On President’s Day, a few suggestions for a better way to honor the nation’s chief executives

By Michael P. Riccards

Monday is a national holiday unless you are in the retail business. If you sell cars or mattresses or furniture, then you can celebrate the day but still work. 

Somehow in the 1960s, there was an impetus for a three-day holiday in February, and President Nixon signed a decree that combined Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Day into one three day shopping extravaganza. Labor liked the idea of a three-day holiday, and nobody seemed to care for remembering the two great presidents. When I was a boy, we celebrated both men, not amalgamating them into a generic day that loses the meaning of those men’s lives and contributions.

Politico has suggested that Americans do away with the day, for why should we celebrate men with such flaws? 

Washington after all was a slaveholder, and Lincoln was recorded as suggesting that the races were not equal. Washington ended up allowing slaves to serve in the Revolutionary army and freeing his slaves on the death of his wife. Very few Virginians followed his example. Lincoln may have had some of the racist overtones of his time, especially when he campaigned in front of the brutes of southern Illinois, but no one ever articulated the evils of slavery better than he. And doesn’t a man who freed four million of his fellow human beings deserve some recognition?  

I know that I am told by my kids that I am not woke, that I was born privileged since I am white and male. Perhaps, but I received the thanks of Hispanics when I was a college president in Santa Fe and the strong appreciation of the Black community when I pushed for more recognition of their contributions as a college president in hostile West Virginia. When I left West Virginia, the head of the NAACP in the state remarked that I was the college’s first and last liberal president. 

Indeed, I did not try to upset the historical scholarship on America or change the pronouns in the language in pursuing integration. I started out believing that my job was to raise money and create programs for the disadvantaged of all races and get them the chance that I had. I still believe that. I know that the Supreme Court will soon say that by using affirmative action I violated the Constitution. But I am still proud of the results.

As a historian, I have read the 1619 New York Times report. It is not a very good scholarship, but its basic point is correct in that we have ignored the contributions of minorities. It is only recently that we have, for example, recognized what Lincoln said publicly during the Civil War that the Black soldiers were 200,000 strong in the Union armies.

All great men and women indeed had their flaws. So the San Francisco Board of Education decided to spend hours not on education and COVID preparation, but in deciding if they should strip the schools of the names of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Paul Revere and for some reason Senator Feinstein. 

As Politico acknowledges, we have shown respect for these men and women because we are trying to teach civil virtue. Is that bad that we wish to inculcate good behavior in the young? Or is it better to watch Super Bowl halftime and have them applaud exploitative singers who tell Black youth to stop killing their own and instead kill more cops? Don’t we have enough violence in American cities and suburbs?

Let us also beware of raising the bar too high for hero worship. In my youth, I admired two men Martin Luther King Jr. and Winston Churchill.

Now I know that Dr. King was a sexual hound who exploited women and that Churchill was a racist imperialist most of his career. Even President Kennedy, whom I admired, was a man of voracious appetite for women. He used them and discarded them like Kleenex. Yet I helped to staff his presidential library on Dorchester Bay, taught a course on the Kennedys, and sat there in the front when they dedicated the library. Still, I have more pictures of Angie Dickinson than of the beautiful Pei Library.

We should eliminate President’s Day, put back Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays, and add a day for the greatest of all presidents — Franklin Roosevelt. I bet most of you don’t know when his birthday is.

Michael P. Riccards, a former college president. is the author of 30 books, including a two-volume history of the presidency, The Ferocious Engine of Democracy, and the recently published Woodrow Wilson as Commander-in-Chief. 

Categories: Jandoli Institute, Michael Riccards, Politics

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