Honoring an Ordinary George

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 28, 2006

A painting on one wall of the new Mount Vernon museum and education center depicts George Washington in the way that perhaps most Americans think of him: a child-size George holding an ax near a felled cherry tree, confessing to his father that he had chopped it down. The child has the same grumpy old face and curled white wig as the one on the dollar bill, the cheesy Presidents' Day sale ads and white marble busts that sit high on shelves, gathering dust.

The painting pokes fun at the narrow image of Washington -- the cherry tree story isn't even true. It is displayed at the entrance of the museum that opened yesterday, which is designed to broaden that view and to show that Washington, before he was the venerable Father of Our Country, was a man.

The day began with a celebration replete with speeches, huzzahs for George, drum and fife corps, Continental Army reenactors with muskets and tricorner hats standing at attention, fireworks and a gold cannon spraying the crowd with confetti.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough underscored the reason for the $110 million museum and orientation and education centers. How can Americans know who they are as a people, he asked, if they are illiterate about the history that formed the country?

He cited a 1990s poll that asked college seniors to name the general to whom Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, the siege that won the Revolutionary War.

Most answered Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War general.

"If you don't know what Yorktown was, you won't know how it was fought and at what cost," McCullough said.

George Washington, museum officials say, is one of the most fascinating and important figures in U.S. history -- and one of the most difficult to know. Painstaking "forensic reconstructions" try to bring to life the man he was before he became the aged icon.

Miriam Degirr, 62, stood transfixed, staring at a wax reconstruction of a strapping young Washington working as a surveyor in the Virginia wilds.

"I always think of him as old," she said, not taking her eyes off the figure. "It's a surprise to see him so young. So . . . cute. He's a handsome guy."

Dewey Vaughn said he knew as much about Washington as most Americans when he visited the new Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center yesterday, meaning little more than what he learned in elementary school.

He was in town for a reunion of his Korean War buddies, and they just happened onto the grand opening, taking in several of the 25 art galleries and theaters, some of which sprinkle snow from the ceiling. Others have seats that rumble along with cannon fire.

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