Wednesday, February 10


Here's a Gold Star for You, Warren G. Harding, Go Have a Cupcake

As the Shrine's resident curmudgeon, I'd like to point out that the holiday coming up next Monday is still, at least officially, Washington's Birthday, rather than the blander, imprecise "Presidents' Day," which makes him, a titanic, iconic figure in both history and the imagination, no better or worse than the rather checkered series of men who have governed our nation. As far as I'm concerned, it's right up there with National Chocolate Cake Day, Festivus, or that thing with the tanks and guys in goofy fur hats in Red Square in terms of invented festivals. (And at least Festivus has the airing of grievances). It is the historical equivalent of handing out gold stars to all the kiddies in the class. Lincoln, for his posthumous place in the American imagination, is the closest after Washington in being logically allocated a holiday, and after him nearly all the others are distant seconds and thirds (even my beloved John Adams, I have to admit. Though, sed contra: "Friendship and trust in the entourage is the most important thing. Like that HBO show... John Adams." Thus Tracy Jordan.)

Do we really need a holiday to remember nonentities like Warren Harding or William Henry Harrison, or klutzy warmongers like McKinley (whose administration's nitwit Platt Amendment soured relations with Cuba for decades)* or Woodrow Wilson, the sanctimonious racist schoolmarm who dismantled most of Catholic Europe at Versailles? Or, for that matter, James S. Polk? I'm quite glad we stretch from sea to shining sea, but let's face it, it's hard to explain how we got a good chunk of that real estate without at least a little national embarassment.

Certainly Washington and Lincoln's reputations were not spotless, but that they could inspire such a legend, and for so long, suggests something of permanence beyond the mere facts. Rushes to secular canonization produce dull civic gods--who remembers Garfield, the great martyr who loomed so high in 1885? That Washington is still remembered, if only for apple trees and wooden teeth, is at least a testament to persistence. (And that he was the only president to wear a court sword on public occasions, if I remember, suggests he had a sense of style and decorum denied to nearly the whole of the governing tradition he inaugurated. Jefferson met ambassadors while wearing carpet slippers, for crying out loud.) A holiday for all the presidents robs us of the specificity essential to memory; it is like offering incense up to a senate subcomittee on traffic-cones, manufactured and utterly devoid of a deeper, organic significance. And it just doesn't ring true in the snappy names department: culture needs specificity; great holidays are named for gods or heroes, not, as the French revolution would have it, random atmospheric phenomena, or, as we would have it, a class of very dull individuals in ties who only occasionally distinguish themselves, whether on the right or left. (And, frankly, I like my rulers dull. It's safer that way. I'm quite sure Vlad the Impaler and Charles the Mad were the life of the party, for better or worse.) It is very different from a holiday for all the saints, known and unknown--which is almost like a monument to the unknown soldier, mysterious and poignant. It is a textbook example of how today's culture continues to bleach all the interest, romance and rootedness out of life--whether on account of timidity or a false sense of fairness, I do not know.

*Essentially, it reads, "Yes, of course, we just gave independence to your nation, but we'll be able to send troops in to muck around with your personal national sovereignty whenever we need to borrow a cup of sugar." I don't doubt our republic's (hamfisted if more-or-less) good intentions in these cases, but really, doesn't anyone think this stuff through?

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