Was George Washington Among the Walking Dead?
Never mind #DeportBieber.
For a few fleeting hours earlier this week, all eyes (and many tweets) were on George Washington and a very provocative question about our nation’s first president: was he, in fact, a zombie? #ZombieGeorgeWashington was even “trending on Twitter”—a phrase, one might rightfully assume, neither zombies nor George Washington could possibly understand. #poorthem
For the rest of us, it means something. People were talking! … about whether, as the season finale of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow had claimed just after 8pm/7pm central, our country’s first president was also a member of the walking dead. Sleepy Hollow’s take: verily, you betcha.
The reactions from the home audience were varied, ranging from the conspiratorial “I knew it!” to the incredulous “Are you kidding me?!” to the perfectly-calibrated “I can haz brainburger????????!!!!!!!!!!!” If there was a general consensus to be found, it was the typical bemusement at Hollywood’s creative flights of fancy: there you go again, Tinseltown. Weaving your tales. Spinning your stories. And making me set my DVR. In other words: I can’t believe it. But I’ll record it.
Full disclosure—I served as the show’s history consultant this season, and the detailed story exploring whether our nation’s first president was also our first Zombie-in-Chief is told in my book, Me the People. (Now there’s a burst of self-promotion that only John Adams could appreciate. #HeWasAnAmbitiousGuy)
Of course, for some, the idea that our first commander in chief was also a soldier in World War Z requires a suspension of disbelief as long as the wait on the George Washington bridge. Now that we’ve had our fun, it’s time to tell the truth. We must come clean. And I cannot tell a lie: our nation’s first president did not—and therefore does not—eat brains. The story about George Washington becoming a zombie isn’t true.
But here’s the Shyamalanian twist you might not have seen coming: It’s 99 percent true. At least, it’s closer to true than you ever expected. Granted, the final 1 percent might the most crucial part—the zombification part, the Washington Lives! part—but the 99 percent is pretty darn shocking on its own. Not technically brain-eating, but definitely mind-blowing.
Days after his death on December 14, 1799, Washington’s doctors found “the indispensable man” too indispensable to dispense with; the young country still relied on the general’s leadership, and was carried on his broad shoulders. So as his cold body waited for burial, they did propose reanimating him, and they considered that prospect a perfectly viable one. In the words of his primary physician William Thornton, “I proposed to attempt his restoration, in the following manner. First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him in blankets, and by degrees and by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the lungs by the trachea, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb.” Ultimately, the other doctors present didn’t deny the viability of Thornton’s plan to reanimate Washington, only whether “it would be right to attempt to recall to life one who had departed full of honor and renown … and prepared for eternity.”
In other words: a Zombie Washington? It’s not undoable, Doctor Thornton; it’s undignified.
But the fact of history remains: reanimating Washington was seriously considered. In my mind, it was comically debated. On Sleepy Hollow, it was convincingly, if fantastically, rendered.
Why did such an outwardly implausible story resonate? Why was it so easy for so many to believe (or at least, embrace the prospect) that Washington might have been our nation’s first Zombie President?
I have a theory. And I grant you, it’s probably the biggest stretch yet. As I see it, the last few weeks we’ve been asked to swallow some truly jumbo helpings of far-fetched folderol, from global-sized baloney from the Russians—we are prepared for any terrorist attack on Sochi—to steaming piles of horse hockey from Glenn Beck—I now regret my role in “tearing the country apart.”
The biggest whoppers seem to have come from our politicians and would-be politicians. We’ve been asked to believe that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie didn’t know anything whatsoever about his staff’s plan for vengeance. That Texas State Senator Wendy Davis didn’t know she was fudging her resume. That former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell truly thought that pay-for-play gifts, including a new engraved Rolex, wouldn’t have any whiff of corruption.
These live on one end of the spectrum. On the other far end of the spectrum, admittedly, is the idea that our first president might have unsprung the mortal coil. But it’s all on the spectrum, isn’t it? Ben Franklin believed in extraterrestrials—can’t we believe in zombies? For a couple hours, at least?
So on Monday night, when our country’s first president was brought back from the dead to our surprise and for our entertainment—“it’s alive! It’s alive!”—we collectively suspended our disbelief if only to suspend our exhaustion at the ludicrous claims of our other politicians. For a few trending moments, we said, #HeckSureI’llBuyIt