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Not all presidents worth celebrating

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Posted: Monday, February 11, 2002 10:00 pm

On Monday, Americans will once again mark Presidents Day — surely what has to be the most useless holiday on any page of our calendars.

If nothing else, it makes February the most barren of all presidential celebratory months.

Of course, it wasn’t always such.

Indeed, once upon a time Americans spent February honoring the birthdays of the nation’s two greatest presidents — Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and George Washington, (Feb. 22).Chet Diestel

But all that changed in 1971 when Congress decided to move Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February as part of a general reshuffling of American holidays so as to give us more meaningless three-day weekends.

Congress simply ignored Lincoln’s birthday altogether.

Matters got worse when President Richard Nixon proclaimed the third Monday in February as a federal holiday honoring all former presidents of the United States.

The irony of Nixon’s proclamation became apparent three short years later when he was forced to resign after the Watergate scandal. It is only on Presidents Day that anyone would “celebrate” his tenure as leader of the nation.

And that is the crux of the problem with Presidents Day: Why should Americans honor some of the most incompetent or ignominious individuals ever to achieve the highest office in the land?

While there are many presidents I deeply admire, I refuse to celebrate those who simply did not measure up to the job.

Excluding men like William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield whose terms were so brief that they left no presidential legacy — good or bad — we have had other presidents whose collective lack of vision, honesty, political adroitness and communication skills is historically staggering

So, here are 10 presidents whose White House careers I will not be celebrating Monday:

1. Millard Fillmore (1850-1852): Certainly our most obscure national leader. For generations, his only claim to fame was that he had installed the first bathtub in the White House. However, historians have now burst even that bubbly illusion of notoriety.

2. Franklin Pierce (1853-1856): A man of so unimpressive abilities that his own party, the Democrats, passed him over for renomination in favor of James Buchanan and who left the White House proclaiming that the only thing left was to go out and get drunk.

3. James Buchanan (1857-1860): Nominated because he had never voiced an opinion on slavery, he did nothing to stop the oncoming Civil War. He left the White House bemoaning, “I am the last president of the United States.”

4. Andrew Johnson (1865-1868): A semi-educated racist who all but destroyed Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” reconstruction philosophy and set back race relations a full century.

5. Ulysses Simpson Grant (1869-1876): An honest man in a sea of corruption who simply couldn’t understand that political sharks have no morals.

6. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1920): An idealist who believed his own press clippings and allowed his pride to drive the nation into two decades of near-disastrous isolationism.

7. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923): A leader who inadvertently wrote his own political epitaph when asked by Will Rogers if he had heard any good jokes lately and answered, “Yes, and I appointed every one of them.”

8. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1968): A man who could have achieved greatness, but whose own insecurities led a generation of young Americans into the killing fields of Vietnam.

9. Richard Nixon (1969-1974): The only president of whom it rightfully can be said disgraced the office.

10. Jimmy Carter (1977-1980): A good man whose own lack of abilities proved once again that the presidency is no place for on-the-job training.

So, there’s the list and that is why on Monday I will reflect on Washington and Lincoln and wish that President George W. Bush and all who will follow him prove worthy of the place in history that the American people have given them.

Chet Diestel is the Lodi News-Sentinel’s city editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.

Comments about this column? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.


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