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Jewish World Review Feb. 16, 2001 / 23 Shevat 5761

Don Feder

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A pox on Presidents Day -- ONCE, we celebrated the birthdays of our two greatest presidents this month -- Abraham Lincoln's on the 12th, George Washington's on the 22nd. Today, we eagerly anticipate a three-day weekend and observe something called Presidents Day, a solemn occasion marked by auto sales.

Once, we understood the importance of honoring our heroes. Then came the era of disillusionment (the '60s), followed by the age of amnesia (everything since).

The 1968 Monday Holiday Act moved Washington's Birthday to the third Monday in February, convenience trumping tradition. In 1971, Richard Nixon issued a proclamation urging Americans to celebrate Lincoln's life and achievements, as well as Washington's, on that day and designating it Presidents Day.

Congress never went along. The official designation of the approaching federal holiday is still Washington's Birthday. But in the popular imagination and commercial culture, the birthdays of these giants have been replaced by a generic holiday.

If America can't honor Washington and Lincoln, there is little left to commemorate. Without them, we would not exist as a people. One guided America for its first quarter-century. The other saved the Union and ended the moral blight of slavery.

King George III called our George "the most distinguished man alive," quite a compliment for the man who wrested the 13 colonies away from him. In 1777, Lafayette wrote to his chief, "If you were lost for America, there is nobody who could keep the army and the Revolution for six months."

Washington did more than win a war. As president of the Constitutional Convention, he lent his prestige to the document. But for that association, it's doubtful the Constitution would have been ratified. As our first president, he laid the foundation for what became the world's most powerful office.

Lincoln brought America safely through our bloodiest conflict. His speeches and writings constitute a canon of democracy.

Both men had little formal education (Lincoln, less than a year; Washington, until the age of 14), but had the drive to learn independently. Washington taught himself surveying and the art of war. Lincoln became a successful member of the bar by reading law books.

Both were war leaders, who -- through shrewdness and tenacity -- triumphed over superior forces (in Washington's case, vastly superior). During the revolution, Washington commanded an army that seldom numbered more than 15,000. His objective was to keep an army in the field, wear down the British and buy time for the arrival of a French fleet.

Lincoln confronted a rebellion with better soldiers and superior generals. He understood that the road to victory lay not in occupying Southern territory but defeating Southern armies. He chose and discarded generals until he found one who could give him victory.

Both had the stature to hold the nation together during its greatest crises. Washington came to represent the nobility of America's quest for independence. Lincoln's eloquence, at Gettysburg and in his first and second inaugural addresses, rallied a nation weary of death and devastation.

Each was a paragon who symbolized the best of the American spirit -- virtue, integrity, perseverance and sacrifice.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., has filed legislation requiring the federal government to acknowledge the upcoming holiday by its proper name, instead of the silly generic label, and requesting that the president issue an annual proclamation recognizing the anniversary of the Great Emancipator's birth. They deserve no less.

America is losing its identity. Our children no longer study American history. English as our common language is disapp

earing. Instead of a people, we are becoming a nation of the hyphenated. Our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, observed, "When the reverence of this nation for its great men dies, the glory of the nation will die with it." A nation needs a vision, ideals, a past it can look to for inspiration or consolation, great men from whose lives great lessons can be learned.

We need Washington and Lincoln as much today as during their lifetimes.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate