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America’s greatest icon was an undereducated aristocrat who owned more than 300 slaves and died an agnostic. In his own time, George Washington was seen as a reluctant quasi-king admired for his Roman stoicism, a transcendent force who embodied the revolutionary ideals of the nascent republic. The image isn’t false, but it isn’t completely accurate, either. In the tradition of American Sphinx and Founding Brothers, Joseph J. Ellis’ newest myth-modifier, His Excellency, digs deep into the flesh of our first president and lets his blood flow into the clean waters of history. Whereas Adams and Jefferson developed their understanding of the American ideal via Cicero and Thucydides, Washington received his education from Saving Private Ryan–esque experiences in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars. As a general, Washington hung deserters and cowards; unlike his contemporaries, he developed a sad and realistic view of human nature, seeing no Utopia in the New World. But it was here, among soldiers in blood-soaked snow, that our first president understood the temperament that true leadership required. “For Washington,” writes Ellis, “the American Revolution was not about destroying political power…but rather seizing it and using it wisely. Ultimately, his life was all about power: facing it, taming it, channeling it, projecting it.” At his worst, Ellis’ Washington is a narcissist obsessed with his own obituary, an ambition-filled social climber capable of extreme if private rages. At his best, he’s like Spider-Man—an American hero who understands that with great power comes great responsibility. Ellis discusses his work at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919. (Paul Morton)