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All hail Warren Harding

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst   |   Feb. 14, 2002 at 7:55 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- On Monday, America celebrates the presidency of Warren G. Harding, an Ohio Republican notable for the almost-singularly undistinguished two years he spent in office before dying in a San Francisco hotel room under what some still consider to be suspicious circumstances.

Harding accomplished little as president. Under his watch, corruption ran rampant through Washington, culminating in the Teapot Dome scandal. His private exploits with a young woman in a White House closet are the stuff from which salacious legends grow.

Nevertheless America celebrates Harding each and every year with a federal holiday in his memory.

Each year, America takes a February Monday and honors Harding, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Zachary Taylor and the other lesser lights who have occupied the White House as the nation observes President's Day.

It is a ridiculous notion, born of the need to tinker with the calendar without incurring any additional expense to the government in the form of additional overtime.

Thus, Lincoln's Birthday, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist while Washington's Birthday was morphed into President's Day.

Washington, Virginia planter, commander of the American troops in the War for Independence, first president of the United States, symbol of honor, dignity and honesty is given short shrift.

In 1968, under the provisions of the so-called long weekend act, Congress "moved" Washington's Birthday to the most convenient Monday. The ensuing three-day weekend is helpful for sheet shopping and for quick getaways but does little to help the nation honor the first president.

President Nixon, who knew it was unlikely he would ever have a holiday of his own, seized upon his only chance for immortality. His proclamation for that year called for a remembrance of all the former presidents, not just the first.

Thus Washington began to be moved off the calendar and out of his place of prominence in the national consciousness.

By law the holiday retains Washington's name. It is only politically correct custom that dictates the use of the phrase Presidents' Day. This is not lost on Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., who has again introduced legislation requiring government entities to refer to the federal holiday observed on the third Monday in February by its legal name "George Washington's Birthday." This is a small step forward but an important one.

Reclaiming the day for Washington and Washington alone is a significant advance in the reaffirmation of our shared national heritage.

Following on the heels of Sept. 11, it could help make patriotism popular once again. It could inspire school boards and state legislators to seek appropriate instances in which schoolchildren could study the high points of the nation's founding.

Such an emphasis could lead to the creation of new curricula on the War for Independence, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that could bring these subjects to life minus the anti-dead white male sentiments that govern the current teaching of so much of U.S. history.

What better time then now to look for new ways to memorialize the sacrifices of the young and old, the rich and poor, the men and women, the black and white, who soldiered together in the cause of freedom.

As part of the effort to reclaim Washington's Birthday, someone somewhere should undertake the effort to return to American classrooms the replica of the half-finished Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington that was once a schoolhouse staple.

It is important that the power of Washington the symbol be reasserted in the culture. While not a perfect man, he was a great leader who established the model of how presidents behave and whose integrity permitted him to resist the impulse to tyranny that might have seduced a lesser one. He deserves to be honored for this alone and he should not be forced to share his birthday with Harding.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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