Presidents Day has become a contradictory holiday in many ways. Americans are glad for a day off, but few choose to spend the time thinking about or honoring the men who have been the nation's chief executive. Judging by Internet chatter, a sizeable portion of the population for several years now wouldn't say anything nice or encouraging about the current occupant of the White House if money or prizes were at stake.
The holiday itself has an incomplete feel to it. What originally were two holidays — honoring the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — were combined into one day hung conveniently on a Monday so workers could enjoy a three-day weekend. Then the meaning of the day was expanded to include all presidents in general.
In contrast to this rather generic commemoration, however, Americans have been fascinated through the years by their presidents and how they have acted under pressure. The Founders, understanding tyranny and the unrelenting abuses that could come from the rule of man, set up a republican form of government and divided power among three branches, then made everyone subordinate to the rule of law. But the man in the White House (and so far it has been only men) is the face of the nation and commands an extraordinary loud megaphone of leadership. People would be well-served to spend some time today not only pondering how their presidents have performed, but also the way their counterparts in the public felt about these men during the various times in history they were undergoing the stress.
Recently, the movie "Lincoln" captured broad national attention and reminded people of that president's extraordinary leadership during the nation's most desperate crisis. But it also should be abundantly clear that Lincoln was not universally popular during his presidency. The office is a lonely perch that reveals the character, core beliefs and passions of its occupant. To get there, presidents must be politicians. Once in office, politics and statesmanship are necessary tools to achieve goals. But in a crisis, the president must rise above politics and lead, even if that means sacrificing popularity.
It's fairly easy to evaluate Lincoln's presidency today, although a full appreciation requires many hours of study. For people alive 150 years ago, however, it was much harder. The same can be said for people living today and the current president. History has a way of changing labels. Harry S. Truman, for instance, left office in 1953 so unpopular he had decided on his own not to seek re-election. Today, his stock has risen considerably by the passage of time and some sympathetic biographies.
It has been said, perhaps only half in jest, that the job of president is so difficult no one in his right mind would seek it. That is an unfair criticism of those who have held the office, but it is a fairly good summation of the job itself. And yet many Americans expect perfection from their chief executive, or at least an elusive quality defined generally as "acting presidential."
Unlike kings and queens, America's president derives power from the people, who also are imperfect. And so the demands the people place on their president is somewhat contradictory, as well. However, it also would be hard to overstate the importance of presidents to the nation's history, as well as to its future.
The Founders drafted a Constitution that set the framework for the nation's government. But the presidents have given life to that framework, led first and foremost by Washington, who set the tone in a number of ways and then voluntarily relinquished power after two terms.
One chilly day in February doesn't seem adequate to honor or recognize all of this. In truth, that would take a cultural change. Perhaps more reflection and study, coupled with a softening of the harsh rhetoric of criticism — although certainly not an end to thoughtful disagreement over policy and conduct — would be the best way to honor the presidency and what it has meant to the cause of liberty.