We seem to be a nation that believes in taking holidays honoring various aspects of our national heritage, but while we enjoy the day off work (and the sales) we rarely stop to remember the reason for the celebration. Some holidays, such as the 4th of July and Veterans’ Day have not changed much since their inception. Presidents’ Day, formerly Washington’s Birthday, has had several changes.
Many of us can remember the Monday closest to February 22nd being the day celebrated as Washington’s Birthday. When Congress reworked the federal holidays in the 1960s, it was determined that Lincoln’s Birthday should be celebrated at the same time. Born on February 12, many states had been declaring that date a holiday while others staunchly refused. Congress defused the situation by declaring the third Monday of February would be a day set aside to honor all Presidents of our nation, both past and present. The school district I attended as a child celebrated the day in an unusual way. The music department would sponsor a concert involving all the bands and orchestras - from the elementary ages through high school. (In retrospect, it was an endurance challenge for the parents in the audience!) Following the concert, the audience was invited to the school cafeteria for cherry pies, the dessert that seemed appropriate for a Washington’s Birthday affair.
The forty plus men who have served as President have had several things in common, no matter their party or success in managing the office. All have taken the time to serve their nation in that capacity, and most have had shortened lives as a result. Since the age of photography, a comparison of inaugural and farewell photos seems to indicate that, at least physically, these men have aged more than the number of years they have been in office.
There are other similarities between those who have served as our leaders. Eleven have earned degrees from Ivy League institutions, such as Duke, Yale and Princeton. One, Millard Fillmore, turned down an honorary degree from Oxford, believing it to be less than appropriate to accept such an honor from a “foreign” institution. Another, James Buchanan, was expelled from college after his first year for failing to work at his studies. Two, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower graduated from West Point, and Jimmy Carter was a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Many of our Presidents served the government in other capacities before their election. Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State, and James Polk was the Speaker of the House – to date the only Speaker to move into that position. John Tyler served in the Congress, then as President, then was elected to the Congress of the Confederacy, although he died before being sworn in.
There are some Presidents who left the office with something of a tarnished reputation. Herbert Hoover, for one, had several communities named for him. “Hoovervilles” sprang up all over the nation; towns that were the antithesis of his mantra that the economy was strong enough for a “chicken in every pot”. President Grant is another interesting story. Never a scholar, or even a success in private life, the task of leading northern troops in war was his forte. Neither before nor after that time, would he experience that success. Obviously he was popular with the people who could vote (remember that those from the defeated states had limited rights at this point). As a result, he was soon drafted by a political party as a nominee for president, and won the election handily. Unfortunately, he brought with him the problems that had haunted him prior to his war years, as well as a naivety with regard to Washington politics. As a result, he is remembered as a less than competent chief executive.
Three Presidents, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Monroe died on the 4th of July. One, Jefferson, died bankrupt, while Monroe, Ulysses Grant and Andrew Jackson left their families in poverty. When Zachary Taylor died, a young attorney named Abraham Lincoln gave his eulogy. 141 years later, in 1991, Taylor’s body was exhumed to put to rest rumors that he died of poison.
As a nation, we ask quite a bit of our chief executive. Not only is that individual to be able to manage world affairs to our satisfaction, but also is to ride herd on the economy and all other domestic issues of the day. He (or she!) is to be an attractive individual, a dynamic leader with a spouse capable of leading in her (or his!) own right, and a perfect family with children who get into just enough trouble to be human, but not enough to be a problem. Our leader is to be able to unite the diverse interests of the nation, yet also be incompetent enough to give the opposition party something about which to gripe.
There have been Presidents I have felt that I could support, and some that I have grumbled about through their term(s) of office. Even those I have supported have, at times, done things I felt were unwise, and those I have not cared for have, at times, managed to do something right. Either way, these individuals have served as the elected representative of our nation to the rest of the world. For the work that they have tried to do (and how many of us would even be willing to try?), they deserve at least a day set aside for their honor.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .