One of the problems with the federally designated Presidents Day holiday that we just observed is that we have no clue who we just celebrated.
Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1805. He is the one whom we honor. George Washington is also a February birthday boy, but his exact date is confusing. For the record, baby George arrived in Virginia on Feb. 11, 1731. However, because the Julian calendar used from the days of Rome was corrupted compared to Earth’s solar clock, Mr. First President actually came a year and 11 days later. Talk about a long pregnancy. Or rather, would that be an extremely premature birth?
By the aggregation of the birthdays into one, both are forgotten. Instead, we have Presidents Day that could include anyone from Polk to Buchanan and Adams to Adams. If you were a Republican, you would have to suffer through the four elections of FDR. If a Democrat, the eight years of George the 43rd would have to be included as well.
We have now our 44th chief executive. Does he get to celebrate his day as well?
Part of the question of presidents past is who should be included in the pantheon of greats and slip their names into the file folder titled Presidents Day and People Worthy of a Holiday.
Washington and Lincoln are slam-dunks. Founding Fathers are pushed aside and are even downgraded to Founding Uncles or distant cousins. James Madison you would think would get some time during the 24 hours of Presidents Day for his writing of the Constitution that created the office of president in the first place.
James Garfield was a brilliant man whose life and presidency were cut short by an assassin’s bullet. We have had too many presidents whose election by the people was nullified by the gun of one man.
How many minutes should we give Jefferson? He was brilliant, and according to John F. Kennedy, he equaled a roomful of Nobel Prize winners when he would dine alone. Quoting from Kennedy's 1962 remarks at the White House, “Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.” In more modern times, people have questioned whether a president can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Lyndon Johnson is remembered for both his War on Poverty and his war in Vietnam. Does one take or add minutes to his recognition?
We generally don’t like dishonest leaders. We like to think that we have elected men of integrity, but Watergate taught us otherwise, as did “that woman." This is just in the span of our short-term memory. Grant did a better job commanding the Army of the Potomac than he did his administration. Harding and bribes seem to follow together on a river of oil from the Teapot Dome scandal.
We have had a knack for electing former generals, including our first. Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Hayes, Arthur and Pierce, Grant and Eisenhower are just a few of the 12. The majority of them today provoke a loud “who are they?” Fortunately, our selection of presidents did not exclude privates. Had that been the rule, we would have been without Pvt. A. Lincoln.
Growing up, we are taught to respect the president and the office he holds. History may say that some did not deserve the respect by their tarnishing of the office. Still, he is our president of our democratic republic. We wish they were perfect just like the stories of childhood.
We elected them. We owe them that much. Maybe not a holiday, but at least a few minutes of our time.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org