Last month, I received so many emails about Presidents’ Day that I had to offer this quick response.
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? Obama?
It’s way too soon. A survey of George Mason historians had 81% ranking George W. Bush as a terrible president but that is frankly ridiculous. And the Sienna Institute ranked Obama as 15th, even while unemployment lingers at an abysmal rate. Seven out of the last ten presidents are now ranked differently from their contemporaries.
Bush will be a complex study. 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. And it is way too soon to be talking about Obama’s place in history.