Ichabod's Kin
A place for politics, pop culture, and social issues

Thinking of Presidents

Lincoln's Birthday

Image by John McNab via Flickr

Forgive me that Presidents Day is past, but it often flies by with hardly a thought from us.

And if you cringe at detail, don’t even start with the mish-mash of proclamations, executive orders and Senate bills that tinkered with bestowing proper honor on these dudes. What is now “Presidents Day” didn’t really get nailed down without the help of advertisers and the marketplace of the 1980s, another of their excuses to pretend we can buy wares at “sale” or “discount” prices for the occasion.

It should be added that even the spelling has been argued to a stand-off and we are now allowed to render it with or without an apostrophe and be totally okay with all official word-meisters.

What the day really ruined was originally two days off from school in February. Till then kids enjoyed two that month, the 12th and 22nd, respectively, thanks to Washington and Lincoln. Then along came the Messers That Be who merged them into one. Not only that, it is now, as Nixon declared in 19071, “to honor all presidents, including myself.”

Oh, let’s don’t stop there: those examples of dilly-dally with a day supposedly special to all Americans screwed up something else along the way. Washington was actually born on February 11 but under the Julian calendar, which changed to the Gregorian during his lifetime and thereafter computed to Feb. 22. So the legislative adaptation calling for a celebration to be the Third Monday means that its observance can never fall on his actual birthday since that Monday can’t fall any later than the 21st. Hail to the Chief.

We’ve had so many prezes since ol’ George that it’s hard for us to appreciate what a hero and celebrity he was in the American imagination. The most famliar renderings, whether in paint, sculpture or statue were of him on horseback and a sword in view. This acknowldged his military prowess, being, after all, “first in war…” before he could be “…first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

This was the big story–till Lincoln. Washington had died a natural death; Abe was hated and vilified by half the nation till his death from a coward’s bullet evoked the love and secret admiration even of his critics.

It is those two who are thought of first and foremost when Presidents Day rolls around. Admittedly, there are years we think of neither, just that it’s a day off or an excuse to go buy a big screen TV from Billy the Price-Buster, or whoever. In other years will come flashes of memory, thanks maybe to new biographies or memoirs that tell more than the same-old, same-old, or that occasion longer looks at more recent presidents like Carter or Jackson.

What really makes a presidential legacy is success in war. George and Abe are Exhibits Number One, for leading a Revolution and for bringing us united through a Civil conflict, respectively. Both times, American blood ran red on our own soil, which is why we fell so in love with the song, “Over There,” beginning with World War I, because it meant the fighting was not “Over Here.”

But whether Here or There, war is the litmus test for greatness. That’s why LBJ got no love for the Lost Cause in Vietnam, or Nixon for extending it to Cambodia, though the Dickster is vilified for much more than that.
This had to sting, since headier times were hardly faint from Wilson as the first “world” war president, and FDR was fresh as the second.

It’s also why invading that little spit of land called Grenada was such a sweet idea for Reagan, along with his taking on the guerilla Sandanistas; then alas and alack, he fell on his own sword by selling arms for hostages. His minions try to give him all the credit for the fall of Communism but real historians know that’s due to the pope and the Solidarity movement, both of which did more than spout  platitudes far from the fray.

Carter had the luck of an incompetent military that sent dysfunctional helicopters to crash into each other while trying to rescue our hostages in Iran.

Consider now Bush the Elder: too bad he didn’t push on to Baghdad in the first Gulf conflict. That was actually the decent thing to do, but wouldn’t you know, the snake in Iraq got live for another day and for more mischief. Hence, no cigar for H.W.

His son, the Eternal Frat Boy, was handed greatness on a platter when his term, sputtering from the start, got a break with 9/11. Whatever made him then prance out on a big ship and lisp, “Mission Accomplished,” when there was no such thing, is known but to God. To compensate, he marched our children off to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are still going and are anything but howling successes. So no stogie for him, either.

Ironically, if John Boehner wants to cry for anyone, it should be for Obama, who hasn’t started any wars but got a couple handed to him. If Barack can wriggle out of those, he should be allowed, if not a cigar, at least a last cigarette before going back on the wagon again.

One Response to “Thinking of Presidents”

  1. You fail to mention Bush the Elder’s side-show in Panama. Noriega was “our Friend’ until his drug smuggling got in the way, and embarrassed Bush. Especially when his own Justice department was after him, while Bush was still proclaiming him a friend of the USA.
    That alone should proclaim Bush elder as one of our “greatest” something.


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