Monday, February 21, 2011

A Hope on President's Day

Just what is President’s Day? Google the word and you will come up with a multitude of meanings for this holiday. It began in 1796 when people wanted to honor George Washington’s birthday. It was the first American holiday to honor an American citizen. Years later they changed the date from the day Washington was born to a date in-between Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays. This day honored both men. But it 1951 President’s Day evolved to honor the office of the Presidency and not just one person. A little later, of course merchants go in on the act (as they have done on every holiday) and used it for selling one lone TV for $2.65 and a mattress for $5.00—just to get customers in the store. Never mind.

We need President’s Day desperately in this strange time in which we live to honor the office of President. When I was a little boy—a long time ago—when you heard the word, President—you knew this was a big deal. George Washington’s picture was on about every classroom wall I ever had. Up the road from Columbus, Georgia where I lived was Warm Springs where our President, Franklin Roosevelt went for respite and for help with a polio few knew he had. But he was our President—we mill-workers were sure he had saved us from the terrible days of the Depression. He could do no wrong—he was the President.

But that was once upon a time and long ago. This was before I learned that George Washington had his enemies and though some wanted to make him our first king—others wanted anybody but George Washington to lead our country. This was before I realized that Presidents had clay feet like the rest of us. FDR’s legs were encased in braces and he lived in a wheel chair, which the media never showed. He was called a traitor to his class and a socialist for beginning Social Security.

Lincoln was vilified—called ugly, a monkey and laughed at in many quarters. His wife was the object of much scorn and ridicule. And of course—though there is a towering monument in Washington that moves many of us to tears—he was killed by one of our own as he began his second term.

Funny we intone the name of Ronald Reagan—and he brought a lot of hope to our country during a down time. But we also need to remember he had clay feet like the rest of us. He ignored the AIDS crisis, which was just developing—and many lives could probably have been saved by his influence and leadership. Iran-Contra was a dark spot on his record, which few mention today.

You mention Bill Clinton today and people get misty-eyed. Chris Matthews has a special tonight entitled, “Bill Clinton: President of the World.” Have we forgotten our history? Clinton’s impeachment. All those folk, led by Jerry Falwell that were sure Clinton had murdered his good friend, Vince Foster. More than one wag had him running drugs in Arkansas. He had his enormous flaws—and he did a great deal of good—but we must keep reality in perspective.

Few doubt that George Bush had clay feet. When the history of our time is written—it will be noted loud and clear that he got us into a war under very false pretenses. That war continues to this day and over 4,000 of our service people have been killed—not to mention those thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some crazy people say he was behind 9/11. But George Bush provided prescription assistance to millions of the elderly. And he also helped literally thousands in the AIDS epidemic in Africa and other places.

The record is always mixed. Many have been enormously disappointed with President Obama. We want the war to end, we want Guantanamo closed. We want the terrible rendition movement, which still captures suspected terrorists and sends them to other countries to be tortured. We want everyone to have a job and we want to end this scary deficit right now. Yet he is the first African American President. He and his family are models for black people and for us all. He passed a Health Care Bill, which no other President in our history has done. He saved the country from the brink of bankruptcy. He fought hard to break the don’t ask, don’t tell rule in the military. But the furor over his birth certificate, the questioning if he is really a Christian but a closet Muslim, the unrelenting attacks on anything he has done is just unfair. I think that racism is alive and well in this country—but I do hope its power is receding.

I say all of this to say that President’s Day is about more than those we have elected to serve our country. It is a day for honoring the office of President. If I had one wish it would be that we turn down the rhetoric. That we give whoever leads us the benefit of the doubt. That we remember this is probably the hardest job in the world. We elected him because we believed in the hope he promised. If we stand by him, Democrats and Republicans—and other any President that we elect—we might just solve some of our hurting complicated problems.

This is a great country—but if we get too depressed about the present-day we need to look back on all those other days when we treated the office and all those who sat there with venom and hatred and undeserved disrespect.

Years ago James Goldman wrote a play, The Lion in Winter. In the play, Eleanor of Acquitaine and her three sons vie for the right to succeed King Henry. As they meet in the castle of Chinon, France, and begin to plot for the prize, John says, “Richard has a knife.” Eleanor answers, “Of course, he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It is 1183 and we are barbarians. How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we’re the origins of war. Not history’s forces nor the times nor justice nor the lack of it nor causes not religions nor idea nor kinds of government nor any other thing. We are the killers; we breed war. We carry it like syphilis, inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God can’t we love one another—just a little. That’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.” On President’s Day these are some of the things on my mind.

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