When I was a boy in school, we celebrated George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays individually. My recall of those snowy February school days long ago is increasingly less clear now, but I remember vividly the big posters of George and Abe that the teachers would tack up on the bulletin boards. Looking back at it now, it seems every teacher in every grade had the same two posters. As I think of them, I can remember the expressions on both presidents’ faces staring at me through the gauzy years with those eyes seemingly focused just on me.
Of course, this was before the thing we now call Presidents’ Day. While the federal government still recognizes this third Monday in February as Washington’s Birthday (which is actually February 22), it has been a long time since it was known as that to the public. Since the 1980s when I was first teaching, we called it “Presidents’ Day,” but I followed the teachers I once had and tacked up pictures of Abe and George in my classroom (oddly enough, the same exact posters from my youth that I had found on a shelf in my classroom closet).
I have heard all sorts of arguments for and against honoring all presidents on this day. There are the purists (usually history teachers or grumpy old fellows who fondly remember inkwells) who will argue that inclusion of any other president waters down the significance of George and Abe, whose individual birthdays are no longer holidays. Should we not honor only them both on this day since their birthdays are now overlooked?
However, there are many among us who think all presidents should be celebrated. Of course, there are those presidents who stand out as more formidable figures in history. Obviously, some will point to the four faces on Mount Rushmore as evidence of those we should note, but I would mention that different men would no doubt be considered if that monument were being erected today. Franklin would probably replace his distant relation Theodore, and there would be those who would push for Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or maybe even Harry Truman. I am sure each person would have his or her own ideas for a new Mount Rushmore.
There are presidents who are like old generals and just fade away. Whether their presidential timber was questionable or their time in office unremarkable, you don’t hear much about them. Can any of you right off the top of your head talk about the accomplishments of Grover Cleveland, Rutherford B. Hayes, or William Howard Taft? What about Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, or Warren G. Harding?
Of course, many of us are familiar with recent presidents whom we recognize and remember. I only remember JFK from his assassination, Lyndon Johnson because his wife was named Lady Bird, and then Richard Nixon becomes fully recalled for going to China (I had to keep a journal in school about the trip) and Watergate. My memories of President Ford are mostly that Chevy Chase made fun of him on Saturday Night Live, and then that Jimmy Carter had a wacky family, a TV show vaguely connected to him called Carter Country, and a problem with hostages in Iran.
All of us could go on about presidents we remember (or wish we didn’t). The truth is, good or bad, these men have served their country in the highest office in the land. If we do a little exploration, we could probably find something interesting and noteworthy about each one of the 44 who have served their country. Perhaps just the fact that they became president should be enough to include them in the celebration of the day.
Now there will be those of you who see this as a day to just enjoy a long winter’s nap. Others will rush out to the department store sales, and some are away on a long weekend either skiing or in a warm water location enjoying surf and sand. How many of you will actually be honoring the presidents today or not really matters less than the fact that the day stands as a way to formally acknowledge their service.
As I was working on this article and looking for images, my son (whose in Kindergarten) pointed to the image of Lincoln and said, “I’m learning about him in school.” I showed him a picture of Washington and asked him if he knew who that was, and he said, “No.” Perhaps his teacher was waiting for Washington’s birthday to talk about old George, but that is another story. Obviously she doesn’t have those old posters up in her room, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Whatever you do today the fact is that it is Presidents’ Day. There are four living former presidents: Carter, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, and our current Commander in Chief, Barack Obama. It’s their day as much as it is Lincoln’s or Washington’s. However you feel about any of them is up to you, but I lean toward tipping my cap to them and saying, “Thank you.”
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