Politics & Policy

Abolish Presidents’ Day

Detail of George Washington (Constable-Hamilton portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, 1794.
It is time to roll back the imperial cult.

Monday is Presidents’ Day, a.k.a. Washington’s Birthday (federally), a.k.a. Washington and Lincoln Day (Colorado, Ohio, Utah), a.k.a. Washington and Jefferson’s Birthday (Alabama), a.k.a. Washington and Daisy Gatson Bates Day (seriously, Arkansas?), a.k.a. another excuse for the sort of underemployed worthless miscreants who get federal holidays off to enjoy another three-day weekend while contemplating the absolute historical and epoch-defining splendor of an august office held by the likes of Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson’s wife, William Jefferson Clinton’s humidor, and Donald J. Trump.

Worst. Holiday. Ever.

Oh, it started off with the best of intentions: a national commemoration of George Washington’s life on his birthday. George Washington was a natural aristocrat, a man of impeccable probity and great personal courage, whose dignity and humility after kicking King George in the pants set a new standard not for American political leaders but for political leaders per se. When Washington said he intended to return to his farm rather than establish himself as a lord in the new dominion he had wrested away from the British Empire, King George famously declared: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” He did just that, resigning as commander in chief and going home to Virginia. The new republic was not yet done with him, though, and he returned to serve as president before returning to the farm for good.

Washington was, as David Boaz put it in his excellent essay of that title, “the man who would not be king.” He would not accept a title or an honorific, and established the excellent republican practice of referring to the chief executive simply as “Mr. President.” George Washington did not need the presidency — the presidency needed him.

There have been some great men and some good men (and a few who were both) in the White House since then: Jefferson, Lincoln, Coolidge, Eisenhower, Reagan. Some of them took Washington’s example to heart: Lincoln was incapable of personal grandiosity, Coolidge eschewed pomp and ceremony, and Eisenhower insisted that he be laid out in the plain pine box of an ordinary soldier, wearing a field jacket with no medals or ribbons on it. Reagan had a touch too much Hollywood in him — perhaps he was only overcompensating for the gloom of the Johnson-Nixon-(Ford)-Carter years — and elevated the showmanship of the office to an unwelcome level. Among other things, he popularized the lamentable practice of having the president, who is a civilian rather than a uniformed military officer, returning salutes. (Ike, who knew better, did it, too.) But in many ways the ceremonial aspect of the modern presidency stems from the horribly abbreviated career of John Kennedy, whose political martyrdom invited a more Catholic approach to the public rites.

The presidency today is a grotesquerie. It is a temporary kingship without the benefit of blood or honor or antiquity, which is to say a combination of the worst aspects of monarchy with the worst aspects of democracy, a kind of inverted Norway. (King Olav V, the “folkekonge,” was famous for using public transit.) It is steeped in imperial ceremony, from the risible and unworthy monkey show that is the State of the Union address to the motorcades and Air Force One to the elevation of the first lady (or, increasingly, “First Lady”) to the position of royal consort; our chief magistracy gives the impression of being about five minutes away from purple robes, if not togas. (There is in Philadelphia a wonderful statue of Ben Franklin in a toga, which one can sort of imagine so long as one also imagines him chugging beer with the wild boys in Tau Delta Chi.) And what kind of god-emperor does not have a national day set aside for worshiping him and his kind?

This is nuts.

The president of the United States is the chief officer of the federal bureaucracy, the head of one branch of a government that has three co-equal branches. Strictly speaking, it is not given to him even to make law, but only to see to the enforcement of the laws passed by Congress (and maybe to veto one here and there) and to appoint appropriate people, like the former CEO of Carl’s Jr., to high federal offices. In the legislative branch, the House of Representatives is the accelerator and the Senate is the brake; the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are pretty much all brake; the presidency is a kind of hybrid, sometimes pressing for needful reform and action, sometimes standing in Congress’s way when it is rash or overly ambitious. The architecture of our constitutional order is a complicated and delicate balance.

But the president is not the tribune of the plebs. He is not a sacred person or the holder of a sacred office. He is neither pontifex nor imperator. He is not the spiritual distillation of the republic or the personification of our national ideals and values. (Thank God Almighty.) He is not even primus inter pares like the chief justice of the Supreme Court or the Patriarch of Constantinople. He is the commander in chief in time of war (which, since we have abandoned the advice of Washington and Eisenhower, is all of the time, now) and the chief administrator of the federal bureaucracy. That is it.

He is not a ruler.

But men demand to be ruled, and they will find themselves a king even when there is none. (Consider all of the hilarious and self-abasing celebration of Donald Trump as an “alpha male” among his admirers, an exercise in chimpanzee sociology if ever there were one.) But they must convince themselves that they are being ruled by a special sort of man; in ancient times, that was the function of the hereditary character of monarchies. In our times, it is reinforced through civic religion, including the dopey annual exercise that is Presidents’ Day.

Abolish it. Mondays are for working.


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