Honor the Great Ones and Forget About the Rest

by Derrick G. Jeter

As a boy my friends and I wanted to grow up and be great soldiers, doing daring deeds on the battlefield and returning home with medals on our chest. For hours we played war or with our GI Joe actions figures, pretending to singlehandedly defeat the Nazis Reich and the Japanese Empire. If we couldn’t be heroic soldiers then we could at least be heroic policemen or firemen. But the greatest ambition of all was to one day become President of the United States.

I remember the first time I traveled to Washington D.C. I was in the sixth grade and it was America’s Bicentennial year, 1976. My Junior High School went over our Christmas break, shortly after Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford for the presidency. It was bitterly cold, but I recall forgetting all about the weather while standing in the temple of that great man, Abraham Lincoln. Reading the Second Inaugural Address and then turning to read the Gettysburg Address (the first speech I ever memorized) was an unforgettable moment in the life of the young man that I was. And then to actually go to the battlefield where brave men, both North and South, gave their “last full measure of devotion” was more than I can take. I thought my heart would burst with pride. Now, more than thirty years later this memory has the taste of innocent sweetness to it; but oh so sappy I suppose. And yet, I wonder do young men and women today hope to become President? Are their hearts stirred when they read or hear the word of the Gettysburg Address? Do they swell with patriotic pride when they visit places like the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, Gettysburg, Valley Forge, or Mount Vernon?

I have always been a lover of America and of her history. In Elementary school a friend and I wrote a play about George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, I memorized the Gettysburg Address, and remember dressing up in a homemade costume, made by my Grandmother, as a Minuteman. As a father I’ve tried to instill my love for America into the hearts and minds of my children. We have taken tours from Boston, to New York, to Philadelphia, to Washington D.C; they’ve seen Mount Rushmore and the Badlands; they’ve stood in the wagon tracks of the Oregon trail and on the deadly streets of Deadwood; they’ve been to the Alamo, to play respects to the relative who gave his life there. I’ve tried to let them know that history is important and heroes are important. But have I succeeded? Do our children understand this? Do we?

On this Presidents Day, remind yourself and your children of how great America was and still is. Remember our greatest presidents, especially George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Presidents Day, after all, was originally the federal celebration of Washington’s birthday (February 22). After Lincoln’s presidency the day turned into a celebration of both men. (Lincoln was born on February 12.) And rightly so. However, in 1968 Congress designated the third Monday in February as a day to honor all presidents—the great and the not-so-great. This is too bad, because the truth of it is, most presidents aren’t great, or even close to greatness. But not so Washington and Lincoln. They are unique to American history, and should have a day uniquely set aside just for them. So, stop sometime today and thank God for these men and the service they gave our country. Remember the lessons from their lives—honesty (from the story of the cherry tree—good story, bad history), hard work (Lincoln as a rail splitter), courage (Washington’s exploits on the battlefield), humility (read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural), self-sacrifice (Washington retiring as president after two terms and refusing to become a dictator), vision (Lincoln’s desire to see America without slavery), faith (both men read their Bibles and prayed to a God who intervenes in history), and freedom (one would risk his life for it and the other gave his life to preserve it and extend it). Take a moment to read their words. Read Washington’s Farewell Address—a warning that carries implications down to our own day. Read Lincoln’s Gettsyburg Address again and remind yourself as to why he was our most eloquent president; and read his Second Inaugural—it is more than a speech, it is an American sermon.

I used to come home from school and my mother would be ironing clothes watching the House hearings on impeachment for Richard Nixon. I wanted to watch cartoons and eat a snack, and couldn’t understand why my mother was so engrossed in something so boring or why she was so angry at the president. Years later, my own children couldn’t understand why I was so engrossed in the impeachment hearings of Bill Clinton, and why I was so distraught and angry about what he had done to the presidency and to the country. I think back on those childhood days and those adult days, not so long ago, and still feel a tinge of resentment and anger for what those two non-great presidents did to our country. And then days like this jar my memory and I think of Washington and Lincoln. They were not perfect—I’ve studied their lives—but they were men of honor and they loved their country more than self. So, today I honor them, the great ones, and forget about the rest. I would that you honor them too—they richly deserve it.