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Honor Your Presidents (No, Seriously)



The older the United States gets, and the more presidents we elect (endure?), the more important each and every one of us should consider Presidents' Day. Resting comfortably -- and appropriately -- on our calendar between the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12th) and George Washington (February 22nd), Presidents' Day is a nice starting point for elementary-school lessons on two of the four commanders in chief immortalized on Mount Rushmore. And if an American is to pick two presidents from among the 42 men to have occupied the office, General Washington and Honest Abe must be the two. But as our country stretches through its third century, why stop at remembering but two?

The office of the United States president should -- no, must -- be taken more seriously than it often is. (And yes, this is due in large part to the shenanigans and misdeeds of certain men we've elected to the position.) Modern media have allowed the kind of presidential lampooning about which the finest of 19th-century cartoonists could only have fantasized. And the trickle-down effect is that the most impressionable minds among us -- our children -- grow up considering the leader of the free world one part power broker, one part punchline. And even with the stumbles of Coolidge, Nixon, Clinton, and Dubya, the position (if not the person) deserves better.

I'd like to see public schools take a week each February and devote an afternoon each day to the study and discussion of a U.S. president. No particular order, and no connection necessary, one day to the other. The one nationwide rule would be that the five presidents discussed must be different, year to year, and Lincoln and Washington are not to be among the week's central topics. (Let's be realistic. The two birthday boys would be the standards by which all the other presidents would be measured. They wouldn't need any spotlight in the classroom.)

Why such devotion to the study of the likes of Chester Arthur or Warren Harding? The script of history is written -- knowingly or not -- by human beings. And it's the impact of human beings in positions of power that create turning points on our nation's (our world's!) timeline. The U.S. president, even when not as grand a figure as Thomas Jefferson or Franklin Roosevelt, represents an access point to history, and a pivot point in our society's discussion of what mattered (and didn't matter) during his time in office. Anyone with a government job should brush up on the Pendleton Act (under Arthur) and anyone not forced to work a 12-hour shift should check up on the efforts of President Harding.

My single greatest literary discovery since I graduated from college is the presidential biography. An English major, I managed to explore some of the world's greatest fiction before I could legally raise a drink. But a three-volume (so far) biography of Lyndon Johnson? Never would have considered it until I began to truly educate myself. (If you start Robert Caro's first volume on LBJ, you'll have all three read by this time next year.)

The beauty in exploring our presidents beyond the stereotypes of the legendary Washington and Lincoln is how varied, how problematic the measure of "greatness" has become. Teddy Roosevelt's determined, chest-beating toughness (damn the monopoly!). Harry Truman's morality, wrapped in a Midwestern charm that did nothing to soften his own world-changing decision about The Bomb. And then there's the thousand days of John Kennedy, America's Camelot now taking on the proportions of an age-old fairy tale. Where to begin such a discussion? When do we pause to reflect on the single most powerful job ever created by a democracy? Why not on Presidents' Day? Forty-two lessons await you, and counting. 

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