Penguin Press, $40, 904 pp.
We take it for granted nowadays that modern American political leaders, with their retinues of consultants and pollsters, will closely attend to their public images and vigorously promote them. A half-century ago, when historian Daniel Boorstin’s The Image(1961) was published, that was not so obvious. Long before the personal computer, the widespread digitization of words and images, and the Internet, Boorstin showed how technological advances in printing, photography, and communications over the previous half-century had prompted political leaders and other newsmakers to stage image-enhancing events that were “somehow not quite real.” Most political speeches, press conferences, and interviews, Boorstin wrote, were “pseudo-events.” Penetrating observers such as Richard Rovere found the thesis persuasive. Writing in the New Yorker in 1963, Rovere called President John F. Kennedy’s triumphal European tour that summer “a super-pseudo-event” (though he allowed that genuine events, such as JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, could “occur in the midst of pseudo-events”).
Now we learn from Ron Chernow’s magnificent biography Washington that the putative unreality goes back much further than Boorstin indicated: that George Washington himself cultivated his public image and engaged in what could be construed as pseudo-events. Even as a young man, ambitious and...