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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Bring back Washington’s birthday

Somehow we lost perspective about the founding father’s enduring greatness.

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, circa

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, circa 1805-1815.

I’m sure James Buchanan had his moments, but truth be told, I’m not planning to celebrate our 15th president on Monday. Not in my heart of hearts.

Ditto for our 17th president, Andrew Johnson. By all accounts, Johnson was a piece of work. When asked to give a speech to commemorate George Washington’s 134th birthday, the soon-to-be-impeached Tennessean used the word “I” some 200 times.

That’s more “I’s” than former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used while introducing Mitt Romney at the 2012 Republican National Convention. (He used 37 “I’s” and 7 “Romneys.”)

I can think of seven presidents in my lifetime I don’t wish to celebrate this Presidents Day. One of them lives in the town next to mine. I won’t name names; doesn’t seem neighborly. But it rhymes with Phil Blinton.

I suspect others might feel similarly about a more contemporary figure — even Mr. Blinton. Wild guess.

Presidents Day is America’s way of saying everyone gets a trophy. But not all presidents deserve an Oscar or a national holiday. That doesn’t mean we’re ungrateful for their service. But let’s face it, most presidential candidates thrust themselves upon us. They are hardly dragged kicking and screaming into the White House.

Except one. George Washington was. At least into the presidency. There was no White House for him and Martha; if there were one, the Washingtons would have wanted no part of it.

Washington resisted entreaties to serve as president. The hero general of the American Revolution, who held a ragtag army together by sheer force of will for eight years, begged to be left alone in 1789, to live out his days in peace on his Virginia farm.

“I should unfeignedly rejoice,” he wrote Alexander Hamilton, “in case the Electors, by giving their votes in favor of some another person, would save me from the dreaded Dilemma of being forced to accept or refuse.

“If that may not be — I am, in the next place, earnestly desirous of searching out the truth, and of knowing whether there does not exist a probability that the government would be just as happily and effectually carried into execution without my aid, as with it.”

It was not to be for Washington the farmer. Washington the president was required. The great man, a member of no political party, took the first presidential oath on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall on April 30, 1789.

“Among the vicissitudes incident to life,” he began, with a humility that marked him, “no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order . . . ”

Washington’s most enduring greatness was still to come: After eight years, he announced he wouldn’t stand for office a third time. He would voluntarily relinquish power. This was not what one did with power, and the world took notice. America was to be a different kind of nation — one where leaders served the people, not the other way around. That’s where the American focus would be, with a peripheral and mindful eye always on the administrators along the Potomac.

Somewhere along the line, that perspective got turned on its head. We became obsessed with presidents (and with Washington itself). Arguing bitterly about the chief executive is now an all-consuming national pastime. We haven’t only handed the presidency power over our lives, we’ve given it power over our spirits.

There is no official Presidents Day in America. It’s still on the books as Washington’s birthday, as it should be. We didn’t celebrate it because Washington was president; we celebrated it because he didn’t want to be.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.

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