Today we collectively pause to take a day off from our work lives to celebrate the Presidents who’ve inspired us by their leadership to reach for the highest visions of freedom, equality, justice, innovation, and inclusion.
Presidents’ Day began as an unofficial holiday on George Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1800, two months after Washington’s death. It became a federal holiday 79 years later when President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law.
What originated as a day to honor our founding President, and then expanded to include our two February-born presidents, Washington and Lincoln, has now stretched into a celebration of all our Presidents. Or, for those of us who struggle with all of them, our favorite ones.
Let’s highlight a few Presidential moments that altered the course of history and continue to impact us to this day:
Consider President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order claiming the freedom of slaves in ten states, and his establishment of the US Department of Agriculture.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of the first US Forest Service, 50 wildlife refuge areas, and 5 National Parks.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s articulation of the four freedoms: Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
President Dwight Eisenhower’s Refugee Relief Act admitting 214,000 more immigrants than had been permitted under existing immigration quotas.
President John F. Kennedy’s passionate pledge of support to the Space Program, landing the first person on the moon.
President Lyndon Johnson’s signing into law both the monumental Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
After 20 million people took to the streets on Earth Day in 1970, President Richard Nixon finally responded by signing the bills to establish both the Environment Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act.
President Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Peace Accords, and the creation of the Department of Energy to promote clean and alternative fuels.
And President Obama’s signing of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, increase of the Veterans Affairs Budget and new GI tuition assistance bill, his support of LGBTQ rights, and the creation of the Affordable Care Act.
Each of us and our planet are better-served thanks to their leadership.
It’s Time to Honor Our First Ladies, Too
I want to pause and reflect personally on the fact that two years ago, in 2017, I thought we’d be celebrating our first women President, the former First Lady, Hillary Clinton.
I‘m reminded of the strength, wisdom, and influence of our First Ladies, and their indelible imprint on our society and the world at large. Today, while we honor our favorite Presidents, it’s important to remember a few of the lasting gifts from our First Ladies, too.
A shout out of thanks to Abigail Fillmore, who turned her passion for learning into creating the White House Library, there had been no library up to that point because Congress feared it would make the President too powerful, Congress relented in 1850 and Abigail got to work.
Gratitude to Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my great sheroes, an astonishing First Lady who fought for New Deal proposals, and civil rights, and believed education and equal opportunities should be guaranteed to all. She helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a document, I believe, everyone needs to read and live by) and was the first chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Our appreciation to First Lady Betty Ford who advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment and the legalization for a Woman’s Right to Choose.
Brava to Rosalynn Carter an advocate for Mental Health who became the honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.
Kudos to Hillary Clinton who was involved in directing policy and headed the Task Force for National Health Care Reform. After leaving the White House as First Lady, she became a senator and President Obama’s Secretary of State. She also was the first female presidential nominee of a major political party.
And gratitude to Michelle Obama who launched Let’s Move, a nationwide effort to solve childhood obesity, who promoted the school lunch program with bipartisan support, providing free and reduced-price meals to more than 21 million low-income children, who launched the Reach Higher initiative to inspire young people to complete their education past high school, and Let Girls Learn to help girls around the world go to school and stay in school.
Thank you, First Ladies, you, too, have made a lasting difference.
Some Political Actions Move Through Many Presidencies
Looking at the timeline of the 45 US Presidents, we are reminded that some of our political actions move through many presidencies before they are enshrined in law. Women actively campaigned through 9 presidencies before the 19th amendment granted them the right to vote.
For over a century, after five Presidents failed to create universal health insurance, President Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
This reminds us that sometimes one President plants the seed of a great vision during his or her time in the Oval Office only for it to lie dormant for generations before it’s once again nurtured by future Presidents.
The Story of the National Peace Academy
Such is the story of the National Peace Academy, for which I serve as Chair of the Board of Directors. It’s a perfect example of this process of a presidential dream through time.
Our Founding Father, President George Washington, expressed the need for an academy to train citizens for peace as rigorously as the military academy trained citizens for war. Washington planted the seed of an idea for a national peace academy back in the late 1700s; however, it wasn’t until almost 200 years later in the 1960s and ’70s that a series of bi-partisan bills introduced in Congress called for a National Peace Academy.
In 1978, President Carter and Congress established the Commission for the National Peace Academy and for two years, the Commission conducted Town Hall meetings throughout the United States. Based upon citizen feedback, it was recommended the President and the Congress of the United States of America establish the National Peace Academy.
Progress was made, but when Carter left office, the political focus on a National Peace Academy faded.
Fast Forward now to 2009. A group of citizens came together and founded the National Peace Academy as a non-profit. Through a partnership with George Mason University School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, in April 2016, we broke ground to begin building President George Washington and President Jimmy Carter’s dream. The National Peace Academy’s work will help communities beset by violence discover ways to come together through community dialogue, conflict resolution, restorative justice, and empathy development — to begin healing the conflicts and divisions within our society.
This is an example of how one President’s vision might take centuries, several Presidents, and the perseverance of We the People before it is actually fulfilled.
What Qualities Do People Feel Are Essential for the President of the United States?
For the past month, I’ve been interviewing people—from students in my classes to strangers in the checkout line at the grocery store—to discover what they believe are the most important characteristics for the President of the United States. While you might imagine, some of the responses have been unexpected — such as the President should play a musical instrument or have some personal connection with the arts — there were several characteristics everyone, regardless of political affiliation, thought were vital to a great leader and the President of the United States. Here are those 6 qualities:
· Excellent communication and listening skills
· Possesses the qualities of empathy and humanity
· Cool under pressure
· Openly admits mistakes
· Honest and transparent with the people
Most importantly, everyone agreed, it is our Presidents’ duty to ensure, as Lincoln so eloquently expressed, that this precious government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
So now the day has come for We the People to express our gratitude to the Presidents who have inspired us. The Presidents who exhibited qualities we cherish. Who have shown us how to handle crisis and adversity, who care about the people, and who hold to the ideals of our constitution and the fair and open process of democracy.
So Hail to the Chief! And let us know in the response below your favorite President and the qualities you feel are essential for the leader of our nation.