Presidents Day has no formalities to go with it. Ritually, it's little more than a day off work or school, for those who can get it. And hey, there's nothing wrong with that.
But while you're at it, think of our nation's presidents, as well as about what presidents mean to us Americans. They dominate U.S. history textbooks and discussion of current events. We put them on pedestals, to be both pilloried or lionized. We criticize them viciously, but we also expect so much of them - it's amazing how much. They're just flawed people like us, of course; many of us would do well to remember that instead of trying to make them into heroes or villains.
It sometimes seems like the job of the U.S. president requires so many moral compromises - ordering assassinations of terrorists or invasions of nations, for instance - that no truly good person could do it, or could remain good doing it. Internationally, the U.S. president has a huge amount of power - and crushing responsibility.
Domestically, the president has much less might - Congress plays a bigger role on home soil - but Americans still tend to look to him (or, someday, her) to save the day on things like budgets, social safety nets and, increasingly, education.
So yes, we expect too much of our presidents, but here's the kicker: That's a good thing. Americas' reach often exceeds our grasp, and while that trait has led us into some choppy waters, it's also led us to our greatest accomplishments. The high standard we hold presidents to makes them better than they would be otherwise, because they know how high our standards are.
And if they ever doubt that, they should read a few of those history textbooks.
As most of us know, Presidents Day is specifically set aside to commemorate the birthdays of two of the United States' most important leaders. Let's focus right now on some of the things that made them special.
It was largely behind George Washington that our fledgling states united. He was a green, untried general when he led the Continental Army against the British. He had many defeats and many victories, but in that role, and later as the first president - it's hard to say which of these was the dirtier job - he was highly respected. He was also generally respectful to others. He made mistakes in both jobs and was scathingly criticized, but he was notable for not (openly, at least) taking it personally. He hated politics and its warring factions. He stood amid the crossfire, outwardly calm but inwardly trepidatious, for the sake of the nation. His enormous wealth and ownership of many slaves could have made him a target of proletarian and/or abolitionist critics - and they assuredly did - but these darts would have been hurled harder had he been a man of weaker character. His dignity and apolitical attitude stand out as rare treasures among U.S. presidents.
Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin, was far from the same economic class as George Washington (although like Washington, marriage greatly increased his circumstances). Also unlike the first president, Lincoln sought out a political career, while Washington's was thrust upon him. While Washington hung back and took the advice of his cabinet members, Lincoln eagerly pushed his own strong opinions on policy, such as for modernization of banks, protective tariffs, urbanization and opposition to slavery. He had been a lawyer, marshaling thoughts and words and knowledge, while Washington had been a war leader, marshaling troops and cannons. Yet he, too, had great personal dignity and selflessness. He suffered from depression, but he had incredible moral strength. And he needed it. Civil unrest had been brewing for many years, and he, an abolitionist, being elected president was another factor that divided the union. He insisted it hold together, and he put the full force of the U.S. military behind that vow. And it worked, despite a bloody civil war. He was hated in some parts of the country, but he was also adored by the slaves, whom he liberated. It's hard to imagine a U.S. president who faced such difficult decisions, ones that shaped the nation as we know it. Has any other nation had such a leader?
This year, as the American people choose between our current president and the candidates who say they would be better, may we study the presidents of the past to inform us, may we be realistic and circumspect but may we not lower those standards. And may we get, in return, a president who is moral, conscientious, grounded, intelligent and calm amid the crossfire.