President’s Day

(Excerpt from appearnace on Fox and Friends)

Why is Presidents’ Day so important? 

It unites us as a people.  And it gives our youth common heroes.  We are divided by class, ethnicity, left and right on the political spectrum, religion and science but we come together in Washington, who walked away from power and Lincoln who held us together. So, even while we will be divided this year in a presidential contest, we do find common ground in some of our great leaders of the past. And then, there is the inspiration we get from having heroes, which is important and bit unique to Anglo American history.

 Why so? You write about why Americans need heroes.  Why do we make heroes out of our presidents? 

I think it reveals more about us than it does the men and women we celebrate.  We choose to have heroes.  You look at 500 years of French history and they can basically only name three, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc and Charles DeGaulle and there isn’t really unanimity on those.  The Germans really don’t have heroes.  The Australians have no Lincoln or Jefferson or Washington.  They can’t seem to unite on a single political leader in their history.  You ask them who their heroes are and they will say, “Nicole Kidman.”  So this hero business is very much an Anglo-American thing.

 Talk to us about George Washington 

Well, Washington is really very complicated and flawed.  He loved his neighbor’s wife and even in retirement tried to talk her into moving nearby.  But we choose to celebrate his grace and his integrity.  He walked away from power and that was unprecedented.  People have to be dragged away from power, kicking and screaming.  In Russia, you see President Putin hanging on, not letting go.  And contrast that with Washington, who didn’t have to leave the seat of power but left it anyway to set the precedent.

 And Lincoln is revered. 

Lincoln too was very complicated and flawed.  He was a very poor father, for example, his indulgence of Tad, his neglect of Robert Todd.  But we forgive that and we concentrate on his goodness and his willingness to endure the pain of so many personal losses and to carry the nation through its darkest days. That’s what I mean when I say it reveals more about us as a people.  We choose to believe the best about our leaders when we could just as easily choose to cast them in more complicated tones.

 You write that Lincoln actually got his inspiration from an idealized version of Washington. 

That’s right.  And it is very ironic.  Remember, as a boy, Lincoln practically memorized Parson Weems history of George Washington.  Now, today we know that most of what Weems wrote was invented.  Cutting down the cherry tree, for example, and declaring, “I cannot tell a lie.”

Well, Lincoln believed it all, as did his contemporaries, and ironically Lincoln strove to become this idealized version of George Washington.  He became “honest Abe.”  So this is a perfect example of how cherishing the good in a president, making him a hero, inspired another president to actualize it and live it out.

 How will history rank George W. Bush? 

It’s way too soon.  A survey of George Mason historians had 81% ranking him as a terrible president but that is frankly ridiculous.  Seven out of the last ten presidents are now ranked differently from their contemporaries.

Remember one president started an unprovoked war; his reasons later discredited by the world, betrayed his conservative base by over spending, suspended civil liberties and wrapped it all in religion.  Delegates actually left his last nominating convention singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  His name was Theodore Roosevelt.  He invaded Bolivia and carved out a bogus country of Panama so he could build his canal.  And historians usually rank him third behind Washington and Lincoln, as the third greatest American president.  So the presidency of George W. Bush is very complicated and it should not be ranked so easily or so soon.

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6 Responses to President’s Day

  1. Matt Langdon says:

    I’m Australian and resent your claim that Australians would say Nicole Kidman is our hero. That kind of comment is a good way to negate any good points you have. Also, I think you’ll find you named the wrong Roosevelt as being typically ranked 3rd by historians.

    However, I’m glad you’re promoting the importance of heroes. They’re vital in exactly the way you said Lincoln used Washington.

  2. dougwead says:

    Matt: Sorry, actually the Nicole Kidman comment was a joke which came from my Australian friends, who couldn’t even agree on whether “Crocodile Dundee” was a hero or not. Most of my friends were rather embarrassed by him until he died tragically and they saw the outpouring of love from around the world.

    The thing I like the best about Austrailia nowadays are their movies which are so original, especially compared to our Hollywood-lets-have-a-bigger-car-chase-scene types.

    Do you have a favorite Australian statesman? When I give speeches in Australia and try to quote a politician I am always warned that the audience will be divided on whether they like him or not.

    As to the Roosevelt. No, it is ineed Theodore, not Franklin, that ranks highest in most of the historic rankings. Often third, but sometimes fourth behind Jefferson.

  3. Matt Langdon says:

    Glad to hear it was a joke. I don’t think many Australian statesmen rank because we haven’t had the type of history other places have. Partisanship reigns supreme when there’s nothing to rally around.

    I just looked at the “best” American presidents for my last blog post and Wikipedia has a summary of a large number or polls. The averages saw Lincoln, Washington, and FDR well ahead in the top three with Jefferson and Teddy rounding out the top 5.

    The Crocodile Hunter (not Dundee) was hardly a hero. He was famous, generally nice, and died. There are plenty of Australian heroes, but as in America they’re rarely talked about unless they’re beautiful or sing well.

  4. teynnensweig says:

    Doug,

    great comment and I agree with your general argument here.

    One comment I would like to make about how heroes are chosen:

    We have a tendency to compress time, thereby valuing things from the recent past more highly than things much longer ago. Because of that an older star must shine brighter than a newer one to penetrate the haze of historical remembrance. AND, we don’t just value the recent ones more highly, we often really overvalue them in comparison.

    A few examples:

    Thus, in sports, when the greatest athletes were ranked for their ability and effect on society, Michael Jordan beat Babe Ruth, when the sports ability is hardly comparable, and Babe Ruth had the greater effect overall.

    This also applies to the 2 Roosevelts: Because FDT was President during a calamity, he gets more credit for much of what he did than he deserves, and that is why he sometimes overshadows his uncle. This goes so far as to have many qustion Theodore as having no real place in Mount Rushmore (because generally people just don’t remember).

    As to hereoes in Germany:
    I would dispute the fact that Charlemagne (really Carolus Magnus) is only a French hero. That is another evaluation based on modern historical thought, which is colored in part by a general anti-German attitude in the english speaking world since WWI and WWII.
    Carolus Magnus belongs as much to the German side as the French, witness his main capital in Germany (Aachen), his chief Chronicler (Einhardt), and his status as head of what used to commonly be called the Holy Roman Empire of Germanic Nations (of which the Francs were one). It is really a dual association for both modern countries with equal validity.
    As to heroes in Germany, they only disappeared in the country for the main reason cited above and only after WWII.

    Frederic Barbarossa, Frederic the Great, Bluecher, Scharnhorst, Moltke and Hindenburg, perhaps even Bismark, were once revered in the same way in Germany as we revere our great presidents here today.

    All this is not to negate your point, I just intend to clarify some details. Thanks!

  5. raleyb says:

    We have to be able to joke a little these days.

    I admire Australia. Next to the US I think I’d like it the best. Of course I’ve never been there and know only what I’ve been told, seen or read.

    I have listened to a man there by the name of Peter J Daniels. I have most of his books, his autobiography, his comprehensive Destiny goals program, and I have some of his taped speeches. He is an extraordinary man and speaker. I would imagine Doug has spoken with them or shared the platform at some point.

    He was an iliterate brick layer at age 26. He gave his life to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade and has never turned back. At some points he has been considered the wealthiest man in Australia.

    Along with Doug he is my favorite speaker.

    As far as the blog on President’s day, it is amazing how the instantaneousness of news, blogs and punditry can lead us to premature opinions.

    People are ready at all times to make an opinion after hearing just a few minutes about a situation. It happens on ESPN with guys like Skip Bayless.
    It happens on talk radio. A situation happens the night before, and the 9AM talk folks have already developed an entire opinion on the matter. I’m thinking man I need to research this, and take this all in. I have to digest things and then I’m still a little hesistant to be dogmatic.

    I only read about 4-5 political blogs and 2-3 business blogs on google reader. Doug has one of my favorites because he carefully picks a topic, doesn’t display a personal bias in the writing, and he only posts occassionally. It keeps you anticipating whats next. Some of the other blogs post 5-10 pieces per day. It’s becomes like a job to read it, and you take it for granted because it’s always there. I already run a business and am involved in network marketing- I don’t need another job.

    So thanks Doug, keep the good stories coming.

  6. john darti says:

    Heroes we are talking about heroes all the U.S presidents you said are so heroes, but what about John F. Kennedy?

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