As You Were
A hardy perennial as President’s Day approaches is the nation’s great editorial voices lamenting the sad spectacle of Americans swarming the malls rather than making pilgrimage to stately presidential homes and memorials.
The economy should knock out retail worries this year, and pilgrimages have their own troubles.
President’s Day’s origin, such as it is, lies in Seventies legislation to standardize Federal holidays and shove as many as possible into three day weekends.
In days of yore February was the setting for George Washington’s Birthday Day sales, as well as Congress’s annual reading of his Farewell Address. That part of the country which won the Civil War [you know who you are] observed Lincoln’s Birthday. Congress sort of fudged on what they were doing, apostrophes have wandered, and for elementary school civics and retail purposes the thing has become a catchall day for all presidents.
Let’s go to the shrines!
The pan-presidential holiday has opened the field to our unique American marketing genius. Every crossing of the road once graced by a former Great spruces up for the expected masses.
Many of them are house museums, where generations of captured audience school children learn the furniture preferences of former Americans, insofar as we can reconstruct them.
Woodrow Wilson’s Augusta Georgia childhood home is typical of the genre’s limitations. This President’s Day it will feature free admission and actors playing Wilson and spouses. Americans may never know how Wilson led us in war, launched massive repression of war opponents, or cemented segregation in Washington DC, but thanks to re-enactors we will know he married twice!
What ever is the point of these places?
Their guardians seem to miss it. The William McKinley complex in Canton Ohio is typical.
The McKinley era had real consequence, launching us into an exciting new century of imperial adventure, defeating populism at home, and not least boosting the career of McKinley’s successor Teddy Roosevelt, role model for generations of reactionaries who wished to be seen as both forceful and thoughtful.
You’d never know it in Canton, but for the size of his tomb.
The McKinley museum has run out or never had anything to say about our martyred president, now featuring a science museum, model trains, and fire-poles for the kids.
Franklin Roosevelt launched our glorious tradition of pharaoh-fication, famously parking the first presidential library in his yard and having himself buried there for the full experience.
The special local-ness of these little bits o’ greatness scattered over the landscape are celebrated by America’s leading purveyor of thoughtful presidential historian mush, David McCullough:
” it is valuable for anyone trying to understand the life of a particular president should come to the place that produced that human being, where his memory is part of the story of that place.“
Stirring words, except Reagan’s location is an accident of real estate after Stanford, where he had no ties, turned him down. Nixon crawled back to Yorba Linda after numerous rejections elsewhere, and Bush Sr is in College Station for ideological congruity, not any local ties.
The great tradition is coming to its logical end at the FDR Library, where the seventy-five year old structure’s roof leaks, the wiring is shot, and damp threatens the Roosevelt papers. A $17 million fix is requested.
Just why this national collection of randomly sited mini-archives must be maintained and expanded into perpetuity even as they are pilfered from within is unclear.