Presidents I’ve known, sort of

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

When I was growing up in Defiance, Ohio, we celebrated Lincoln’s birthday one week and Washington’s a bit more than a week later.

I recall we got a day vacation for each holiday. In my Dayton, Ky., classroom I taught in, the metal cabinet in the back of the room housed two huge portraits, one of Abe Lincoln, the other of George Washington.

I assumed that in years’ past the teacher would bring out those portraits in February. Or maybe they hung on the classroom wall year around.

In my two years teaching in that room I didn’t resurrect the portraits. The old frames were in bad shape.

Now those celebrations have been combined into Presidents’ Day. I can’t imagine how a teacher handles this. Of course, the kids have the day off as a holiday.

Tackling a lesson on the roll of either president in the nation’s life the day before or after would feel oddly out of place in the school calendar. Somehow, my teachers managed to cram the memorials into the curriculum.

The Washington and Lincoln birthdays give us all a chance to reflect on the history of our country and on the transformations in our democracy through the years.

Just think. The father of our country owned slaves. Lincoln freed them. We had one national leader who presided over the Great Depression. Another who got us into an endless war in Southeast Asia. Another was forced to resign. Another sent troops to Little Rock to enforce the racial integration of the schools.

I’ve met several presidents. When I was writing editorials for the morning paper in Fort Wayne, we lived a year in Washington, D.C. There, I met George H.W. Bush at some event. After another conference, then Arkansas Gov.Bill Clinton invited me to join him for a drink in his hotel suite.

At a Chicago meeting of writers, I got acquainted with then Sen. Barak Obama. A professor friend who joined me at the luncheon told me he was going to vote for this man for president. I was also impressed and figured I’d vote for him, too.

I’ve been disappointed in some presidents I voted for. I thought Richard Nixon was too smart to order the break-in of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel.

I assumed LBJ would continue John F. Kennedy’s cautious foreign policy and not get the country bogged down in the Vietnam war. I’m still puzzled. As a senator, Johnson had proven such an brilliant majority leader.

So here it is, Presidents’ Day. With presidential debates going on lately Americans are starting to think about the candidates and who might succeed President Obama. What’s changed is how deeply divided the country has become.

George W. Bush wanted to be a “uniter and not a divider.” That didn’t work out. I hoped Obama could play such a constructive role. That hasn’t worked out, either.

Maybe honoring Washington and Lincoln today can help us bridge a few differences, bind up the nation’s wounds in Lincoln’s words and point the way to a brighter future.

We sure have known worse days. Most of us, I’m sure, know we can do better.

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