Thursday, February 22, 2018

Washington's Birthday

Despite the ubiquity of "Presidents Day," Washington's Birthday remains the official name for this week's federal holiday - albeit transferred for consumerist reasons from its proper day (today) to this past Monday. Back when I was in school, Washington's Birthday was the second of two patriotic holidays in February - school holidays roughly midway between Christmas vacation and Easter vacation. Washington's Birthday also served as a convenient illustration for teaching about the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars. The Protestant British initially refused to adopt the Gregorian calendar but finally did so 70 years later in 1752. That meant that when George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, it was still only February 11, 1731, in Virginia where he was born in what was then British North America.

Recently, The NY Times surveyed some 170 representative political scientists from the American Political Science Association who, unsurprisingly, rated Abraham Lincoln as our best president, George Washington as second, with FDR in 3rd place - rankings unchanged from the last time this survey was conducted in 2014, Our current incumbent came in last  at number 45.  Given how easily and frequently historical memory and judgments change, perhaps it would be fairer not to include incumbents at least until they are out of office - and perhaps maybe even a little longer. Be that as it may, there is nothing surprising of seriously controversial about Washington's high ranking in our presidential pantheon. 

Washington's administration had some significant substantive accomplishments. But surely his greatest accomplishment was to shape and define the office of the presidency. Article Two of the Constitution created a vessel that needed to be filled, and it was Washington who did the filling. He gave the office its dignity, effectively that of an elective monarch, who, however circumscribed his formal powers, effectively reigns as the embodiment of the nation. That is why a bad president is so problematic - not just because of the bad policies he may pursue but also because he represents us, and when he is bad we in turn become that much worse.

Above and beyond all that, for us parochial school kids back in the Eisenhower-Camelot era, Washington's Birthday also had a uniquely sectarian significance, since it coincided with the Church's feast of Saint Peter's Chair. It was pure coincidence, of course, but we were happy to ascribe significance to honoring "the Father of our Country" on the same day that we celebrated the papal primacy. Honoring thus our Holy Father and the "Father of our Country" on the same day seemed somehow a suitable expression of Catholic immigrants' long struggle to reconcile our dual loyalties in a way that made them complementary rather than competing - both in our own consciousness and to challenge established Protestant America's suspicion and disdain. And it worked.

But interconnected and cross-cutting concerns only highlight how important the person of the president - his public character - really is, the serious symbolic level on which he functions for American citizens, ever since Washington himself first defined the office for us and for his successors.

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