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Day to pardon presidents

Robert Gerenser portrays George Washington to re-enact the crossing of the Delaware River.
Robert Gerenser portrays George Washington to re-enact the crossing of the Delaware River.
Matt Rourke, Associated Press

You could make a case that Presidents Day is the most American of holidays — not for what it represents, but for the way it has been put together.

Celebrating the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln 10 days apart seemed uneconomical, so Americans fused the two.

Celebrating that day in the middle of the week seemed inconvenient, so we hung it on a Monday so workers could have a three-day weekend.

And to avoid favoritism, we opted for a good, democratic, generic name.

Presidents Day was born — an example of American labor-saving, time-saving, Yankee ingenuity.

Perhaps we should call it American Way Day.

What's interesting is that each year the day seems less and less about our presidents. Perhaps that's because we've seen so little of the good in them in recent years.

The early chief executives benefited from the fact their personal foibles were often kept under wraps while their public accomplishments were lauded. Thomas Jefferson may not be on Mount Rushmore if DNA testing and a bull-dog media had been on the scene then to hold Sally Hemmings' feet to the fire.

On the other hand, if he had not become adversarial, Bill Clinton may be held in much better esteem now. If Richard Nixon had caught the breaks from the press that John F. Kennedy did, there probably would be airports and schools named after him. And if Kennedy had come under the media hot lights as Nixon did, he wouldn't have ended up on an American coin.

The point, of course, is that the old saw that history and time will decide greatness is not quite true. A noble hero can become a villain in people's minds many decades after his time.

Ask Ulysses S. Grant.

And so, it's probably good that Presidents Day now has a nebulous air about it.

Over the years, it has turned into a day to try to remember the good qualities of our presidents without dwelling on their sins.

There's not much in that to strike up the band over.

But then the holiday — as we Americans have fine-tuned it — doesn't involve much effort or emotion these days anyway.