In 1862, the United States Congress began the tradition of reading George Washington’s farewell address aloud on the first President’s birthday. In the midst of the Civil War, the Senate and the House found Washington’s words warning against party politics, divisive rhetoric and irresponsible governance to be especially relevant.
My, how far we’ve come.
Washington’s words today fall on deaf ears as the United States government has abandoned the ideals they once celebrated — abandoned compromise in favor of cutthroat partisanship. Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that the House of Representatives elected to stop reading the address in 1984; the Senate, on the other hand, continues the exercise, but more out of an adherence to tradition than a hope of gleaning wisdom from “The Father or Our Nation.”
Just as Capitol Hill continues to ignore Washington’s words, Presidents’ Day, the federal holiday honoring Washington and Abraham Lincoln, has also fallen by the wayside.
Today, Presidents’ Day feels much less about honoring the aforementioned American statesmen as it does a thinly veiled excuse for a three-day weekend. For starters, Congress decided in 1970 that Washington and Lincoln had conveniently been born on the third Monday in February and always will be, removing the tangible link between the holiday and the men it sought to honor. Presidents’ Day is now associated more with great deals at Macy’s than any serious celebration of American ideals.
While we certainly welcome the day off, I can’t help but feel that something is missing. Shouldn’t Presidents’ Day force us to pause and reflect, in the same way that MLK Day asks us to consider the progress of “The Dream” or Memorial Day reminds us to pay respects to those who made unimaginable sacrifices in the name of their country?
I believe that it should. I believe that we should remember the third Monday in February as a day of heightened significance outside of the large banners at car dealerships and 20% Off coupons. It should be a day to remember not only the lives and achievements of Washington and Lincoln but also of great leaders across the country, and force us to reflect on the present nature of our government.
Presidents’ Day should be a time to celebrate leadership and reflect on what it means to be a good leader.
Today, our leaders have abandoned the lofty vision set by their predecessors. While I do not advocate that we unconditionally worship the Founding Fathers and live in the past, I believe our leaders should strive towards political discourse centered on best serving the country, as opposed to scoring cheap political points or setting the foundation for re-election.
The current crop of government officials completely lacks, for the most part, the selflessness to put the needs of the nation ahead of their own. This current political wasteland, in my view, stems from the systemic problem that we longer recognize and appreciate good leadership.
In our democracy, we are ultimately responsible for picking the people 2ho will lead us. Therefore, it is imperative that we maintain a healthy discussion of what it takes to be a strong leader. The 2011 fiscal cliff showdown, 2013 government shutdown and countless other instances have shown us, time after time, that we are not selecting men and women who are capable of or interested in resolving differences when the future of the country is at stake.
We need individuals, all across the political spectrum, of strong, irreproachable character, who are unafraid of a challenge. Like Washington, who chose not to seek a third presidential term, we need citizens in office willing to relinquish power as opposed to career politicians focused on the next election. Above all, we need real public servants, not puppets of a political party.
As cliché as it sounds, I’m a believer in American exceptionalism, and the United States has been exceptional, in large part, because of visionary leaders. I propose that on Presidents’ Day we remember not only Washington and Lincoln, but all Presidents, regardless of political affiliation, who maintained a high character and a desire to do what was best for this nation. Ultimately, we can learn about ourselves today and reflect on the quality of our government officials by turning to the wisdom from the past.
And at Stanford, where extremely talented future leaders are being groomed for excellence, let Presidents’ Day be a reminder to strive for excellence in not only academic pursuits, but in character and the courage to do what is right, even if it is difficult. Sure, great thinkers and statesmen will have their differences, but we should celebrate those visionaries who are willing to compromise and engage in honest discussion instead of retreating into bubbles of personal righteousness.
And speaking of bubbles, let President’s Day be a reminder that there is a world outside this sun-baked, palm tree-laden utopia — a world that will demand more from those in charge in the future. In the day-to-day adventure of midterms, papers and biking through the Circle of Death, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is why I believe there is a strong apolitical sentiment on campus. Nevertheless, I believe that, at Stanford, we can devote at least one day — a day off from school, in fact — to seriously reflect on the political world we see before and what we would like to see instead.
On the third Monday in February, next year and every year, let’s strive to see the nation hanging on every word as Washington’s farewell address is recited in the Senate chamber, as a reminder of where this nation has been, where it is now and where it will go in the future.
I hope you had a very happy Presidents’ Day. Let’s make the next one and the many more to follow truly memorable in the quest for a better union.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at [email protected]