Behind the Op-Ed: My latest in the New York Times
Presidents' Day is a dud of a holiday.
The idea for the op-ed, online today and in print tomorrow, came to me after reading Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor's New Clothes. On a walk the next day, I rewrote the story in my head:
“But Presidents’ Day is just a random day off of school,” a little child said as he waited in line at the annual Home Depot Presidents’ Day Sale.
“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father, waiting to buy a backup generator. And one person retweeted to their followers what the child had said, “It’s a random day off. A child says President’s Day is just a random day off.”
“And the discounts aren’t even that great!” quote tweeted another.
President Joe Biden shivered when his social media manager showed him the tweet was trending (far below an “Am I the Asshole” post on Reddit) for he suspected they were right (and the dude was definitely the asshole).
Biden knew, deep down, that he could cure cancer and still be rewarded with low approval ratings, he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.
I didn’t plan on any of that nonsense making it into the Times and I was fine with my editors’ cut. Truly. An op-ed should be tight, focused, and fast, with the takeaway just up ahead—and a newsletter should be whatever the hell I want it to be! Thank you, history cranks and fiends, for making that true. It’s a real privilege.
SOME WORTHY ASIDES
In 1789, as Washington made his way to the first presidential inauguration, the first Congress argued over what America’s chief executive should be called. And if he had a lofty title, should others? It wasn’t clear, even after America’s bloody war against a monarchical government with a powerful figurehead. The House favored “President,” which was as progressive in early America as calling your spouse “partner” a decade ago, while the Senate argued about dozens of titles with explicitly monarchical callbacks. As I wrote in my Washington biography, John Adams suggested “High Highness, the President of the United States of America, and the Protector Right of same,” which Jefferson called “the most superlatively ridiculous thing I have ever heard.” There was undeniable value in an elite title that made sense to world leaders, yet the people’s sovereignty was ultimately most important.
And, of course, George Washington. He didn’t care for royal overtones, either. He had no kingly aspirations. He was a model of self-control, and the people revered him at the risk of deification. He favored a simple title, and they believed he should have it. For how long, no one knew–including the Constitution. Washington set that precedent, too, not by polling or personal desire, but his lived experience. When he could unify the nation, he did, and when that was no longer the case, he respectfully exited the office after two terms. When it came time for Adams to be inaugurated, he humbly walked behind him. For 233 years, American presidents followed the precedent he set for a peaceful transfer of power, and a violent end to that tradition is a call to action.
“He had great name recognition but not a real high quotient of excitement,” an unusually earnest employee told the Times during a fundraising campaign in 1999. “Dull, boring. He was the first President. Of course. So what?” Mount Vernon has since tried to answer that question, but the website still, at the very bottom of a post, lamely calls on visitors to write their representatives and demand he receives all the glory–president’s day, his birthday, and tax exemption status. “We’ve got a great product,” a board member added. “This is somebody more than the guy who sells cars on Presidents' Day.''
It’s unlikely that most Americans share Mount Vernon’s concern, but the real confusion around the holiday is a real problem, and it’s not limited to the figurehead: National holidays are crucial to our sense of self.
And as the haphazard, national observance of February 20th confirms, de facto is not dejure.
If one lives near a historic home or presidential library, perhaps there’s free admission, but there are no conspicuously American celebrations for Presidents’ Day—no parades, fireworks, or barbeques.
In 2024, President’s Day should celebrate a vigorous electorate’s freedom of choice. It’s the best way to ensure it remains intact.
FROM MY ARCHIVES
Letter of Recommendation: Presidential Biographies," New York Times Magazine
William Howard Taft is Still Stuck in the Bath, New York Times Opinion
What We Still Don’t Get About George Washington, New York Times Opinion
Senators, Let Us Read Your Letters, New York Times Opinion
UPCOMING PUBLIC EVENTS
March 23rd: Keynote on George Washington. Raynham Hall Museum. Oyster Bay, New York.
April 18th (possibly 19th!): In conversation with Alex Mar. Oblong. Rhinebeck, NY.
May 17th: Interviewed by Christy S. Coleman. The Jamestown Settlement. Williamsburg, Virginia.
See you soonish! Until then, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram, and the books we’ve mentioned on Bookshop and Amazon. If you’d like a personalized copy of my books, please order them from Oblong.
Depthlessness was a term coined by literary critic Fredric Jameson.