I mean, Joe, really all, almost all the Washington scholars. I mean, Jo Ellison and Jon Meacham and then Annette Gordon-Reed. Joanne Friedman. Nathaniel Philbrick. I mean it’s a really wonderful group. And then General Powell agreed to do it. And President Clinton did a great job.

M&C: My observations are that we’re untethered right now. Our constitution and our respect for politicians and the process and the separations of all of the different power, the entities. Do you feel that there’s a need for this type of, to remind people how the country was won, why it’s different from England and why Washington wasn’t a King?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think that is a perfectly brilliant question. That’s what should be in our talking points. Seriously. I mean, I think that one of the things Lincoln said when he was 28 years old, it was a time of turbulence in the country.

Abolitionists, editors were being killed and lynchings in the South. And he gave this famous Lyceum speech where he said that the people in the Washington generation were fading away and he was afraid that the ideals of the country were growing dim and that we have to just read about Washington and the revolution and keep reading like the mother reads a Bible at night or something.

And so I think you’re absolutely right that at this time when we’re asking what are the relationship between the president and Congress. Not that those answers are going to be there, but you’re going to see why the presidency becomes what they think George Washington would be because they didn’t have to make it as long as the other ones because they knew he would be it and they trusted him. He warns about party strife in his last farewell address. It could read like it’s speaking to us today.

That if you have party strife and the painful effects can produce corruption, influence from foreign powers and need to have that American spirit. But I think more importantly even than any of that is that just that at a time when you’re beginning to lose faith in political people, as you say, to remind us of these really tough times when a leader was able to carry us through with all of his faults.

I think that being able to watch the growth of a leader. I mean, he’s not born great as one of the experts as… There was a journey to greatness. That’s what people can then recognize that we’re not looking for somebody who’s already Washington.

What if we’re going to look for young people getting into politics? You have to see somebody who can grow, who learns from mistakes, who’s got a certain kind of gravity. Who cares about something other than self. And all the things that he’s shown. Builds a team around him that can question him. And he does those things and he does make mistakes and he does grow so you can follow his journey. And that’s what I liked about it.

M&C:  What was one of the more endearing or surprising facts that you learned in your research about Washington? That you didn’t know.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: They told us lots I didn’t know. One of the most surprising… I guess I don’t know if it would be endearing, but I didn’t know how much failure there was early on when he was trying to be in the British Army and the first mission that he takes is catastrophic and he has to absorb that and keep going.

There’s moments when he’s really endearing with Martha that I wouldn’t have known about. Yes, just they’re really nice scenes. And that she comes to the, when he’s in Valley Ford, she comes and stays with him and she actually came and stayed a number of times in the army camps.

And I think the fact that shocked me the most was that when he left, and I still don’t know the number of years, which we have to find out, when he leaves in 1775 from Philadelphia at the first constitutional convention and become the general and he goes to Boston, he says, “I’ll be home at Christmas.” He’s not home for six or eight years. He doesn’t ever get back home.

That was the thing that and how much he loved Mount Vernon. There’s a nice scene when he finally does come home. But he kept writing letters to find out how the crops were doing because he really, that was his relaxation, to be able to still think about the estate and Mount Vernon. But somehow the idea, I mean, in this modern day and all, just to say, “I’ve never been home. What am I doing with my clothes?”
I know, I was thinking, can I change my clothes? I haven’t been home at all.

It’s just, and not seeing that place that was such a source of strength. So seven, I think it’s 1775 to 1783 so that would be eight years, right?

Interesting question. I think that’s one of the facts that really interested me that he just, he’s on the road that entire time as a general. I mean that just seems so… And moving from one army camp to another.

He starts off when in the French and Indian War where he really creates through discipline and it’s pretty interesting stuff. You’ll see where he’s actually whipping soldiers at night, be deserting. And then he’s teaching them how to fire a gun and how to be disciplined.

And he finally creates a unit that the British are proud of. But then when you see him, when he goes to Boston, they’re all untested all over again because they’re all different people. They’re just that. No, there’s no federal army, just each state has its own militia.

And so he has to keep rebuilding. I guess I hadn’t thought about that either. Keep retraining, rebuilding. And he never has enough resources. because the Congress is made up of these individual states and they want to keep the money for their [interests], these little fiefdoms.

M&C: Who was the hardest interview to get and who nailed it? From a historical standpoint and authenticity.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well it took the longest to get President Clinton. And he was really, really good. I mean he was… I mean we assumed that he’d be talking about Washington leaving after two terms and that set a precedent or just his presidency, but he talked about what it was like to have a single mother as Washington did, and as he did.

He talked about that Washington’s lack of education, not having been able because his father died to go to England, like his two brothers, and that maybe that was always a lack of confidence for him. He talked about the Battle of Yorktown in great detail. Even it was just, he was so good that everybody clapped afterwards.

It was really, if that’s all in his head, which it may be, or whether he prepared, I don’t know, but it was a very happy experience.

Washington will premiere over Presidents Day weekend airing consecutively on Sunday, February 16, Monday, February 17 and Tuesday, February 18 at 8 pm ET/PT on History Channel.

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