Monday, February 20, 2006

Happy Presidents' Day...

By Mitchell

…or is it? In this fascinating little tidbit from The Corner, John J. Miller provides the answer, courtesy of Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation:

The third Monday in February has come to be known - wrongly - as President's Day. ... Although it was celebrated as early as 1778, and by the early 19th century was second only to the Fourth of July as a patriotic holiday, Congress did not officially recognize Washington's Birthday as a national holiday until 1870. The Monday Holiday Law in 1968--applied to executive branch departments and agencies by Richard Nixon's Executive Order 11582 in 1971--moved the holiday from February 22 to the third Monday in February. Section 6103 of Title 5, United States Code, currently designates that legal federal holiday as "Washington's Birthday." Contrary to popular opinion, no action by Congress or order by any President has changed "Washington's Birthday" to "President's Day."

That should give you some food for thought, hmm?

I’ve always had a great admiration for Washington. He towers over the history of our country, even in those scenes in which he doesn’t directly appear (in the musical 1776, for example, Washington’s presence is always there through the dispatches he sends the Second Continental Congress, even though Washington himself is not a character in the story). There’s a nobility about him that made quite an impression on his contemporaries, a nobility that seems to be missing from much of our culture today, political or otherwise.

Washington had quite a different view of the presidency (an office that was tailor-made for him, as the documents from the Constitutional Convention show) than we do today, believing that the president should be more of an impartial adjudicator of events, a man whose first priority was to represent the interests of the nation as a whole, even as Congress had their own personal constituencies to represent.

There is much to admire in Washington, both as a man and as president. He is, in my estimation, the greatest American (which is not to denigrate men such as Franklin and Lincoln, who would stand out in any age). There are many outstanding books on Washington; two of my favorites are the multi-volume biography by James Thomas Flexner (available in this handy one-volume printing), and the brief, excellent Founding Father by Rick Brookheiser. A pity that so many schoolchildren nowadays, when they hear of Washington at all, are taught merely that he was a slave-owner.

Speaking as we have been of presidents, John Derbyshire has an unfortunately accurate (in my opinion) critique of the faults of President Bush. Derb strikes to the heart of the problem many conservatives have of the president, and the damage he has done to the movement:

Reagan came out of an America whose commanding heights, cultural and political, were held by liberals. Yet he was a true conservative, of great principle and conviction. In the later America from which GWB emerged, conservative ideas were much more accessible & widespread, and there was a wider, deeper pool of real conservative from which the GOP might have chosen its presidential candidates. Yet here is a guy from that much-improved background, who is insouciant to, perhaps (I wouldn't personally rule it out) ignorant of, two of the most fundamental principles of modern conservatism: fiscal restraint and government limitation. He is also distressingly naive on some key points of foreign policy, apparently believing, for example, that Vicente Fox is a friend of the USA, that Palestinian Arabs "yearn for freedom," and so on.

That GWB put forward Harriet Miers as a plausible candidate for SCOTUS is bad enough. Worse is the suspicion, among many of us limited-govt, national-issue, and fiscal conservatives, that GWB is Harriet Miers, and that Bill Buckley and the other great nurturers of US conservatism over this past half century may have labored in vain.

Excellent questions indeed. History will, I assume, speak to the answers, in its own good time.

In the meantime, take a moment to reacquaint yourself with the man of whom history has already spoken, the Father of Our Country, G. Washington.

UPDATE: I don't know how I missed this the first time, but there's also a fine interview with Michael and Jana Novak regarding their upcoming book Washington's God, which takes a look at the role religion played in Washington's life. Among their conclusions: Washington took his Anglicanism much more seriously than many others of the time; his actions (if not his documented words) suggest that he was a Christian; and, if he had Deist leanings, he also believed in a God Who could and would intervene in the affaris of man. Certainly sounds like a book worth checking into when it comes out.

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