Presidents Day past

Presidents Day, which honors George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, is a tricky affair. Originally meant to honor Washington around his birthday, it's now a presidential twofer. Since Congress moved the holiday to the third Monday of the month, this three-day weekend has spawned one of the major retail events of the season (which could perhaps be seen as an unbridled celebration of the capitalistic freedoms our Founding Fathers promoted). Most often, The Times used Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays for more solemn reflection in times of war.

At the turn of the century, The Times remembered Old Abe's birthday:

Abraham Lincoln.
February 12, 1900 Today marks the ninety-first anniversary of the birth of that immortal American and emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, and therefore it is fitting, at this hour, to recall to the minds of his countrymen what character of man he was, and to point out, to the youth of the republic, the lesson his great life taught. Washington and Lincoln were two men that associate themselves in the mind when either name is spoken, and while there are some Americans who show an inclination to discuss the question, as to which was the nobler and greater man, such discussion is wholly idle, for each, in his time, attained to the full measure of a man. Praise can reach no higher point than this, for to be all that is demanded in potential manhood is to be next to God. As to which came closer to the hearts of the people is likewise idle and unseemly speculation; for to his contemporaries Washington's name was as dear as was the name of Lincoln's to those who fought at Gettysburg, at Antietam, and the Wilderness, or to those others who performed the service, equally valuable, of supporting the armies in the field with a spirit of steadfast loyalty … It is to the career of Abraham Lincoln that we should invite the clearest and best thought of the generation that is now coming upon the field of action. Those who study it with care will not only find entertainment in the enterprise, but they will be steadied in spirit and strengthened in purpose by the splendid example set by the great American who freed the slave, and washed from the flag of stars its one unseemly stain. If the youth who has a taste for politics will say to himself, "What would Lincoln have done?" when setting out upon a course of action, and will follow as closely as may be in the footsteps of the immortal President, then he cannot fail to make of politics a success. For, rightly pursued, politics is a noble and praiseworthy occupation, as behind it lies the very life of our government. It is right and proper for every good American to be a politician, in the best sense of that much-abused word, "politics." He who is in politics for revenue is a bloodsucker; but he who is in political enterprise for his country is the truest of patriots. Lincoln has often been called America's greatest politician, and there is reason for the appellation. He was our country's greatest politician because he was second to no man in his love of country and in his faithfulness to and trust in the people. When God called Abraham Lincoln on that gloomy morn in April he was at the zenith of his fame and the power as a man, and when he died there slipped into the great beyond the sweetest, most patient, most kindly spirit that ever dwelt in a human body. Upon his grave today let all reverent Americans lay a chaplet of kindly thought and thankfulness that such a man as he once lived to dower the name of his country with imperishable glory and renown.

The next time that The Times looked up to a dead president for guidance, it was from the depths of World War II:

We Need a George Washington
February 22, 1942 This is the anniversary of the birth of a man who left for us, among other great patriotic legacies, examples of peculiar pertinence to our problems of today. The date is separated, in this "month of Presidents," by only 10 days from the natal anniversary of another great American war leader whose courage in adversity has become a national tradition. Washington and Lincoln knew what it was to fight wars in which nearly everything consistently went wrong, not for months only but for years. Our dismay after Pearl Harbor was no greater than that of our colonist ancestors after Washington's early defeats in New York. Singapore probably is no more discouraging to us than was the first Manassas to the "smugly overconfident" North in the Civil War. Nor were the Father of His Country and the Great Emancipator strangers to internal dissension and their-day versions of "Cliveden Sets." They had to accept crushing defeats which should have been victories but for the incompetence and worse of trusted commanders. They had their intervals of stimulating success, with worse defeats to follow and yet more confusion and demoralization to contend with from within. In their darkest hours, their native courage and determination were pillared by faith in the latent strength of their charges and in the might that arms a quarrel just. But it was not till after Valley Forge that Washington's unshakeable confidence was justified by a definite trend toward victory, nor that of Lincoln till after Gettysburg … Incidentally, if anyone had suggested that Washington stop essential war work to celebrate his own birthday, or that of anyone else, on a Monday because the actual anniversary happened to fall on a Sunday, he would undoubtedly have been treated to a free sample of the Virginian's vigorous vocabulary. As we observe the occasion ourselves, let's give point to it by remembering some of the things which make it worthy of our observance.

The nascent Cold War kept The Times' eye trained on military role models, as the introduction to the following editorial shows:

National Defense Week
February 11, 1953 It is fitting that the President should proclaim the 11 days between Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays as National Defense Week, so that we may pay tribute to two great defenders of the nation by looking again to the present defenses of America. In a country which is forced to devote so much of its energy to its defense it is of utmost important that all of us to understand the effort so that we may each play our part and help mold policies with intelligence.

A decade later, The Times finally examined Washington's legacy, as it had done for Lincoln more than half a century before:

'He Errs, but With Integrity'
February 22, 1962 The celebration of George Washington's birthday might be called an annual appeal to the conscience of Americans. President Washington was not a man who charmed people but who overawed them; his public virtue seemed heroic even in his own time, which was, in a manner of speaking, an age of heroes. The modern politician salutes him rather uncomfortably and the modern liberal intellectual passes him off with a deprecation; he led a revolution, but it was a "conservative" revolution — a good try perhaps, but not good enough by the modern standard. The American people of today probably would not elect Washington President if he passed among them under another name, although they sincerely defer to his memory and believe he was the father of his country, and theirs … … Light Horse Harry Lee pronounced his eulogy — "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." The rhetoric was required, but Lee might have said first, period. Jefferson, who tried on occasion to ground Washington's reputation, succeeded in a sentence in setting it higher than the orators. "He errs as other men do," said Jefferson, "but errs with integrity." In this century the friendly mythology of Washington has been stripped away and the man stands naked for judgment. The verdict is still that no country ever had such a father.

Congress expanded the holiday to honor both presidents in 1971, but it took a marketing push from retailers in the 1980s to raise the Presidents Day profile. Abandoning sentimentality, The Times waxed sardonic instead:

Happy Birthday — Whenever
February 12, 1985 With digital clocks, children now can tell time without figuring out the big hand and the little hand. Between Velcro fasteners and loafers, they can escape the art of tying shoelaces. And with the nation's holiday schedule, they can go through life thinking that all famous people were born with floating birthdays that always fall on Monday. The confusion comes from the scheduling of holidays on Mondays to concoct three-day weekends. Thus George Washington's birthday is on Feb. 22 but is celebrated in all states on the third Monday in February — Feb. 18 this year. It is called Presidents' Day in four states and Washington-Lincoln Day in five. Twenty states, including California, do celebrate Lincoln's birthday on his birth day, today. Sort of. State offices are closed, but city and county employees work. Los Angeles schools were off on Monday. Democrats tend to schedule Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners during the most convenient congressional recess. It really doesn't matter, since they were born a month apart … Maybe we should spread our holidays out a bit. One way would be to elect a President who was born in June, the only month in which there is no presidential birth day.

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