Saturday, March 05, 2011

Presidents' Day

Quiz time: what is the only US National holiday dedicated to an individual? George Washington? Nope. Abraham Lincoln? Wrong again. The answer is: Martin Luther King, Jr. Not that I begrudge him his holiday, and I do enjoy the three day weekend in January, but it is striking that he is the only person from American history who has his own federal holiday.

I am old enough to remember when there were two holidays, one of which was a day off, in February: George Washington’s birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. These days were given in recognition of the tremendous impact that these two men had on American society.

Had any other man been in command of the Continental Army, we likely would have surrendered, or been defeated in a one-sided battle. Washington was canny enough to know that he couldn’t win a toe-to-toe fight with the British, so he used dilatory tactics, drawing out the fight, on the move, forcing the British away from supply bases, until foreign alliances could be secured, and the Continental Army would be ready to face the Redcoats with a chance of winning. But even that wasn’t his greatest contribution. After the Revolution had been won and independence secured, many officers had the notion to place Washington in sole command over the newly-established United States. He declined, saying that he didn’t fight to free America from George the Third so that he could become George the First. But that still wasn’t it. He was elected to the first presidency to national acclaim. He served honorably for eight years, and then gave up all his authority, returning to the farm. He set the model for the peaceful revolution we have every election cycle. No purges, no recriminations, a simple swearing in, and power is transferred, and the Constitution goes on.

Abraham Lincoln held on to the idea that George Washington struggled to bring about. When the idea that a state, or group of states, could leave the Union at will was a commonly held one, Lincoln realized that such a dissolution would result in the death of the American experiment. States would divide into smaller and smaller groups, until there was wholesale conflict, ripe for conquest by an outside power. Lincoln realized that the only hope for the United States was to remain united. But not as it was. He also recognized the tremendous opportunity to end an unjust system which served as the basis of an entire segment of the American culture. Slavery was not the impetus for Lincoln taking up the sword in the Civil War, but it did become a motivating factor and the end of slavery became a result. The promise made by the Founding Fathers, of the free and equal birth of all Americans, and their equal opportunity to take part in the life of the country, was fulfilled by Abraham Lincoln.

Arguably, King gave much to this country as well. He held up this nation’s failure to follow through on the work begun by Washington and Lincoln. But were it not for Washington and Lincoln, there would have been no Martin Luther King. If it can be said of anyone that he “stood on the shoulders of giants”, it is King. So it is curious that he is singularly honored, and they are not.

The argument is presented that “Presidents’ Day” is meant to honor all the presidents, hence the “s-apostrophe”. Really? Do we actually want to honor all the presidents? We want to honor Franklin Pierce, arguably one of the worst presidents in our history, the one who allowed for the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska act, which arguably set the Civil War in motion? Or James Buchanan, the president who presided over the years leading up to Secession? How about Warren Harding whose administration could well have been the most corrupt due to his desire to reward his friends with political benefices? Why don’t we honor William Henry Harrison, who spent much of his short administration with pneumonia, before he died, 32 days after his inauguration? Let’s take the time to honor the presidency of Jimmy “malaise” Carter, who managed to depress the economy, depress our standing in the community of nations, and depress us all, in general. While we’re at it, let’s toss in Jack Kennedy, who managed to save us from a nuclear war with Russia over Cuba, after creating the circumstances that led us to the brink in the first place. Are we honoring Richard Nixon? Or Gerald Ford?

Let’s be honest: we have probably had more bad, or at best average, presidents than we have great ones, ones worth honoring.

The Romans gave a special title, pater patriae, “Father of his country” to those figures who were seen to have done a great service to Rome by preserving her from utter ruin. It was first awarded to Marcus Tullius Cicero, who had saved Rome from a conspiracy led by Lucius Sergius Catalina to overthrow the Senate, without the need for an extensive civil war. Julius Caesar also received the title, after bringing the Civil War (which he precipitated) to a close, but without the large scale purges that was usually the norm, especially after Sulla. Augustus, too received this title, in recognition of the fact that he had brought a period of peace and prosperity to Rome not seen before, the Pax Augusta. While it became customary to award the title to later emperors as a regular convention, the first three to have received this title did something to merit it, at least from a Roman perspective.

In that sense, how many of our presidents merit this title “Father of his country”? Washington, surely. Lincoln, I would argue, as well. He preserved the Union in its darkest hours. Teddy Roosevelt? While he ushered the US into a century marked by American dominance, I wouldn’t place that at a similar level. His cousin, Franklin? Perhaps, due to the fact that he shepherded his country through a dark and dangerous time (I’m just not a fan of the massive welfare state he imposed on us). Kennedy? Aside from a bright spot, where he managed to keep us from blowing ourselves up, again in an event that was largely precipitated by his own policy towards Cuba, and some really fantastic speeches, what do we have, aside from a sexual record that Hugh Hefner would envy? Ronald Reagan? Again, consider the fact that he brought the country back from 21% mortgage rates, double digit inflation, and national ennui to a period of prosperity that at least 3 subsequent administrations benefited from. He also understood the only strategy that would ultimately succeed against the Soviet Union, resulting in the political liberation of several million people. Bill Clinton? Right. George W. Bush? Please.

So, instead of attempting to honor “all” the presidents, most of whom seem to have been rather unsuited to the task, and their tenures should be more marked out by the statement “didn’t really foul it up”, why don’t we set out the days to honor those truly great men, the ones who showed their worth as patres patriae? I’ll make you a deal: let’s assume we can agree on Washington and Lincoln, so they get their days back; I’ll give you FDR if you give me Reagan. This way we get four federal holidays. Who wouldn’t turn down 4 more three-day weekends?

Besides, in the long run, they’ll only become excuses for sales blow outs at your local car dealership.