February contains holidays in it that are not Valentine’s Day, eager as Hallmark Cards Inc. may be to have us forget that. This past Monday, for example, was Presidents Day.
Presidents Day is a holiday that I stopped thinking much about once I stopped getting school off for it. Even before then though, it had become one of those days off on which I rarely gave a thought as to why I was off. Past elementary school it becomes distinguishable from Rosh Hashanah or Casmir Pulaski Day only in the day on the calendar it falls upon.
But it exists for a reason.
Though in theory we are honoring the office of the presidency, I am reasonably sure there are more people who celebrate the actual Feast of St. Valentine than people who commemorate the executive office without focusing on the two greatest men to hold that position. If it was really intended for us to focus on Franklin Pierce, the day would have been put on his birthday. No, it exists so we can celebrate Washington and Lincoln specifically.
I initially wanted to write a “what can we learn from Washington/Lincoln” sort of piece, but those end up cliché-ridden in all but the most skilled of hands. It is probable I would end up with something along the lines of “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” in college newspaper opinion column form. Entertaining as that might be,
I will try to spare the reader.
The fundamental problem with such an approach is how tremendously difficult it is to avoid making analogies that seem so perfect but may actually be misleading. It is so simple to say something like “Lincoln faced a Congress that made everything he did difficult just like Obama does now” and so much less simple to tell if that’s a useful comparison or not.
History, as Twain noted, does not repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme. That is precisely what makes it so difficult and at the same time so endlessly fascinating.
Americans can quibble endlessly about what Lincoln would have thought about the war in Iraq or what Washington might have said about Obamacare, but it is safe to say that neither would really belong in either the modern Republican or Democratic parties. That is precisely what makes them such valuable figures.
The fall of David Petraeus made the already small list of political figures who can command respect from virtually all sides of the spectrum even smaller. The military is virtually the only part of government that is both seen as apolitical while having well-known figures (quick: name anybody in the Department of Transportation) and there really aren’t even all that many military figures who are household names to begin with.
I once heard it proposed that the United States could benefit from taking a page out of England’s book and establish a constitutional monarchy. Though such an idea is obviously absurd, the reasoning behind it isn’t as shaky as you would think.
The desire exists for a single unifying figure that we can always be behind regardless of partisan affiliation. The sitting president, no matter who it is, can only play that role for very short and typically dire situations (think about how popular George Bush was in late September of 2001). Men who are dead, and so far dead that they have become almost myths, though, can still play that role. It is through such figures that we can still retain a common American identity that we can all agree on.
Washington had to unify 13 squabbling colonies into a coherent country. Lincoln had to prevent those 13 and their descendents from tearing themselves to pieces. Both, I think, would enjoy the role that they play today, namely, that of ensuring E. Plurbius Unum remains more than merely something on our money.