On This Presidents Day

by Zoltan James

Please stand for the “Pledge of Allegiance.”

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Amen is optional.  You may be seated.

As a young boy, whenever we said the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and even to this day, I always silently conclude with an “Amen.”  I don’t know why I started that, it just seemed like the thing to do.  Perhaps because it’s the last word of a solemn statement, the last word in our prayer with our God.  And, as an immigrant to this country of ours, proud to be an American, blessed to be raised under the banner of freedom, the Pledge has always held a prayer-like quality for me.

The origin of Amen is Hebrew and means, “So be it.”  Some believe it goes back to the Egyptian god named Amen-Ra. But, I like the “So be it,” meaning and the notion that while we ask God for forgiveness and protection and healing, and a hundred other things, it is us mortal men that punctuate the prayer with this positive affirmation.  And, it is us that positively affirm our common allegiance to our flag and country.

So, on this Presidents Day of 2011, I thought I’d share some thoughts on why I revere this day.

It has mostly to do with an odd sense of pride and cosmic luck.  Imagine being a poor immigrant coming to this country and finding out that you share the same birthday with George Washington!

There is some dispute as to Washington’s actual birthday. According to the National Archives, George Washington was born in Virginia on February 11, 1731, based on the then-used Julian calendar. In 1752, however, Britain and all its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar, which placed Washington’s birth on February 22, 1732.  But, I’m going with February 22nd.  Amen.

Americans celebrated his birthday long before it became a federal holiday. In fact the reading of his Farewell Address became an annual event for the Senate on his birthday, a tradition that continues to this day.  The federal holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday” and became legal on January 31, 1879.

Washington’s Birthday was celebrated on February 22nd until well into the 20th Century. However, in 1968 Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.” By creating more three-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation.”  Translation: to promote business.  Today, the holiday is less about honoring the Father of our Country, that it is about special car sales, ski vacations, and a reason to enjoy a long weekend.

Contrary to popular belief, neither Congress nor the President has ever stipulated that the name of the holiday observed as Washington’s Birthday be changed to “Presidents Day.”

According to a reference in Wikipedia, “…the term “Presidents Day” was informally coined in a deliberate attempt to use the holiday to honor multiple presidents, and is virtually always used that way today. Though President’s Day or Presidents’ Day (written in the plural) is sometimes seen in print — even sometimes on government Web sites, this style is not endorsed by any major dictionary or usage authority.

At any rate, I feel an affinity for George Washington. Besides sharing the same birth date, we hold a lot in common. To wit:

He lived in Virginia.

My sister lives in Virginia.

There is a statue of him in the Capitol Rotunda.

I had my picture taken with his statue.

His visage is on the dollar bill.

I have a dollar bill in my wallet.

He had wooden teeth.

I like toothpicks.

He rode horses.

I ride bikes.

He grew marijuana on his farm.

I bogarted a doobie at a college party once, but didn’t inhale.

He was called “The Father of our Country,” and led us to victory in the Revolutionary War.

I’ve been called a “sonofagun.”

I could go on…

Seriously, I have the utmost admiration for Washington for what he reluctantly took on and helped shape the country we enjoy today.  I’ve had the honor of visiting Mount Vernon, Washington’s home 16 miles outside D.C.  It was a thrill to stand on his front porch and look down upon the Potomac River wondering what he must have thought about when he sat there. At least we know for sure, he wasn’t texting on his cellphone.

In my lifetime, our country has been led by Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  I’m sure some of you can add to this list and maybe even know some of these characters.  If so, I’d enjoy hearing your stories.  Please comment below.

There are several men on this list I would dearly have loved to meet over a brandy and cigar, to play a round of golf, or a little catch. There are some I’ve seen in person, and some wannabes that I’ve met.  There also are a few on this list I wouldn’t cross the street for to ask the time of day.  That’s why I wear a wristwatch.

The first President I saw was Harry Truman.  He was retired and had returned to his home in Springfield, Missouri.  I was on an elementary school bus, on a field trip to Kansas City, when we slowly drove past his house.  Someone in the back of the bus, yelled, “There he is!”  I stood and peered over the shoulder of a taller Lyle Hoover and think I caught a glimpse of him in his rocker on the front porch.  Many years later, when I was public relations director for St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, a colleague of mine was PR director for Mercy Hospital where Truman spent his last days. I volunteered to help with the flood of national media that had camped out to record his passing.

I was always proud of the fact that Eisenhower came from my adopted state of Kansas, where I was fortunate to grow up and learned many lessons about life.  I have visited his Library in Abilene, Kansas, his boyhood home, on many occasions.  If you’re ever passing through there on Interstate 70, I highly encourage you make a stop.  Go to the Brookville Hotel for fabulous friend chicken.

Like most of you, I still vividly recall where I was when Kennedy was shot.  I had just returned from lunch at Lawrence High School and was seated in Stan Roth’s biology class when the superintendent announced the sad news over our loud speaker system.  That day changed our innocent existence forever.

I saw Gerald Ford in a parade in Kansas City.  He was in a car and not walking.  So, I never saw him stumble.  I thought Ford did an admirable job helping our country transition after the fall of Nixon.

A few years later, while working as the PR Director for Denver General Hospital during a time when President Carter was due to pass through our city in a parade, I was approached by a man in a dark suit and narrow tie.  He handed me a card and said, “Call me if you need to.”  Then, he walked away.  I looked at the plain white card embossed only with the words United States Secret Service, and a phone number.  No name.  He and his team had prepped our hospital staff in the event of an assassination attempt.  Fortunately, I never had to make that call.

I also saw George H. W. Bush give a speech in a field outside Cheyenne, Wyoming.  I was part of a team helping to promote Wyoming’s Centennial.  President Bush loved fishing in the state and eagerly accepted the invitation to speak.  It was my first experience of having to wait nearly a half day to pass through a Secret Service checkpoint.

There are many in this land who’ve wanted to be President and I’ve met a few of these individuals including Jack Kemp, Al Gore, Gary Hart, Mitt Romney, Tom Tancredo and Newt Gingrich.

I met Kemp at a Denver Chamber of Commerce breakfast and shook his hand.  He had a strong grip which you would associate with a former NFL quarterback.  However, I never could adequately conjoin his athletic and handsome looks with his squeaky voice.

Al Gore, was just an up-and-coming senator from Tennessee when I shook his hand in the middle of the Capitol Rotunda.  I was standing there with the then Stapleton airport director George Doughty on a public relations trip we had made to D.C. in an attempt to improve the airport’s image among policy makers and national media.  Gore walked over and said hello. We shook hands all around and exchanged pleasantries.  Ironically, his hand was “warm.” At the time, I liked the guy and thought he was very personable. He probably still is.

When I met Gary Hart, he had recently fallen from grace due to his well-publicized affair with Donna Rice.  This was a time when he was working hard to repair his image.  He was writing serious tomes on national issues and giving speeches to every Rotary club that would have him.  I met him at a business luncheon in Denver.  He’s a very bright guy, likes to wear cowboy boots, and has never had a decent haircut.

Mitt Romney was in Denver last year stumping for a congressional candidate, who lost, by the way.  I liked Romney, still do.  I think he’s a stand up guy.  In fact, he was standing in the back of a pick up truck parked in a bank parking lot when I saw him.  The event was planned to take place inside, but there were so many enthusiastic people packed in, nose-to-armpit, that it became hot and dangerous, not to mention a little malodorous.   So, we all marched outside on this hot night and waited until the truck was backed up and the politicians helped up into the bed.  When the speechifying was over, Romney jumped down and stood in the middle of the crowd for a long time, greeting people.  He wore a simple windbreaker and slacks.  Marta and I edged our way to him. We shook his hand and talked for a few minutes.  He kept eye contact only with us.  I think he liked me.

I’ve met Tom Tancredo on numerous occasions over the years, although I doubt he would ever remember me.  I first met him when was elected to represent Colorado in the U. S. House of Representatives; later when President Reagan appointed him as regional representative to the Department of Education; and, again, at a dinner of Hungarians, where he was the featured speaker. Tancredo has a spurious reputation as a “nut case,” but if you meet him one-on-one you’ll find he, too, is a normal guy, with a passion for our country.  Unfortunately, he’s too short to be presidential timber, has bad hair, and is prone to agitate half the population when he opens his mouth.  He was a presidential candidate in the last election.  He was never a serious contender and dropped out early.  He ran for Colorado Governor representing the Constitutional Party and lost. But, catch him one-on-one sometime, and I think you’ll have an enjoyable experience.

Finally, I met former House Speaker Newt Gingrich last year when he was in Denver to speak on terrorism, an event we promoted.  Newt seems to want to run for President but never quite makes it to the front of the line.  Like Hart, I think Newt is a bright mind. I like how he thinks and admire his ability to communicate big ideas.  When I met him, maybe he was tired from traveling, but I was surprised by his girth and flaccid jowls.  Not very presidential when you see the whole package up close.

I think we are most fortunate and blessed to live in a country where men and women of all stripes, backgrounds, and persuasions have the opportunity to become our President. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone and it’s probably one of the most demanding jobs in the world, and one in which you can never satisfy the vast majority.

That’s why it’s important that we choose our leaders well. I’m troubled by what I see happening around the world today, and even in our cities and states.  I pray that our current President and our national and local leaders will continue to uphold the allegiance to protect our freedoms and our borders.

Let us honor our Presidents on this day and give them their due.  Some have proven great, historic, and worthy of our admiration.  Others have been akin to missing a wrench in a tool box, and others yet to be judged by history.   I’m sure if the tables were turned, someone would wonder where my wrench was.

As George Washington once said, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God.”

And, to that, I say, Amen.
# # #

Happy Washington’s Birthday!  Remember. Make every hour your happy hour.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “On This Presidents Day

  1. Liesa Malik

    Hear! Hear! ZJ. When I was able to visit Mount Vernon, I was impressed by Washington’s office, the only room in the place that was cluttered and messy. It made him more of a human being to me and had me wishing I had known him. You seem to have met several of our leaders and I appreciate your assessment of them. Thanks for the reminder that we are all pledged to a great country of great peoples, made more so by our varied backgrounds. Best to you. And, of course, Amen. Liesa

  2. Jim Czupor

    Great comment Liesa. Thanks!

  3. Jim,
    I recently looked into the eyes of a 14 year old boy who had just said that the 18 degree temperature was too uncomfortable to help his Dad with the loading up of equipment. I looked to his Dad in a way to prime him for what I was to say to his son.
    I turned to the boy and said that George Washington ( I assumed that he had heard of him) once lead an army of soldiers 8 miles in the snow in the middle of a December night , after having crossed a river, to a place where they knew they would be shot and killed. Oh, and that most of them had no shoes.
    He had the presence of mind to at least ask why.
    I told him it was so he could live in a place where his Dad could be an entrepreneur. Experiencing some pain was worth helping a person who provides for him a good life.
    I’ll never know whether it was worth it but if it were a son of mine, it would have been.
    God bless you, Jimmy

    • You’re a good man, Don. I don’t know that I would have had the presence of mind to speak of Washington in that circumstance. Well done, my friend. And, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. All the best!

  4. Ilma Duncan

    Jim! You have a great talent for writing, did not know that you had met so many of our country’s leaders. You should write a book about patriotism. Great article for Washington’s Birthday, and yours. Happy Birthday Ilma

  5. Wayde Jester

    Jim,
    Happy birthday my friend, and thanks for such an inspiring and entertaining story. Centered me again on the some ideas and values. I share my birthday with Elvis…hmm… So be it!

  6. Great artical James, as a friend and fellow Kansan I can follow much of your life experiences, they are rich in history and a pleasure to be reminded.
    Hope you had an outstanding birthday.

    • Jim Czupor

      Thank you Bob. Glad you enjoyed it. By the way, are you familiar with John Denver’s song, “Matthew?” It’s about growing up in Kansas and the chorus is one of my favorites, not to mention a wonderful melody. You might like it. It goes like this:
      “Yes, and joy was just the thing that he was raised on
      Love was just the way to live and die
      Gold was just a windy Kansas wheatfield
      Blue, just a Kansas summer sky.”

      Thank you again for reading. Hope you’re feeling better and ready to go dancing again soon! All the best!

  7. Nice post, ZJ! You’ve such a great ability to blend the serious and the inane almost effortlessly. Thanks!

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