WASHINGTON--The nation is preparing to celebrate, with automobile and appliance and mattress sales, next Monday's national holiday, which, as every schoolchild knows, is Washington-Adams-Jefferson-Madison-Monroe-Adams-Jackson-Van Buren-Harrison-Tyler-Polk-Taylor-Fillmore-Pierce-Buchanan-Lincoln-Johnson-Grant-Hayes-Garfield-Arthur-Cleveland-Harrison-McKinley-Roosevelt-Taft-Wilson-Harding-Coolidge-Hoover-Roosevelt-Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon-Ford-Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush Day. That is, Presidents Day. Feel the excitement.
The excitement of the magical date--this year--of Feb. 19. Before 1971 the nation set aside two days--the actual birthdays; what a concept--to show reverence for the foremost founder of the Republic and the man most responsible for preserving it. Washington's birthday (Feb. 22) and Lincoln's (Feb. 12) were observed. However, what we revere nowadays are three-day weekends, which boost the travel industry and sell dishwashers and mattresses.
``Inclusiveness,'' one of today's values, is served by Presidents Day, which renders the Father of Our Country an equal ingredient with Warren Harding in a bland pudding of presidents. Egalitarianism is served by Presidents Day, which conscripts us into paying equal, if watery, respect to the author of the Gettysburg Address and the author of the Marc Rich pardon. And the generic Presidents Day serves a third contemporary obsession, ``fairness.'' Time was, fairness involved treating like things alike and unalike things unalike. But in this ``nonjudgmental'' age, fairness means treating everyone alike.
Greg Crosby, writing in The Weekly Standard, wonders what comes next. Change Martin Luther King's birthday to Civil Rights Leaders day? Should Christmas become Religion Founders Day?
If, as Presidents Day attests, remembrance no longer matters and commerce--the three-day weekend of traveling and selling--trumps everything, let's get serious. Let's take the selling of naming rights to another level.
Cities and sports franchises sell such rights. Hence Pac Bell Park (San Francisco), RCA Dome (Indianapolis), Pepsi Center (Denver) and so on, including the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl football game. Denver's mayor is still protesting the naming of the Broncos' new football stadium as Invesco Field. He and many others think it should bear the venerable name of Mile High Stadium. It is nice that at least something is venerated. But bet against the mayor.
Massachusetts is thinking spaciously in seeking sponsors for Boston subway stops. (A delicious possibility: ``Next stop, the National Rifle Association Station at Harvard Square.'') But why stop there? What about: The General Motors White House. The presidential limousine is, after all, a Cadillac. Ford could counter with the Lincoln-Mercury Lincoln Memorial.
Naming the Nike Capitol Building could be done tastefully: a single dignified white swoosh on the dome. That would not be an eyesore to people across the street at the Microsoft Supreme Court building, which may someday be the scene of arguments about the antitrust ruling against ... never mind. There could even be naming rights for congressional districts, such as the Miller Genuine Draft District (Milwaukee) or the Enron District (Houston).
And why not, if, as Presidents Day announces, economic values are everything and we are more consumers than citizens? Consumer sovereignty--``voting by dollars''--is popular sovereignty beyond the political sphere. And advertising, which promises democratic distribution of pleasures, defines a uniqueness of American affluence. Historian Daniel Boorstin says Europeans used to go to the marketplace to get what they wanted; now they, like Americans, have severed wants from needs and go to the marketplace to discover what they want.
Television and, even more, the Internet bring the marketplace to the consumer. If shopping is an inherently public activity, what inherently private space remains?
Advertising is the art of arresting attention in the hope that some commercially useful response may occur. In the sensory blitzkrieg of life in this commercial republic, making that arrest is increasingly difficult. So perhaps government should, in the name of economic growth, rent its buildings' names for advertising. It already has, in effect, sold off any serious contemplation of the meaning of Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, bartering that for the greater good, or so the government seems to suppose, of stimulating economic activity over a three-day weekend of shopping and travel.
It is one thing, and on balance a good thing, to have a commercial republic in which many of mankind's turbulent passions and disturbing inclinations are channeled into commerce, by which the public good is served. But surely two days could be devoted to the appreciation of Washington and Lincoln, who understood how much more there is to public service.