Commentary

Honoring Greatness and Noting Not All Presidents Are Worthy

By JOHN M. IMPERIALE | Feb 13, 2019

By recognizing and honoring a great individual we do more than lavish praise on a person. We give ourselves the opportunity to reflect on that person’s character, accomplishments and contributions to our society.

Such reflection should be purposeful. It should make us want to seek others who, while they may never match the honoree’s life, would at least have the same values and principles. They would be honorable people.

Such reflection is wasted if it is watered down by simultaneously recognizing failed and flawed people simply because they held the same position as the one deserving of honor. And so we should not honor all of our American presidents. Not on Presidents Day. Not ever.

It should be noted that there is no national holiday “Presidents Day.” The third Monday in February is recognized, under federal law, as “Washington’s Birthday.” As part of the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which set up our system of three-day weekends, Washington’s Birthday was moved to the third Monday in February. It remains the official national holiday. With the enacting of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday in 1983, Dr. King joined Washington and Christopher Columbus as the only individuals honored with national holidays. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was never a national holiday.

Somehow, though, states such as New Jersey decided that Washington’s Birthday ought to be recognized as “Presidents Day.”

I repeat, there is no national holiday “Presidents Day.” And why should there be?
Should we be honoring the memory of Andrew Johnson, who, after Lincoln’s assassination, opposed reconstruction and the 14th Amendment and sought to diminish everything Lincoln believed in?

Then there are the presidents who actively supported the expansion of slavery, such as John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Perhaps the worst of all was Millard Fillmore, who, among other horrible things, supported the Fugitive Slave Act.

There were the corrupt presidents. Nixon is reasonably fresh in our memories, but what about Warren G. Harding and the Teapot Dome Scandal?

Should we celebrate the presidencies of those who were simply incompetent? Consider Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter or John Quincy Adams. Not much to honor there.

Many presidents, such as James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson, led atrocities against Native Americans. Do we honor them or learn from them?

One calming lesson is that the United States and its system of government have survived some awful leaders. That is a reassuring thought these days.

Of course, there were great American presidents, from every era of our history and from every political party. The Republican Jefferson and the Federalist Adams, the Democrat FDR and the Republican Reagan. There were others, many others, all worthy of honor for their patriotism and dignity.

The real danger, though, is that by saying that we are honoring “all presidents,” we are ignoring the lessons of the father of our country, George Washington. And we are failing to even reflect upon our American history.

We need the lessons of Washington and the insights of our history today more than ever. There would have been no Constitutional Convention in 1787 if Washington had not agreed to chair the meeting. He then used his quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy to ensure that a true national government emerged from the proceedings. The founding fathers would have never agreed on an executive branch of government, which did not exist under the Articles of Confederation, if not for the knowledge that Washington would become our first chief executive.

He then insisted upon being called “Mr. President,” rather than “His Excellency” or any of the other platitudes that were considered.

In his first term, he established not only that the presidency should be an equal branch of government, but also that the federal government was not, and should never be, subservient to the states. In his second term, he weathered blistering criticism and, yes, calls for impeachment, to see that the Jay Treaty was passed so that the young country would not be drawn into war.

I cannot do justice to all George Washington meant to this country in one short essay, so I will not even try. What I will do, though, is urge everyone to use Presidents Day as a reason to delve into American history. If we recognize what made some presidents great and others awful, we can learn what to demand of our leaders today.

George Washington may have never admitted to chopping down a cherry tree as a child, but he did tell the truth to the American people, even when that truth was difficult. My favorite Washington quote is: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”

I will not go into depth here about our current president. Enough has been said ,and every American by now knows the character of the man. Many find that character detestable; many find it acceptable. No one, though, can dispute the fact that honesty is not something that he finds virtuous.

In our history, we have accepted dishonesty in our leaders as “politics as usual.” When Bill Clinton blatantly lied to the American public, an overwhelming majority chalked it up as a “private matter.” In the midst of impeachment, his approval rating remained as high as ever.

I get it. Politics is a dirty business and politicians are “all the same.”

If we accept that logic, then we will never improve as a nation.

Alexis de Toqueville is quoted as saying, “In a democracy, people get the government they deserve.” Should we not demand a better government than we currently have? Should we not expect competency from our leaders? Should we not expect honesty?

Perhaps this is what we deserve. Fewer than three out of four Americans even vote in a presidential election. Even fewer vote in congressional elections.

Holidays can be useful, if we use them to remember, reflect and learn from the past. This month’s national holiday is George Washington’s Birthday. It is not Presidents Day. New Jersey and scores of other states may want to call it that, but they do a disservice to our history by doing so.

Forget the jokes about Presidents Day being all about mattress sales. George Washington’s Birthday should be about recognizing the father of our country and how leadership, patriotism, honor, integrity and courage are what we should be looking for in a leader.

There are plenty of cold winter days still ahead. Use them to read a biography of our first president, the man we honor this month. Understand his vision of the presidency and for the nation. No politician will ever be the next George Washington. But unless we remember just who he was, as a man and as a president, we will never even demand that today’s leaders simply be honest with us.

John M. Imperiale of Harvey Cedars can be reached at johnmimperiale@gmail.com.


 

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