President's Day, celebrated on Monday, may seem somewhat contrived, an attempt to work a three-day weekend into the month when our two greatest national leaders were born, with the goal of making February a little more tolerable. But somewhere under the annual glut of ads for improbable bargains, there's real meaning to the day, especially in this year of rancor, division and shameless deceit. It is to be found in the lives of the two men who are the focus of the holiday: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Their examples have endured; when they cease to matter to us, we will be in trouble.
George Washington's most important contribution to the new nation may have come from the example he set. He was, in the words of historian David Hackett Fischer, a model of "integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others." This did not necessarily make him a popular figure with everyone. Rather, it made him an honored, respected and trusted one - the only president to win every electoral vote in both his elections and the one who set an important precedent by stepping down (with genuine relief) after two terms. Washington had no need to talk of how "strong" he was. His strength was self-evident.
Abraham Lincoln was born poor yet proceeded to rise to the top with the kind of sureness and dignity that does honor to a democratic country. He had little formal schooling, but he educated himself into a command of the English language that puts modern speechwriters to shame. He was a practical politician and sometimes did things he found distasteful. But on the vital issues of his day, he was knowledgeable, eloquent and solidly principled. In a time when a large national party had been pushing to exclude the Irish Catholics and Germans pouring into the country, he voiced praise for immigrants. When Southern leaders threatened secession, he stood firm against expansion of slavery. He shared with Washington the virtues of honesty, integrity and respect for his fellow citizens. By the time of his death, Lincoln was worn by work and care, by family tragedy and by the horrors of the life-or-death decisions he faced every day, with little relief. He gave his life for his country.
Just over a week before his inauguration, our new president announced that he would leave the running of his business interests to his two eldest sons. Not that he couldn't handle everything himself, he assured us. "I could actually run my business and run government at the same time," he said.
In the weeks since, it's possible that he has learned, the hard way, that the presidency is not a part-time job. We hope that Congress has also learned something in the past month: that with truth, openness and integrity becoming scarce commodities in the White House, and with ethnic nationalist and other anti-democratic forces gaining in many countries, an inescapable challenge is looming before the House and the Senate, the same one presented to another Republican Congress 154 years ago by a president who always spoke with honesty and courage:
"We cannot escape history," Lincoln said then. "We . . . will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."