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As Long as We Remember...

February 20, 2008

A Presidents’ Day View

Kevin E. Dayhoff

In the wake of “Super Tuesday” and the “Potomac Primary,” all signs point to a November presidential contest between United States Senators John McCain, of Arizona, and Barack Obama, of Illinois.

It is only fitting that in observance of “Presidents’ Day,” we take another moment to review some presidential history and take stock of the “progress” of the 2008 presidential campaign.

In an era when no one can agree upon anything, it is only appropriate that the 2008 presidential contest begin to take form on President’s Day.

For many presidential-historical purists, the mere mention of the term – “Presidents’ Day” – makes the hair stand up on the back of their neck as they insist that the annual event should be only appropriately termed, “Washington’s Birthday.”

Since the enactment of the Uniform Holidays Bill of 1968, which became effective in 1971, “Presidents’ Day” has been observed on the third Monday of February – in honor of George Washington’s birthday.

Some insist that the annual holiday is also in honor of President Abraham Lincoln whose birthday was February 12, 1809. Still others say that the holiday is to honor all past presidents.

Of course, since President Washington’s Birthday occurred on February 22, 1732, and the third Monday in February happens between February 15 and the 21, the holiday to commemorate either of George Washington’s birthdays, will never fall on his birthday(s).

Yes, you read that correctly – birthdays. February 11 is the date of his birthday under the old “Julian” calendar. The 22nd is the equivalent date of his birthday under the “Gregorian” calendar, adopted in 1752.

Confused yet? It gets better. The original version of the “holidays” bill mentioned the name of Presidents Washington and Lincoln, but the final draft referred only to Washington.

Switching gears to political junkies – especially those who take a special interest in presidential history, the lengthy 2008 presidential campaign is nothing short of nirvana. Not since the 1928 presidential contest has neither a sitting president nor vice president been a candidate for nomination to the presidency.

Fifteen senators in United States history have been elected president. Of those, only two, Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy were elected president while serving in the U.S. Senate.

At times, the current elongated campaign and the media coverage of it have been tedious. Nevertheless, the value of an extended campaign is having the opportunity to flesh out the issues and the candidates.

Earlier in this campaign, the elite media seemed elated that Republicans had not easily settled upon a single candidate to carry the party’s colors into the November voting.

Now that the nominee appears certain to be Arizona’s Senator McCain and the Democrat Party lurches into civil war, it will be interesting to sit back and observe the tenor of the media coverage.

With the delegate rich Ohio and Texas primaries looming two weeks from yesterday, Senator McCain has accumulated 830 delegates – or 1,116, if you include former presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney’s delegates, who recently endorsed Senator McCain.

For Democrats, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are essentially in a dead heat in the race for delegates, with momentum clearly swinging in Senator Obama’s favor.

As of February 15 Senator Obama has accumulated 1,262 delegates and Senator Clinton has 1,213. However, the Democrat Party’s nomination process has become increasingly complicated and deteriorated by rancor and bitterness, especially in consideration of disenfranchised Florida and Michigan delegates, and what the role of “super delegates” will be at the convention.

“Super delegates” are 796 partisan individuals, many of whom are elected officials, who can vote for anyone their whim desires – and change their minds as often as possible, depending on which way the wind is blowing on any given day.

It is because of this volatility that many political scientists say “do not discount the ability of Senator Clinton’s political machine to win-out in the end.”

It is at this point that it is worth noting that the last senator to be elected president was Richard Nixon.

On February 11, The New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Paul Krugman wrote a much talked-about piece entitled: “Hate Springs Eternal.” He begins the column by noting:

“In 1956 Adlai Stevenson, running against Dwight Eisenhower, tried to make the political style of his opponent’s vice president, a man by the name of Richard Nixon, an issue. The nation, he warned, was in danger of becoming ‘a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win.’ This is Nixonland... the Democratic Party seems to be turning into Nixonland.”

The point of Mr. Krugman’s column is to promote the idea that the media’s harsh treatment, “Clinton Rules,” is the cause of Senator Clinton’s problems in her pursuit of “reclaiming the Oval Office.”

For those who are aware the rise and fall of Richard Nixon, Mr. Krugman overlooked the obvious. And that is that Senator Clinton is where she is today, for better or worse, as a result of her single-minded maniacal “Nixonian” pursuit of the presidency.

In spite of the presidency of Mr. Nixon and Bill Clinton, in the past, I have not taken the purist historical view of “Presidents’ Day” as only honoring George Washington, but as a day to honor all our past presidents.

For presidential scholars and historians alike, a contest between Senators Obama and McClain will be exciting as it will present a clear choice between political ideologies, which will – hopefully – be relatively devoid of Nixonian politics…

…And preserve my notion of honoring all presidents and all dynamics of electoral and presidential history – on “Washington’s birthday.” The idea of studying two “President Clintons” makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Of course, if Republicans continue to stay away from the ballot box as they have so far in some primaries, “President Obama” will be included in future reflections on Presidents’ Day.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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