Only Americans of a certain age remember what the holiday on the third Monday in February is all about. I asked a few high-school students the other day what it is, exactly, we celebrate with "Presidents Day." One young man suggested that it was about selling used cars, since there are so many newspaper advertisements and television commercials announcing "birthday sales."
So much for the original inspiration for the long winter weekend, and a holiday first meant to honor the father of our country on Feb. 22. It wasn't always so.
George Washington deserves better than the mixture of fact and fancy that wraps his memory in gossamer. A lot of what we remember about Washington "ain't necessarily so" -- stories about his chopping down his father's favorite cheery tree and throwing a Spanish dollar across the Rappahannock River. The dollar-throwing story was once so well known that Walter Johnson, the famous baseball pitcher, copied the feat with a silver dollar in 1936 to prove that it could have been done if the frugal Washington had been foolish enough to throw away a dollar.
Such fanciful stories were mostly the work of Mason Locke Weems, an itinerant author, book agent and sometime Episcopal rector best known as Parson Weems, who wanted to humanize a leader who had been all but deified after his death. Too bad. Made-up stories weren't necessary because the true facts make Washington seem almost magical. Four bullets in his coat and hat were not enough to kill him in the French and Indian Wars, when two horses were shot out from under him, leading one Indian chief to conclude that "some great spirit would guide him to momentous things in the future."
Of all the Founding Fathers, Washington is the most monumental, literally, reflected in the iconic obelisk commemorating his memory. The cold portraits and sculptural images that have come to symbolize the man were partly of his own making. He cultivated opacity, believing that the less people saw of the flesh and blood of a man, the more he could accomplish. This earned him "a frosty respect." It's impossible to imagine anyone asking Washington whether he wears boxers or briefs, although Nathaniel Hawthorne mockingly suggested that he "was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world."
He was a man of his times. He loved the republic and was determined that a president never be confused with a monarch, though he enjoyed the stagecraft of magnificent white parade horses.