When I was a youngster we celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and George Washington’s on February 22nd. The schools, the newspapers and the TV used these holidays as occasions to remind and educate Americans about how George Washington led the Continental soldiers in the American Revolution and went on to become not King but our first President and established the federal government. And similarly, Abraham Lincoln was rightly praised as the man who saved the union and abolished slavery.
Then the interests of the economy, and the desire to have three day weekends, ran into the inconvenience of two major holidays in the same month. You see neither Washington’s nor Lincoln’s parent had the foresight to consider national holidays when they conceived and gave birth to these great men. So the political and business and labor leaders of the post WWII era decided in their wisdom that we should celebrate these holidays not on the 12th nor the 22nd but on a Monday in February (certainly not two Mondays in February). Now it could have been called Washington-Lincoln day but no that was too simple. The advocates of honoring other Presidents such as Jefferson and the two Roosevelt’s entered into the national discussion and the resultant idea was President’s Day -- one Monday in February. So folks would have a three day weekend between New Year’s and Easter, and people could honor and celebrate all the Presidents or at least those that regions and population groups and ideological organizations wanted to memorialize.
Initially there was some effort to expand the base of honorees. Jefferson was lauded for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence (some quarter century before he was President) and his Louisiana Purchase. Teddy Roosevelt was celebrated for his Rough Rider charge up San Juan Hill (a few years before he became President). Wilson was remembered for trying to prevent another World War (he failed) and of course in the post WWII era Franklin Delano Roosevelt was memorialized for leading our nation through the Great Depression and the Crusade to defeat fascism and Nazism.
But celebrating a number of Presidents one, two or three dozen never caught on. Just as the American people seem uncomfortable considering more than two candidates for the office of President they seem incapable of honoring a multiplicity of holders of the office. By the time right wingers had a hero to celebrate in Ronald Reagan, their victor of the war against communism, President’s Day had already become just another excuse for retail sales (using images of Washington and Lincoln) or bargaining chips with unions over which holidays would be paid.
No one every seemed to push the idea of honoring the office of President. Just as Arbor Day and even now Earth Day have lessened in the public consciousness, Holidays seem to need a people connection or a tie-in to a major event. Independence Day presumably will not disappear from the popular mind as Armistice Day has - although there is a real effort to make it Veteran’s Day a remembrance of those who fought for our country but it has to compete with another Holiday - Memorial Day. The latter was first recognized after the Civil War and the Nov 11th holiday came after World War I.
And so now we have a day in February when we no longer focus on Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. And, we don’t honor others, e.g. FDR and Reagan. In the two hundred and twenty-three years that the United States of America has existed we have had some 43 men serve as President -- some great, some good, some mediocre and some downright incompetent. But a nation that has been populated by hundreds of millions of people, and that prides itself on such a longevity of constitutional succession in its highest national office, surely could have found a way to honor those chief executives.
Winston Churchill said of America that we always do the right thing after we try everything else. Maybe it’s time to try a new approach to honoring our Presidents’ with a Holiday. Maybe Washington/Lincoln day in Feb and Roosevelt/Reagan day in a month that has some meaning to both of them and needs a holiday. If we continue this mythical Presidents’ Day to honor all the Presidents we will continue to have what we have now -- a Holiday that honors no one.
20 February, 2012