Is It Really Presidents' Day?
Reflections on the American presidency
Happy Presidents’ Day.
Let’s face it, it’s an odd holiday in many ways, starting with a lack of clarity over exactly what we are celebrating, other than a welcome Monday off in the depths of winter.
For most of my life, we celebrated George Washington’s birthday on February 22.
(Washington was actually born on February 11 under the old Julian calendar which Britain changed to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 causing a shift of 11 days — much to the dismay of some of Washington’s contemporaries who felt they were losing out on 11 days of life.)
Abraham Lincoln was also born in February (the 12th, under the new calendar, so no worries there). In most places, his birthday wasn’t an official holiday. So the idea of combining the birthdays of two of our most revered presidents into a Presidents’ Day seemed to make sense.
But does “Presidents’ Day” mean this day is actually in recognition of ALL presidents?
A few years back The Week magazine cut to the chase in an engaging article entitled “The most grammatically-infuriating holiday of the year.” Their thesis began with the disagreement over where, and if, to put that darned apostrophe (President’s Day? Presidents’ Day? Presidents Day?). They then explained how the grammatical debate is really a proxy for a larger lack of clarity: “What's particularly distressing is that depending on which variation of Presidents you choose, you change the entire meaning of the holiday.”
Perhaps we can try to disentangle ourselves from some of these syntactic wanderings and use this Presidents’ Day (I'm sticking with this form of the apostrophe) into a consideration of the presidency more generally. It’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.
The U.S. presidency is a combination of both a head of government and a head of state. It oversees a continental experiment in representative democracy. It now also entails being the Commander in Chief of the most potent military force the world has ever seen assembled. So pretty powerful stuff.
It’s not exactly a very expansive brotherhood (and sadly it has only been a brotherhood). Just 45 men have held the office over 46 presidencies; thanks Grover Cleveland for the footnote.
When I was growing up, the office of the presidency carried with it an almost mythic status. At least that’s what we were taught in school. Thankfully, we have long since moved beyond seeing our presidents with hagiographic halos. Even Washington and Lincoln were flawed men, trapped by their times and their inability to think more broadly, especially on the issue of race.
This more nuanced view of the presidency, and American history more generally, is producing a backlash. The fights over our curricula at the state and local level are often about how we try to contend with the complexities of our national story. And it is only natural that our presidents, or at least their reputations, should get caught in the rhetorical crossfire.
Our Founding Fathers were very clear that they were creating, in the presidency, a citizen who was not above the law, certainly not a king, let alone a god. They could have never imagined how powerful the nation they created would become, and thus the powers that would lie with the person leading it. They were wary of concentrated power, and they would have never abided by the idea that presidents would be above reproach, re-examination, and even scorn. Cults of personality are the antithesis of what they hoped to create.
And yet, at the same time, as a nation we should yearn for stateliness in the position itself. We should hope for wise leadership. We should respect the office.
Needless to say this idea took a beating with the widespread criminal conspiracy known as Watergate. Public esteem for the office never fully recovered. And then we come to the previous occupant of the Oval Office, who was like a wrecking ball swinging with destructive abandon amongst our democratic norms. Even trying to catalog the damage is a task of Sisyphean magnitude.
There are some who feel that this office of the presidency is just too powerful, that the set of responsibilities in our current age are too unwieldy, that the nation is too fractious. They rightly see grave warnings in what we lived through. Perhaps there is a lot that can be rethought about how presidents are selected (like the Electoral College) and the powers inscribed in how they serve (such as how we appoint Supreme Court justices).
But I believe that for as long as there is a United States, and I desperately hope that is a very long time, a presidency like the one we have will be a necessity.
All presidencies are messy in real time. It often takes the distance of history to add necessary context. Just ask Harry Truman. Actually by the time his reputation was rehabilitated he was no longer among us. I am not sure where our current presidency will end up. A lot depends on what comes next. But for all the disagreements we can have around questions of policy and politics, I think that President Biden is operating in a manner that helps restore the dignity of the office.
Fiercely debating how we should govern is completely acceptable. Wrestling over how we adjudicate power, how we weigh the accumulation and spending of our resources, how we plan for the future and make sense of the past — all this is also fair and open to disagreement.
But that presidents can be brazenly above the law must be considered un-American. That they should rule for only their supporters at the expense of the rest of the nation must be rejected. And that they should not accept the verdict of the people in free and fair elections is to make a mockery of our most basic democratic necessities.
Ultimately the American presidency is what we allow it to be. It is an extension of us, the nation at large. And it should reflect us, in all of our wonderful diversity, encouraged by our better angels.