PRESIDENTS' DAY OR PRESIDENT'S DAY?
We have holidays honoring mother and father, as the Fourth Commandment specifies; we have holidays honoring Christopher Columbus, that savage; and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., that 20th-century hero; we have days honoring trees, love, our flag, workers, veterans, and Jesus. There are many more categories that deserve honor and so far haven't received it or else receive it nominally but without the ceremony deserved.
On Presidents' Day, since 1971, we honor all forty-four presidents of the United States--some of us anyway. Since the day falls in between the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington, whom we used to honor separately, these two presidents are at the top of the list--Washington for guiding our country's birth and Lincoln for keeping our country together and, almost despite himself, eliminating one of the worst violations of democratic principles ever--condoned human slavery.
Granted, there is no unanimity as to what constitutes greatness in a president beyond that, and some disagree that Lincoln was a great president, and Howard Zinn for one is not terribly impressed with Washington, as I noted in a book review last month.
How can we celebrate Presidents' Day to give honor where it is deserved and not just because a man sat in the oval office for however long he did? Can we say that the longer a president served, the more likely he was to have been supremely competent? What this country suffered in the preceding decade belies that, though FDR died in office serving his fourth term--unique to US history.
We could plant a garden with each president's best feature. James Buchanan was handsome, Reagan charismatic, Bush 43 always looked as if he were on the verge of laughter when he gave speeches--we were such dupes to have allowed him into the White House. So we could call him the worst actor and Reagan the best, JFK the most envied, Bill Clinton the sex symbol, Woodrow Wilson the aristocrat, Teddy Roosevelt the environmentalist, Harry Truman the Marshall Planner but, oops, he dropped a few bombs, too.
And on and on. Once we had forty-four positive traits, we could construct an ideal chief executive. But who's we? I'm a left-leaning Democrat, so I would construct someone different than Mrs. Clarence Thomas would (her husband?), for example.
It's true that in this pluralistic society, the most amazing feat would be to invent a president agreeable to all, who would receive 100 percent of the vote. I'd guess that George Washington would come closest to that denominator, but he doesn't count. Only a Tea Partier would love him these days. What impresses me most about Washington is not his wealth, as the richest man in America in his day, but his iron will that kept that ragtag militia going through the motions of war, despite all the defeats, despite the impressive opposition, despite all the desertions for every reason under the sun--I mean, it was a lost cause won.
The British were at a disadvantage in being a whole ocean away from their homeland, just as the United States was in Vietnam. Back then we were the guerillas, the ones who knew the lay of the land. Back then, we were the Afghans.
Another greater disadvantage was that the British were hated by France and Spain. What an odd reason for a country to be born.
I guess to invent an ideal president, we'd need a professional pollster to choose forty-four Americans who represent every political viewpoint possible. Then we'd give each one a box of Crayola crayons and a laptop. With the crayons they'd draw this person. He'd probably have blond hair, though few if any presidents emerge from office with a hair color other than gray--our Obama is on that path already but attributes it to his age, not stress.
On their laptops, the forty-four would type a one-paragraph description of the ideal president and email it to a central mechanism, which would process all forty-four descriptions and eject a verbal consolidation and compromise to construct a president who would appeal to the largest number of us.
We must probe deeply into the nature of presidential accomplishment in order to distinguish someone who really accomplished something during his tenure, like Lincoln holding the country together, and someone who happened to be around when a major milestone was achieved, like George Bush 41, for example, who happened to be in office when the Berlin Wall fell ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!" was the worst line Reagan ever uttered and, what's most pathetic, he didn't seem to believe himself, let alone persuade the rest of us.)
As to that pollster-created "ideal" president, one problem would be that he'd remain a colorless form. The forty-four chosen Americans would look blankly at their boxes of Crayolas. What color is the ideal president?
What I'm getting at is that we need to honor those who deserve honor and detest not their mistakes so much as areas where they purposefully accomplished disasters, like the Iraq war, for example.