The actor Richard Dreyfuss and I do not occupy the same political space, at least I did not think so. Last month Jonathon Seidl reported on Dreyfuss' support for the uncivil comments made by Ed Schultz about Dick Cheney. And Dreyfuss is also the guy who wants President Bush and his administration tried for high crimes, and would actually vote against re-electing President Obama if his opponent would indict Bush. Really, he said that at CPAC.
Dreyfuss also spouted more strange statements;
But then came Presidents Day and an Op-Ed piece penned by Richard Dreyfuss. It is titled "Let Abe and George stand apart" and is worth a read.
On Nov. 19, 2009, the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I was a speaker at ceremonies at Gettysburg.
I was so honored by the invitation to speak, I hardly remember what I said. But there was a singular idea I knew I had to mention: By creating Presidents' Day, which meant efficiently combining George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays, we had lost both men - and forced them to share acclaim with far lesser Presidents such as John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison and Franklin Pierce.
This is an all-too-familiar journey for our country. We opt for convenience instead of close scrutiny. In this case, we choose easy faux-devotion - and make impossible the substantive understanding of two great leaders' contributions, personalities, virtues and flaws. Worse still, by removing their names from the now-antiseptic celebration, we have made Washington and Lincoln seem as small as politicians whom history has arbitrarily thrown up to the heights of our system.
When I was a young man, young enough to receive American Heritage magazine in hardback, I remember reading an essay that compared the two men, described in the article as polar opposites. One phrase stuck out (time may have changed a direct quote to a memory that is still a truth): Washington was great because he set the boundaries and established the rituals of the presidency; Lincoln was great because he stretched the Constitution as far as he dared.
My respect for Washington was born in that moment. Before that he'd seemed pretty dull. I was already deeply bound by affection and the drama of Lincoln's life; his mind, temperament, skill at law and politics were already known to me. He was, I thought then and think now, the only President who could have been as successful as Charles Dickens had he chosen to pursue literary glory instead of a political life.
Today, our young people digest ideologically cleansed myth that tiptoes around truth. We allow vague conversations about American exceptionalism, but we are cautious to the point of paralysis when we ask ourselves what it truly means. Remember and respect this fact: We were born by the ripping into shreds of history's secret truth, the curse of caste and class that had been the world's lot forever. We created a system that complements mankind more thoroughly than any other, actualizing the revolutionary doctrine that the ruler and the ruled could be one thing, that those who came from aristocratic bloodlines were given the same starting point as those who were born to the most common.
In Washington and Lincoln could be the whole story of America, from soup to nuts, if we only told the tale well. But we don't anymore; we are impatient, and time is money, and, after all, Franklin Pierce and Warren Harding are also the tale of the nation, aren't they?
No. These were ambitious, small men who pursued personal or regional interests above national ones. By letting them, along with Tyler and the Harrisons (both William Henry and Benjamin) and James Buchanan, coopt Presidents' Day, we have raised them to the stature of the first President and the awe of the 16th. We have made the office, rather than the quality of performance in the office, the prize.
Is that American, in the best sense?
So let us restore separate, special celebrations of George and of Abraham. On Lincoln's Birthday, we can celebrate liberty, the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery, which made the world sit up and take note that here was a country unlike any other. On Washington's Birthday, we can honor a man who set the bar for civilized and noble behavior.
This way, we won't just blather about American exceptionalism, we will begin to actually articulate its meaning, through examples of how our democratic system endows common citizens with great power.
Otherwise, we are living in an Alice in Wonderland world of common senselessness. Just what content is taught in our civics classes today escapes me. Perhaps this is because some Democrats may secretly be anxious that their kids may learn civics and decide to be Republicans, and Republicans may share the same anticipatory dread, that their children may become Democrats.
If we teach civics correctly - as a subject inextricable from honest history - we accept that risk. In fact, we celebrate it. Everyone should be happy to sign on. The fact that they are not is more than puzzling, it is dreadfully senseless.
Mr Dreyfuss is credited as "an actor and chairman of the Dreyfuss Initiative, a non-profit devoted to civics education."