Fellow citizens: Remember as a child how, on the third Monday of every February, your family would wake up early to gather around the cherry tree in the back yard and reenact famous presidential moments? How all the kids fought over who got to be JFK while the fattest cousin always had to play Taft?
What purpose does the holiday truly serve? Is it supposed to be a solemn occasion, one in which we memorialize those who held the highest office in the land and led the best lives of anyone? Or is it designed to harangue us into some dubious appreciation of the annals of Washington?
The origin story is not exactly riveting. Presidents’ Day began about 135 years ago, when a few bureaucrats decided that they wanted another vacation day, one for which they could wish many happy returns to George Washington, a remarkably tall man who wore a wig and had been dead since 1799. Initially dubbed “Washington’s Birthday,” it was always acknowledged in some celebratory capacity in the District of Columbia. But it was Rutherford B. Hayes’s signature in 1879 that transformed the sentiment into an official local holiday, and incidentally the first federal bank holiday to honor any one individual in the United States. (A few years later, the day expanded to national recognition, and some states eventually would include lauding the births of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.)
Unlike, say, Veterans Day — which asks us to honor people who genuinely are, or were, part of our everyday lives — Presidents’ Day calls on us to celebrate men who have been immortalized in textbooks and museums and on dollar bills. Is it really all that necessary? Inaugural balls have been thrown for them. Libraries have been dedicated to them. Their memoirs have topped bestseller lists. What more praise could a president possibly want in retirement or the afterlife? Enough already.
Besides, according to a survey of 2,555 adults in the United States conducted last year by the England-based coupon Web site called Vouchercloud, most Americans can’t recite the names of more than eight presidents. To the everyday voter, most of yesteryear’s top-elected leaders are bearded ghosts trapped in picture frames on the walls of federal buildings. But don’t be too ashamed. Our collective indifference is more pragmatism than ignorance. No sense idolizing people you never knew, right?
Maybe that’s the ticket. Presidents’ Day shouldn’t have to be about grieving assassination victims or aggrandizing masters of the legislative process. Rather, the holiday could serve as a reminder that our leaders were not just answers on the back of old Trivial Pursuit cards, but flesh and blood — as capricious, portly, boozy, horny, neurotic, flatulent and foul-mouthed as the rest of us.
Presidents of the United States have vomited at state dinners (George H.W. Bush), nicknamed their penises (Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson), had a meaningless fling in Bermuda while the wife was stuck in New Jersey (Woodrow Wilson), had a meaningless fling inside the White House (Bill Clinton), unapologetically belched on recorded telephone calls (LBJ), exhibited an excruciatingly dry sense of humor that was often lost on colleagues (Calvin Coolidge), channel-surfed until driving the old lady batty (Dwight D. Eisenhower), took chest-bursting bong rips on Mount Tantalus (Barack Obama), polished off 12-ounce steaks for breakfast (Taft), and popped prescription pills as though they were Skittles (Richard Nixon), among other bad habits, health hazards and career killers.
In other words, they’ve done the sort of things the rest of us do. And, in some ways, isn’t that a better way to remember them? I mean, we can’t all claim to have steered the country into the exploration of space like Kennedy or out of a depression like FDR or opened the door to China like Nixon or saved the union’s very existence like Abraham Lincoln. Why be reminded of the momentous accomplishments of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s former residents when we can focus more on the flaws we have in common?
Case in point: What’s a more interesting fact about Gerald R. Ford? That the 38th president signed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment into law Jan. 3, 1975, or that he sucked down a pair of martinis on virtually every Air Force One flight? The Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 never would have passed had it not been for the championing of Chester A. Arthur, but his 225-pound frame’s appetite for champagne and macaroni pie makes for better cocktail chatter. John Adams served on 90 committees in the Continental Congress? Sure, but here’s a more fun fact: The Bostonian polished off a tankard of hard cider at every breakfast. A shocker, his nickname was “His Rotundity” on account of that beer belly of epic proportions.
Who knows, maybe with these sorts of anecdotes and tidbits on hand around the holiday, a few apathetic civilians might discover a newfound interest in White House lore and commit the names of a few more chiefs to their memory. So let’s establish a new precedent for Presidents’ Day — to raise our glasses to the whiskey-reeking spirit of Ulysses S. Grant, Ford’s gin habit, Grover Cleveland’s cholesterol-ridden diet, Harry S. Truman’s morning bourbons (“to get the engine going”), and other presidents’ less than flattering moments in time. It might somehow permit us to set aside political views for a few hours and explore the more vulnerable sides to these historical figures.
Brian Abrams is the author of “Party Like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery, and Mischief From the Oval Office.” To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost. com/magazine.
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