I discovered that my home state currently refers to the observance on the third Monday in February as Washington’s Birthday. As well they should. That is also the Federal observance. Some states observe Presidents Day (or Presidents’ Day, or even President’s Day), which is a mistake. Not all Presidents should be celebrated, nor should the office itself. George Washington should be celebrated—we currently have four holidays named after individual people, and if at least one of them is the wrong person, it’s not George Washington. The classes of people celebrated with a national holiday, though—veterans, the war dead, and labor—are all much more deserving than the class of Presidents.
In my lifetime—which is to say, in the last half-century—we have had nine Presidents, of whom I would declare one to have been satisfactorily good at the job. I hope I’ve counted correctly. Yeah, one. Four or five have been disasters. Maybe more than that. It’s not a good record.
And no reason why it should be! It’s a nearly-impossible job to be good at. One problem with the Madisonian system of harnessing ambition to the public good is that once an ambitious person is President of the United States, we need to rely on something other than ambition, or at least something other than ambition for higher office. Frankly, it’s impressive we haven’t had more absolute disasters in the job, more people who went utterly off the rails or who simply chose to use the office for their own private benefit. I assume that’s in large measure due to constraints put on the people surrounding them, who are still ambitious themselves. And the zealous oversight of a legislature packed with ambitious people who want the job, or who at any rate want to further their ambitions and hope that exposing the President’s misdemeanors is a good way to do it.
I feel—probably falsely, but still—that we are at a crossroads in the US, and that one possible path leading toward more successful participatory self-government begins with the legislature taking back powers that they have been granting to Presidents over the last decades. Or, more accurately, begins with the legislators’ constituents convincing them that such actions will be rewarded, and that letting the Executive do what it will is a poor strategy for an ambitious legislator. The reaction to the mendacious declaration of a border Emergency should be to reign in the Executive’s emergency powers permanently, making clear that such powers are temporary, limited in range and duration, and subject to oversight even in real Emergencies. Vaddevah real Emergency means.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,