Two former presidents set the bar

February 19, 2006|By Bill Kohler

What's the big fuss about Presidents Day anyway?

Or better yet, shouldn't the question be: Where's the big fuss?

Many Americans view the upcoming Presidents Day holiday as nothing more than a day off school for students and staff. It's a day of rest for the U.S. Postal Service and its millions of employees. It's also a day of closed banks and courthouses, and the time for a lot of actors to dress up in bad wigs and fake beards for Presidents Day sales at furniture stores.

I must admit that over the past couple of years, I wondered why we still celebrated it.

Why is it so important that we take a day to honor not only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but all the men who served us as president?

Is it relevant today?

Are the men the day is named for still relevant?

Let's start with Honest Abe.


Lincoln is cool again.

In 2005, there were no less than 10 new books about the 16th president. There are movies, made-for-TV movies, CDs and documentaries in the works for 2006, more than 140 years after he was shot in a tiny theater in Washington, D.C., by an out-of-work actor and Southern sympathizer.

Why the fascination with Lincoln?

I asked two guys whom I respect and admire to share their knowledge. One is my father, Louis W. Kohler, a retired history teacher, and the other is Darwin Seiler, a history teacher at Waynesboro Area Senior High School and a noted speaker on past presidents.

Lincoln won the presidency during one of the worst times in our history after being unsuccessful in other early ventures, Kohler said.

After winning the election, he then appointed his political rivals to serve with him and advise him. Can you imagine something like that happening today?

He steered the country through arguably its most divisive time, becoming our first strong commander in chief by personally hiring and firing his field generals, Kohler pointed out.

What also set him apart from those who followed was that he actually met with and comforted widows and other survivors during the Civil War.

Before his death (and before the war ended), he penned one of our country's most important documents - the Emancipation Proclamation. He followed that up with one of the most vital presidential speeches in history - the Gettysburg Address, which Kohler called a pronouncement of democratic purpose.

"Lincoln was a common man who rose to the highest position in the land," Seiler said. "That notion, that all of us can do that, really means a lot."

Washington was the man who "set the tone for future presidents to follow," Kohler said. Seiler said he tells his students, "Without him, we would have no republic."

"He was the only man for the job at the time," said Seiler, who is in his 22nd year at Waynesboro High. "When he was selected, it was under some really severe circumstances. People didn't want to give one man so much power.

"He (eventually) made the position what it is, to a degree."

While Lincoln had such a profound impact on the nation's future, Washington was the man who helped shape it.

"He had a great feel for the needs of America because he led the fight for independence from Britain and chaired the Constitutional Convention, where the presidential powers were created," said Kohler, who taught history for 30 years in Waynesboro and Chambersburg.

Washington also set the tone for future presidents by surrounding himself with great Cabinet members, including Alexander Hamilton, who spearheaded the setup of our money system.

Both men are revered for their great foresight, perseverance, thoughtfulness and, when needed, aggressiveness - all outstanding qualities for a leader.

So how do we make it mean something?

"Obviously, the day is relevant because that position identifies our system of government and what makes us unique," Seiler said.

Here's another thought: Instead of giving students the day off on Presidents Day (and all federal holidays such as Veterans Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day), send them to school and focus the entire day on leadership and what made these people special, great, important and worth remembering.

Now that's what I call no child left behind.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State Editor of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or by e-mail at

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