Heck, most of us can't actually recall much about any president during our own lifetime, at least in substance, yet we always manage to chime in with our so-called favorite and least-favorite, best and worst of the bunch. Based on what? Mythology? Celebrity appeal? Our opinions of presidents usually have little to do with their actual leadership and accomplishments. It's usually more related to whether or not they could play the sax on a late-night TV show or if they had some cute little dog roaming the White House grounds. Most of us don't take the time to analyze a president while he's in the office let alone years and decades later.
So here's to George Washington, General of the Continental Army, presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention, and first President of the United States. Happy birthday!
We are once again celebrating the nation's most nondescript holiday. Its legal name remains "Washington's Birthday." You would not know that from the ads hawking cars and linen, and from public responses to surveys asking which American president was the greatest. (In a recent Gallup poll, Kennedy, Clinton, and Reagan all placed ahead of Washington in the "hearts of their countrymen.")
The shift in the public mind over whom we are honoring on this holiday, like so many other bad ideas, originated in the Nixon administration. The year before he took office, Congress decreed that the February holiday, along with several others, be observed on a Monday. The idea was to give their constituents several three-day weekends. Until then, February 22 (traditionally Washington's Birthday), like July 4 (Independence Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day, originally "Armistice Day") was a date Americans had revered.
When Congress finally got around to declaring Washington's birthday a national holiday, at the end of the nineteenth century, it was following a local custom that began in 1777, when soldiers in the Continental Army began celebrating the birthday of their head general. Cities and towns held pageants and parades. Children competed in essay contests in which they considered Washington's place in history, what they might learn from his example, and how he might handle problems in their day. The Commission that marked the bicentennial of Washington's birthday took on, as one of its projects, distributing reproductions of Gilbert Stuart's famous ("dollar bill") portrait to schoolrooms all across the country.
Nixon, perhaps inadvertently, helped put an end to all this when, in 1971, he signed a proclamation in which he urged all Americans to honor, on the third Monday of February, all who had served as president. Unlike the "New Economic Policy," and the purported plans to firebomb the Brookings Institution, this was one harebrained idea that survived its promulgator. The coalescing of two other bad ideas, political correctness and moral equivalency, breathed new life into it.