Having addressed the question years ago as to whether all presidents deserve recognition on President’s Day, I’ve come to the justifiable conclusion this issue needs to be revisited and revised.
There was a time when tomorrow’s federal holiday was simply referred to as George Washington’s Birthday, and observed Feb. 22. Along came a few over-zealous and inspired politicians who sought to simplify the calendar of holidays, however, and give federal employees a few more three-day weekends in the process.
So, Congress set out to enact legislation (HR 15951) that would designate the third Monday in February of each year as a federal holiday, whether it fell on the 22nd or not. The law passed in 1968 and became effective in 1971.
On Monday, politicians and civil servants will reap the benefits of their own making, while the average American citizen works for wages presumably paid at a straight-time rate. According to the Office of Personnel Management, Monday’s holiday is still officially known as Washington’s Birthday, even though it has become popularly known as “President’s Day.”
For reasons beyond human comprehension, it has become a day for honoring all men who have served in the capacity, or for that matter, incapacity as president.
With help from a few theorists and historians, let’s examine those men who deserve to be honored, and then question the absurdity behind President’s Day by honoring those who have, for the lack of a better phrase, been unavailing.
More than 130 years ago, historian Henry Adams wrote that the American presidents “must resemble the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek.”
Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said, “The Constitution offers every president a helm, but the course and the port constitute the first requirement for presidential greatness. Great presidents possess, or are possessed by, a vision of an ideal America. Their passion is to make sure the ship of state sails on the right course.”
Ranking the top five presidents is not a difficult task, in fact, it’s relatively simple. These men had the ability to steer the right course, and in doing so, kept this nation headed toward the correct port: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Harry S. Truman.
According to Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor at the National Review, “George Washington established presidential etiquette, believed in the idea of a federal union, was approachable and made a point of visiting all 13 states while in office.”
Washington was a great leader. He knew politics and war, and knew who to trust and when to trust them.
Lincoln believed in union and freedom, Jefferson believed in democracy, Roosevelt guided the nation through the Great Depression, asking Congress for “broad Executive powers to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”
In addition, Truman was a man who made prompt decisions with a firm hand. According to Terry Eastland, journalist and publisher of The Weekly Standard, “The authors of The Federalist Papers understood the presidency as the unique source of energy in government, and they identified as ingredients of energy the structure and the power of the office. Truman’s presidency is a study of ‘energy in the executive’ — energy that often benefited the nation.”
Truman indeed lived up to the expectation of presidential leadership. At least he understood the real meaning of “the buck stops here.”
But somewhere between the top five and the bottom five are 34 other presidents. Some were good, but not great, and some were not so good, but not bad. Not all, however, deserve to be honored Monday.
Having said that, there are indeed five presidents who should be considered complete failures. In fact, just mentioning their names along with the 39 other presidents could be considered gross irreverence.
Indisputably, they are, James Buchanan, who certainly lived up to his nickname of “Do-nothing.” He did nothing to help the people or the country during the economic depression of 1857, and he certainly did nothing about the South seceding from the Union, other than to say, “It was illegal,” and in doing so, left office with the country deeply divided. One is always left to wonder if Buchanan had done more, could the Civil War been avoided.
For all the good he has done since leaving office, Jimmy Carter was a Washington outsider who didn’t understand the workings of the federal government. In fact, he had no idea what it took to run a country.
The Iranian hostage situation was a sign of his weakness, and the 11 percent unemployment and long gas lines merely proved he knew little about the economy.
Bill Clinton not only disgraced the country by dallying with an intern in the Oval Office, but he narrowly escaped impeachment because of a spineless Senate. In addition, let’s not forget he also obstructed justice during the Paula Jones v. Clinton sexual harassment lawsuit by lying under oath and concealed evidence of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
While George W. Bush did succeed in bringing this nation together after 9/11, he fell from grace with the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” deception and his massive federal overspending that led us into a recession. In fact, Bush increased government spending more than his six predecessors did.
And last, but certainly not least, there is our current president, Barack Obama. From the IRS scandal, to Benghazi, to Fast and Furious, to executive orders that violate the Constitution, to “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan,” he has become the most untrustworthy and self-centered president ever to occupy the Oval Office.
Honoring all presidents tomorrow is an affront to common decency and democracy. Sadly, we have become a nation of absurd holidays by casting aside core values and everything that is genuine, and replacing them with trinkets.
President’s Day has become such a trinket.
Larry French of Butler teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University and Northeast State Community College. You may reach him at FrenchL@etsu.edu.