President's Day has got to be the lamest of this country's national holidays. Are we celebrating all presidents? Does that mean I have to honor execrable villains like Nixon, Jackson, and Polk? Or for that matter, blundering mediocrities like Benjamin Harrison, Franklin Pierce, and most of the others? For that matter, what about all those enslaver presidents?
I've often felt that this holiday ought to be eliminated, and that we have a holiday to recognize emancipation on Juneteenth (which would also be an official holiday commemorating the Union victory in the Civil War.) While we still have it, though, I'd like to make some use of it. Here are some moments in presidential history that we can be proud of and that can give us inspiration for political battles today.
FDR's "I Welcome Their Hatred" Speech
In 1936, as FDR ran for re-election, he took on his wealthy opponents with language that is simply not allowed today. In this famous speech at the DNC at Madison Square Garden, Roosevelt attacked to monied interests, telling the crowd that "We know now that government by organized money, is just as dangerous as government by organized mobs." If that wasn't enough, he reminds the crowd that big business and the banks "are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" These days politicians are scared to death of alienating their wealthy benefactors, and that might be why progressive legislation is so difficult to pass.
Eisenhower's Farewell Address
While Ike's politics were more conservative than mine, I must express my admiration for his farewell address. He warned the nation of the growing power of the military industrial complex, a warning that has sadly not been well heeded. Ike, like most soldiers, was no war monger, since he knew well the costs of conflict. The chicken-hawks baying for blood today evidently don't.
LBJ's Speech For The Voting Rights Act
The film Selma has revived the debate about Johnson's role in helping or hindering the civil rights movement. Despite some of his failures (the seating of Mississippi's segregated delegation at the 1964 DNC, for example), Johnson did push to get both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed. The story goes that he decided to push on the Civil Rights Act right after taking office, a move some of his aides found too bold. LBJ is said to have replied, "what's a presidency for, anyway?" That's a question I wish Bill Clinton had asked himself more often.
Lincoln's Second Inaugural
This brief speech eclipses even the Gettysburg Address. In it Lincoln discusses the Civil War as God's punishment on a guilty nation for the crime of slavery. Despite the horrific loss of life, Lincoln acknowledges that even this level of carnage does not yet match the suffering inflicted by centuries of slavery. Instead of the empty nationalism peddled by most inaugural speeches, Lincoln reminded his audience of the nation's shame. Such truth telling is no longer permissible.