Life is fluid: Anything you don’t fight to keep, you risk losing. Over the past generation two crucial holidays in the American calendar—Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthdays—have merged and morphed into a single anemic Monday known widely as “Presidents’ Day.”
When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, we had separate special days for each of them. A clear logic drove both observance and education: We learned about the life of Washington, about his successes and failures, about his humility, about his incredible perseverance and tactical genius; we learned of Valley Forge, of his efforts to keep the revolution going, about his running out of the chamber in shame when chosen to be the first president.
The same was true for Lincoln: Giving him a day meant focusing on him as a real human being, with humble Kentucky origins, inheriting a nation on the brink of civil war. He was a leader who decided to choose a side rather than unify, who placed the nation’s moral character over its stability, and who led a brutal war to re-establish the Union on tolerable moral foundations.
The lessons of heroism are made clear only when you can really focus on the hero. And so, we were given riveting narrative lessons about two irreplaceable individuals: Washington gave us America; Lincoln gave us our America. Separate days made each of them live in our moral imagination.
Presidents’ Day makes those lessons much harder to hold on to. Washington and Lincoln? That “and” takes on a life of its own. Remember that old Saturday Night Live routine advertising a product that was both “a floor wax and a dessert topping”? Part of what made that ad funny was its rich critique of the American tendency to combine things that shouldn’t be combined to achieve a short-sighted notion of convenience. As soon as you stick the “and” in there, it’s a lot harder to focus on anything else. We’re left with only common denominators—abstractions that take away from the reality of each of them.
In its own way, Presidents’ Day does exactly that. We end up asserting the hero status of both men without showing why their lives were really inspiring. It’s no surprise that a number of states have adjusted Presidents’ Day to fit whatever local politics dictate. In Massachusetts, the observance tosses in John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy as well. In Alabama, Lincoln isn’t even there, with Jefferson (whose birthday is in April) taking his place. The Presidents have become interchangeable, and the day deteriorates into another long weekend of sales, skiing, and sleep.
With the demise of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays (and the transformation of Columbus Day from a source of inspiration into an opportunity for self-flagellation), the only real hero-day we have left is Martin Luther King Day. Few Americans in history are as deserving of a day as King. But the logic of “and” is so powerful that we shouldn’t assume MLK Day is safe. After all, King can be seen as a problematic hero: Some people could object because of issues in his personal life, or because he was a religious leader in a country that’s supposed to separate church and state. When all is said and done, maybe we should add Lyndon Johnson or Kennedy—both of whom made decisive contributions to the civil rights of African Americans. Call it “Liberation Day.”
But, alas, the logic of hero-dilution is even stronger than that. After all, King’s day falls in January, creating an inconvenient break in the commercial flow between New Year’ Eve and Presidents’ Day—the same kind of argument driving the calendric concatenation of Washington and Lincoln. Why not merge King and the Presidents, and just call it “Leaders Day”?
Maybe Presidents’ Day wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it weren’t part of a broader loss of heroes, symbols, and rich agreed-upon meanings that once made America such a powerful spiritual civilization. Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, Nathan Hale, Thomas Jefferson, and Christopher Columbus were seen as inspirational people of achievement. Over the last generation, political correctness has taught us to dethrone them, to focus on their flaws rather than their greatness, and therefore to teach us what to avoid rather than what we can be. We have lost our heroes, and with them, our sense of the incredible possibilities that they embody.
The fact is, we need heroes, not in a generic or iconic way, but as real human beings who give us enduring, inspiring stories. And we need unique, special moments in time to study their lives and embrace their example—despite their flaws, and each on his or her own terms.
Anything you don’t fight to keep, you risk losing.