Presidents Day; there's room for one more - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Presidents Day; there's room for one more

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Posted: Monday, February 21, 2011 4:00 am

On Monday we celebrate Washington's Birthday. That's the official name for the holiday bestowed on it by Congress. However, Abraham Lincoln has begun to muscle in on the observance and now the three-day weekend is commonly, if unofficially, called Presidents Day.

But that's OK. They're great men, both of them, but hardly underpublicized in our history. Both of them are on our bills and coins. The capital city is named after Washington. Lincoln has had more than 16,000 books written about him. (One bookseller offers to sell you the 100 best, sparing you from having to read the other 15,900 to find out for yourself.)

The problem with a Presidents Day so limited is that it leaves many presidents unrecognized. Of course, not all of them deserve recognition. The four presidents who preceded Lincoln were a pretty weak bunch. The second half of the 19th century was not much to brag about either.

We can only feel for Petey Otterloop in the cartoon "Cul de Sac" who drew Rutherford B. Hayes for a class project. Hayes did hold the first White House Easter egg roll. I know it's not much to work with but, as they say, desperate times ...

And then there are the hard luck cases. It would take only a minute or so to celebrate the presidency of William Henry Harrison since he died a month after taking office.

There are, however, presidents unjustly overlooked, and I would like to nominate for inclusion in Presidents Day James K. Polk, our 11th president who, among other accomplishments, is responsible for our two most populous states joining the union. This is not just my opinion. In surveys of historians, Polk regularly ranks among the 10 best presidents.

Polk was an honors graduate of the University of North Carolina, which should endear him to college basketball fans. He was governor of Tennessee and speaker of the House under "Old Hickory," Andrew Jackson, which could not have been easy.

Polk is responsible for one of the brighter entries in our political lexicon. He was the original "dark horse," coming from deep in the field to win the 1844 Democratic presidential nomination on the ninth ballot.

Polk ran for president on a campaign pledge to annex Texas, a promise that the state's current Republican governor occasionally threatens to undo. Texas became a state in Polk's first year in office and he almost immediately went to war with Mexico to hang on to it.

We won that war, forcing the sale by Mexico of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and sizable parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.

And there was more to come. He settled a long running Canadian border dispute with the British, giving us a free and clear claim to Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and the rest of Wyoming.

Sadly, Polk failed to get British Columbia included in the deal. (Although a newspaper editor there told me once that as regards certain issues of reprint rights, they regarded the United States as part of Vancouver, so maybe this deal isn't totally dead.)

It's probably just as well another ambitious Polk scheme failed. He tried unsuccessfully to buy Cuba from Spain and make it a state. If matters had turned out differently, Fidel Castro might have been a U.S. senator, a valued member of the Republican filibuster team for his ability to speak for eight to 10 hours at a stretch.

When he was not fulfilling our Manifest Destiny, Polk occupied himself in office by opening the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian and breaking ground for the Washington Monument.

During his campaign, Polk pledged to serve only one term as president and, amazingly considering how the whole term limits business turned out, he kept that promise.

So, on this Presidents Day weekend, I give you Washington, Lincoln and Polk, giants among us.

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