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Great thoughts from great presidents

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael Hornitschek
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Commander
As our nation prepares to celebrate Presidents' Day, which was originally a commemoration of George Washington's birthday, I would like to take a few moments to celebrate not only the leadership qualities of the Father of our Country, but also some of the great men who have led our great nation since then.

After Washington's death, our nation began celebrating his birthday--Feb. 22--as a way to remember his life and contributions to the establishment of America's independence. In 1865, the year after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, we began celebrating Lincoln's birthday, which is Feb. 12. Until 1971, both Feb. 12 and 22 were observed as federal public holidays, however, in 1971 President Richard Nixon combined the two holidays into one and ever since we have honored all past presidents on the third Monday of February.

Much has been written and said about George Washington and one thing is clear. He led by example and set the tone for how a president should act and govern. He said, "I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent." Indeed all eyes were on him. Evidence of his character can be seen in the following statements:

"I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man."

"I have no other view than to promote the public good, and am unambitious of honors not founded in the approbation of my Country."

"Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company."

Any study of George Washington and his monumental role in laying the foundation for our country will ignite a deep appreciation for the extraordinary times in which he lived, for his accomplishments and vast contributions. Many men and women are to be honored for their sacrifice and role in shaping our nation, but his unique and qualified skill and character surely united and led our colonies through some very dark and bleak times.
But just as George Washington stayed the course, so too did another great American, Abraham Lincoln, who saved our union. The price was costly--more than 620,000 deaths, and more than half of those were from disease and wounds--as brothers took sides against each other. It was a time of great unrest and a test of wills, as well as principles. Abraham Lincoln believed a house divided against itself could not stand and this lawyer from Illinois also stayed the course to liberate America from itself.

He said, "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves." I believe that is still true today. Only we can lose what was bought with precious blood. A few other quotes from him that I enjoy include:

"Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?

"Don't interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties."

"Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other."

"Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm."

"Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition."

"I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."

"I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong."

Fast forward to a country who in the mid-1960s found itself yet again in the midst of crisis. A time of war. A time when the nation needed a strong voice to unite us. It was also a time where we were on the brink of unmatched achievements. And, there we find John F. Kennedy asking us "not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Our core value of "Service Before Self" echoes that same sentiment, as do Integrity First and Excellence All We Do. I am sure we can see that in some of the statements he made while president:

"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

"I look forward to a great future for America - a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose."

"Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men."

"In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."

n "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

You don't need to be a president to lead, but these men who were chosen by the people to represent us carried the burden of that responsibility and rose to the occasion, not just once, but many times and through difficult circumstances. I cannot do justice in honoring them with the few lines of ink on this page, but I can continue to learn from their example and teach my children the good they did in service to not only their generation, but all those who followed.

Let us not permit their contributions to gather dust in the books on our library shelves, but allow their ideas to inspire us, their experiences to teach us and as President Kennedy said, let our appreciation not just be in our words, but in how we live. To Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy ... and the many other great leaders who've guided our nation, I salute you! Happy Presidents' Day!