To hear various commentators speak about politicians today, the overwhelming impression one gets is that politicians fall into one of two camps—ideologues or modern day Machiavellians. Either they are hidebound in what they believe and, hence, unwilling to take seriously the other side (or even reality itself), or they are so willing to compromise for short-term gain that they neglect the common good. Of course, these are caricatures, but repeated often enough, they do stamp how the general public has come to think about its elected officials.
Although Americans have a long history of seeing politicians as “those rascals in Washington,” it was once the case that they also took note of, and celebrated, the lives of those exceptional political role models, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But this coming Monday, we will celebrate Presidents’ Day, largely ignoring which president it is that we’re celebrating as we run around hoping to beat the crowds buying, say, a new mattress or car.
But Monday is George Washington’s birthday, and it is Washington we should be celebrating—that model of character, principle and prudence. And there is no better place to start than an extraordinary new collection, “The Meaning of George Washington’s Birthday,” by my AEI colleague Leon Kass and his wife, Amy Kass of the Hudson Institute. As part of their ongoing American Calendar project, the Kasses draw on speeches, stories, and writings about Washington to explore the history of his birthday holiday and follow his career from military scout, to colonial farmer, to general, to president of the United States. In so doing, they make a powerful case for Washington’s greatness, and why he should remain, in the famous words of Henry Lee, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
The American Calendar project is part of a larger patriotic and educational effort which uses the tools of the Internet to teach about the meaning of American citizenship. In addition to their work on our civic holidays, the Kasses provide a full curriculum of video discussions and lesson plans around a series of classic American short stories and songs. It’s well worth checking out—even if after you buy that new mattress.