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In The Mix
June 03, 2020

Setting Precedent

With some very prestigious colleagues, a prominent historian brings America’s first president to the screen.

Robert Abele
  • Nicholas Rowe as George Washington

    Jose Sarmento Matos
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin

    Annie Leibovitz

Pulitzer Prize–winning presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has spent so many years studying and writing about a handful of consequential American leaders — Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Lyndon B. Johnson — that she refers to them as "my guys."

The one who'd eluded her as a subject, however, was George Washington, until History approached Goodwin about executive-producing a miniseries. Washington is a three-part hybrid of dramatized scenes (starring Nicholas Rowe as the Founding Father), interviews with historians and Jeff Daniels's narration.

"Here's someone I've wanted to know my whole life," says Goodwin, who'd often lectured on Washington but never fully explored his achievements. "So it seemed perfect to be able to go in a different direction and learn this process of how you make a miniseries."

The schedule also appealed to her; it can take her up to a decade to produce a biography, but Washington was just 18 months, from researching and writing through filming and postproduction. "To be able to study alongside a team of people, it escalated the process," she says. "Your mind feels so inflamed learning new things."

In addition to writing, Goodwin was instrumental in getting top historians on camera to help contextualize the dramatized scenes. She also secured an appearance by a living president: Bill Clinton.

"We were hoping he'd talk about the precedents Washington set in his presidency," Goodwin says, "but he knew the battles in detail, too!

"He talked about his having a single mother, like Clinton had, and he brought wonderful insight into [Washington's] reading Thomas Paine's inspirational words before crossing the Delaware. He was remarkable, and everybody clapped at the end."

She cites the impact of having former Secretary of State Colin Powell comment on a scene of the younger Washington — then a colonel for the British — reacting to a bloody defeat.

"Right after you see Washington looking at the carnage, [Powell] says, 'Once you see that, war is no longer an adventure,'" she notes. "These are moments he could understand as a general."

Washington's evolving approach to leadership provides the series' structure, from that battlefield debacle, through his Revolutionary War triumph as a general, to the inaugural American presidency that tried his political will.

Meanwhile, recent scholarship on him as a slaveowner illustrates the complexities of a flawed hero.

"To bring a person to life, you have to see them go through failures and adversities," says Goodwin, who saw how dramatizations keep an audience invested.

"That's where facial expressions can really make a difference, and filming can help the storyline produce the emotions you want. You've got to emotionally connect with the person, even when he disappoints you."

Her newfound appreciation for the mix of research and imagination that goes into such a series reminded her of a speech Steven Spielberg gave upon the release of his movie Lincoln. The film was based in part on her award-winning 2005 book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

"He talked about how art allows you to fill in the spaces that history can't, the conversations you might not know about," says Goodwin, who has started her own film and TV company, Pastimes Productions."That's why it's so wonderful to have these outlets, for this combination of document and drama."

The conversations will continue. The success of Washington — rated the number-one miniseries on all of cable in nearly three years — has led to an expanded deal for Goodwin, who will produce two more presidential projects for History, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt .

Viewers can catch up on Washington at or on demand.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2020

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