PITTSFIELD — It is ironic that at this time when America celebrates “Presidents Day” as a national holiday to honor all its presidents, the trial winds down for former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment by the House of Representatives for the incompetent job he has done in violation of his constitutional duties as the nation’s chief executive.
I preferred the original reason for this holiday, which was to recognize the birthday of the nation’s first president George Washington for the job he did. This was the first federal holiday to honor an individual’s birthday. Washington deserved such an honor. Trump does not.
Congress changed this holiday by passing a law to give federal workers a three-day holiday weekend effective in 1971. The date for the holiday was changed from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February. The states then changed their laws likewise. Retailers later became involved in sales promotions for that day and popularized the name for the day as “Presidents Day.” Congress did not change the name of the holiday. This crass business use by retailers for trying to increase their sales on this holiday is a disservice to Washington’s legacy by obscuring the key role he played in creating this country.
He was the military leader in the rebellion against the British. His presence at the Constitutional Convention was necessary in producing the Constitution. Historians believe that he could have become a king or a dictator. But, as American historian Gordon S. Wood stated, Washington “wanted nothing of the kind.” Wood found this to be very significant as an “object lesson in republicanism when the experiment of republics, as a form of government, were “very much in doubt.”
In contrast, Trump by the end of his presidency, appeared to want to become a king or a dictator. According to Wood, it was Washington’s “surrender of his sword to Congress, and his retirement to the farm … (that) electrified the world” at the time. The inclusion of Trump, by virtue of being a president to be honored on this day, was another disservice to Washington by pairing Washington’s honesty — symbolized by the story about his chopping down of a cheery tree and telling his father he did it because he could not tell a lie — with Trump — telling lies as president more than 10,000 times, according to fact-checkers.
Words that still echo
Washington’s farewell speech is relevant today. He made a point of setting this nation on a course of unity. The former colonies were plagued by problems with their disunity as individual states.
One of the significant consequences of that disunity was the Civil War fought over slavery. It was a time when another one of our good, competent presidents, Abraham Lincoln, said, “A house divided cannot stand,” and he held the country together by winning that war.
Harry S. Truman, another able national executive kept a sign on his desk that read “The Buck Stops Here” to succinctly point out that a president is indeed accountable for many problems in the country. Truman took on the responsibility of ending World War II because he was accountable to do this, as president Trump on the other hand blames everybody else for the problems he has created.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the nation at the onset of WWII that the only thing Americans “have to fear is fear itself.” When Trump was president, he was asked by a reporter “what do you say to Americans who are watching you right now and are scared?” — a fear caused by Trump’s lack of an adequate plan to keep the COVID-19 pandemic in check, his inability to revive the nation’s economy and his use of influence to enrich himself and his family and the like. Trump’s reply to the question was “I’d say you’re a terrible reporter.”
Trump has not earned being honored with the likes of former presidents like Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Truman. They all deserve to be individually honored and, as Wood observed, “Washington, more than any other individual … made (American) democracy possible.”
National holidays to honor distinguished and accomplished American presidents is something that needs to be treated with due respect. The attempt to honor Washington, as one of those individuals, has turned into a week of public ads to sell cars shown in the background.
Washington deserves more than being depicted in the driver’s seat in one of those cars.