A Brunswick geopolitical leader reflects on the enduring value of lessons from America’s first president. By Kevin Helliker.
When I heard that Brunswick Partner Mitchell Reiss had appeared on a popular podcast to talk about George Washington, I was surprised. I knew that Reiss had served as President of Washington College, as a Distinguished Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, as Special Envoy to the Northern Ireland Peace Process. I knew he had a law degree from Columbia and a doctorate from Oxford. I also knew that Reiss, co-Lead of Brunswick’s geopolitical practice, had written numerous articles and books on international security and American foreign policy.
But here’s the thing about the résumés of many here at Brunswick. They’re impressive, intimidating even. Yet typically they don’t tell the whole story. Who knew that Reiss is a George Washington expert? Ahead of Presidents’ Day—in part a celebration of Washington’s birthday—I asked Reiss a few questions.
How did you come to gain expertise on our first president, George Washington?
Like most Americans, I first learned about George Washington in elementary school, including the mythmaking about his chopping down his father’s cherry tree. Years later, I became president of Washington College, which was founded by a subscription of his officers; Washington served as the College’s first Chairman of the Board. I became fascinated by his life and immersed myself in reading all I could find about him. When I later became CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, I learned more about his early years in Virginia and how he grew to become the leader of our country.
Is there anything about President Washington’s life or values or leadership style that is worth underscoring at this moment in American history?
The theme that runs through all of Washington’s life, from when he was a very young boy and copied by hand the Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversations, through his retirement years at Mount Vernon, is his unswerving devotion to personal honesty, courtesy, and integrity. For him, character was destiny. At all times, and perhaps especially now, it is useful to remember his example and that the content of one’s character matters greatly for public service.
President Washington is known to school children everywhere for his honesty. Is there any part of his history that in your view provides some nuance?
Washington was always honest, but the man eulogized as “"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," was actually a reluctant revolutionary. He was far less eager to break with Britain than many of his fellow Virginians (especially Patrick Henry) and he worried about the chaos, disorder and hardship that war would bring to the colonies. Only after some years, and a series of what were perceived as provocations by London, was he prepared to lead the Continental Army.
Is there any piece of trivia about him that is generally not known?
For someone who lived most of his life in the public spotlight, there is little that is unknown, but there are some lesser-known facts. He possessed a violent temper that he struggled to keep in check. The Gilbert Stuart picture of him on our $1 bill, with his sour expression, was painted after painful dental work had just been performed. He wanted to return to Mount Vernon after his first presidential term but was persuaded that the country needed him to continue. A window into his interior life was lost when Mary Washington destroyed their private letters, which was not malicious on her part but a typical practice of widows at the time. And unlike almost all the Founding Fathers who had enslaved humans, he not only freed them when he died, but also made provision for them to be trained so that they could support themselves and their families as free men and women.
Kevin Helliker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Editor of the Brunswick Review.
Photograph: Matt Anderson Photography