This is Richard Nixon’s centennial year. Partisans still have strong emotions about him: the Left, which finally triumphed over him with Watergate; his own supporters who recently filled Washington’s Hotel Mayflower ballroom with a celebratory centennial dinner in his honor.
There are two non-partisan groups who should be always grateful to the 37th president, for he gave them a priceless gift: a reason for an annual three-day sale–the Presidents’ Day weekend. The groups are used car and mattress salesmen.
In 1970, Nixon did a pre-Obama pre-emption. Instead of asking Congress to convert the George Washington’s Birthday weekend (still its official name), he simply issued a Presidential Proclamation urging all Americans to celebrate all of the nation’s presidents. Hence, “Presidents’ Day.” Calendar publishers, non-nosy news media (that is, most of them) and the aforementioned sales-happy merchants swallowed the suggestion without so much as a “What’s this?”
To date there have been 43 presidents (44 presidencies, because Grover Cleveland’s two terms were not consecutive). Washington’s Birthday has long been a nationwide holiday. Originally a stand-alone, it became part of the three-day system created by Congress with the 1968 Monday Holiday Act. For years, school children had given Washington recitations prior to the day. Newspapers and magazines ran features extolling his career and accomplishments. Historian James Flexner once described him as “the indispensable man,” for without him it is unlikely the fledgling republic could have survived its early years. All that seems to have fallen away.
Now, thanks to Richard Nixon, we have a three-day weekend the purpose of which no one remembers, only that is called the Presidents’ Day Weekend.
Nixon, in issuing his proclamation wanted his fellow Americans to honor all presidents. It is doubtful he thought through that idea, for to honor all means to honor none. Would he have wanted us to honor, say, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison, and Andrew Johnson with the same reverence that we might show George Washington and Abraham Lincoln? Even allowing for the probability that all presidents did the best they could, their contributions to the nation have hardly been equal.
Why was George Washington frozen out of recognition on what is still, officially, his special weekend? There is more than one cause. Many schools no longer focus on leaders when teaching American history. They (and textbook authors and more than a few present-day historians) hold the view that history is a bottoms-up process and that leaders gradually emerge, rather than seizing the reins and pulling the people along. The truth comes, in part, from both the push and pull processes.
A definite contributor to the decline of Washington in the minds of the public is visual imagery. He came from a period long past, when men wore powdered wigs and women wore hoop skirts. In Lincoln’s time, clothing styles, particularly for men, looked much more recognizable than silver-buckled shoes and long waistcoats.
The folks at Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate on the Potomac River, do an energetic job of working with history teachers and creating readable Washington material and traveling exhibits to restore the Father of the Country at the head of the presidential pantheon. Still, it is a constant effort.
As for Nixon, he doesn’t even get credit for his gift from the retail salesmen who are indebted to him. Most today are too young to remember that it was he who bestowed on them their wonderful three-day-sale weekend.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons