In the old days, Americans celebrated the birthday of the man who is regarded as the “Father of his Country,” owing to his service to our nation – as commanding general during the Revolutionary War and as our founding president. His name was George Washington and we celebrated his birthday on Feb. 22.
For more than 100 years, most Americans in most states also celebrated the birthday of the man who “saved the Union” when he served as president during the American Civil War from 1861-65. His name was Abraham Lincoln and we celebrated his birthday on Feb. 12.
Then, in 1971, President Richard Nixon declared that in order to honor all past presidents, a single holiday, to be called Presidents Day, would be observed on the third Monday in February. That happened this week, but I think something has been lost in the transition.
The transition from celebrating the lives and deeds of living, breathing leaders to celebrating the governmental role or position they occupied for a few short years is significant and has a bearing on the crisis of leadership in America today. Reason: Societies need heroes, people who are known for their deeds, people who have struggled with the trials and tribulations of life and have managed somehow to keep their bearings.
These are the kinds of people we learn from. We look up to them. We model their behavior. We point to them as examples for our children. Even the myths that surround our heroes – that George Washington could not tell a lie when asked if he cut down the cherry tree or that Lincoln walked several miles to return to a shopkeeper money that wasn’t his – are important morality tales that convey messages about rectitude or how people ought to behave.
And here lies the problem with Presidents Day: It’s now too easy to sidestep the nitty gritty of the life and times of an individual who held the nation’s highest public office. Instead, we can lump them all together and take a three-day weekend. Go skiing. Work in the garage. Catch up. Whatever. But we don’t have to ponder the actions and passions that describe the life and times of a George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
Instead, we can now focus on the office and the job they did. That’s a lot neater and cleaner. It lets us pick and choose what we want to consider – e.g., the various roles of the president: as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, where he is responsible for defending the country in wartime or ensuring readiness in peacetime, or as the nation’s chief administrative officer, where he is responsible for appointing federal officers, enforcing federal laws, treaties and court rulings, and formulating national policy and a budget for consideration by Congress.
Or we can look a the president as the chief architect of foreign policy or at his informal roles – e.g., as a party leader, where he is expected to be a symbol of partisan loyalty, or as a popular leader, where he is supposed to place the interests of the entire nation above those of special interests, a party, a state or an individual citizen. We can also think of the president as chief of state, the foremost representative of our government and our nation, representing our pride, our achievements and our hope.
These different roles or positions are all important features of what is now the most powerful and one of the most respected offices in the world. They are also abstract and rootless compared to learning about the life and times of one of the live human beings who exercised the power and influence of the presidency.
Civic education and civic good judgment lose when we substitute the bland and vapid analytical categories of the social scientist for the rich and soulful stories of the historian. Nothing beats raw biography for teaching people fundamental truths about life – including the fundamental truth that you cannot separate public and private morality.
Presidents Day is a bad idea.