For most years, Presidents’ Day is little more than a shaky three-day weekend. But with a new CEO in office, a former on trial for impeachment, and several statues of previous presidents torn down last year, perhaps the holiday can provide time to reflect on the presidency and the scope of our country in general.
Do we still admire George Washington because we know he owned slaves? Abraham Lincoln’s treatment of Native Americans also deserves careful consideration. But on the third Monday in February, a date that often falls between the two leaders ‘birthdays, Presidents’ Day asks a nation to celebrate, which should also mean questioning them and learning from our past so that we can ourselves imagine a better future. While the kids are out of school, here are some suggestions on what to do in New York City, virtually or in person.
Visit the Resolute Desk
Last year, the New York Historical Society opened a permanent exhibition that recreates the Oval Office set up for Ronald Reagan’s second term. (I love the rose curtains. And the matching pink phone.) The room contains a replica of the Resolute Desk, a gift from Queen Victoria. Visitors cannot currently sit behind it to take photos, but they can still take selfies in the room. There are other artifacts from the President, including Washington’s Inaugural Bible.
The society also invites visitors to take part in an interactive game: Playing the President: The First Hundred Days of FDR. By reading historical documents and consulting virtual advisors, you too can help lift America out of a depression.
Beginnings of the tour president
Lincoln’s humble home in Springfield, Illinois remains closed, but the National Park Service arranged a virtual tour instead. Enjoy the bold selection of carpets! For a grimmer experience, click through to a virtual tour of Ford’s theater, the site where Lincoln was murdered, in Washington, DC
While the Mount Vernon Estate in Washington remains open, it also has robust virtual offerings, some of which include take-out options as well. In the area for February 13th or 27th? Get hoecakes and candy for a virtual tea with Martha Washington. (Maybe not the actual Martha Washington?) The Virtual Gem: An extensive tour with videos, stories, 360-degree views and close-ups of furniture, curiosities and a recipe for Martha’s “Great Cake”. The tour includes quarters where enslaved people were housed and a description of their life on the estate.
A chance to see Lady Liberty
America has mixed records when it comes to welcoming the tired, poor, and yearning masses. However, if you want to familiarize yourself with a 150-meter-long symbol of its promise, consider visiting Liberty Island and Ellis Island. While the inside of the statue remains closed, the museums on both islands have reopened with the Covid-19 protocols.
At the Statue of Liberty Museum, visitors can see how the structure was made and installed, as well as the original torch. On neighboring Ellis Island, visit the National Museum of Immigration to see photos, videos, and heirlooms. Visit the Family History Center in hopes of learning your own story. Research assistants are available if you and your genealogy need additional help. (The center itself is closed on Presidents’ Day.)
A stroll in New York
In Lower Manhattan, Washington’s fans could start at the Fraunces Tavern Museum, where he ordered takeout in 1783 before it was cool. Upstairs is a museum and a redesign of the room where Washington spoke to its officers. Stop in front of Wall Street Federal Hall, a national monument and the site of Washington’s inauguration in 1789, and the first Supreme Court and Congress. (While the original building was demolished in 1812, the new hall has a piece of the balcony that Washington said on it.) The hall is currently closed, but there are virtual exhibits for Black History Month and Presidents’ Day.
A little further up you can stand in front of the Cooper Union, where Lincoln used to be a famous anti-slavery address. Or head to Washington Heights to see the Morris Jumel Mansion, which Washington briefly used as its headquarters during the Revolutionary War. It is open to personal visits and a virtual tour is also available.
Meet the President in the movie
Most likely, you’ve seen “Hamilton” on Disney +. And maybe you enjoyed Daniel Day-Lewis’ grizzled visage in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which is available on HBO Max. But there are plenty of other cinematic and limited series that deal with past presidents.
Think of a young Henry Fonda as “Young Mr. Lincoln”, available for free from Tubi, or for a slightly more imaginative take: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”, with Benjamin Walker’s face under the stovepipe hat, available from Cinemax.
If real presidents let you down, you can feel even worse with the recently released limited series “The Plot Against America” on HBO, in which aviator Charles S. Lindbergh, a fascist sympathizer, won the election. Or relax with romantic comedies like “The American President”, in which Michael Douglas’ POTUS falls for Annette Bening’s elegant lobbyist, or “Dave”, in which Kevin Kline’s presidential simulator becomes president. Both can be rented at different locations.
Remember, even a terrible president can inspire a wonderful movie like 1999’s great “Dick,” available on Showtime, in which two teenage girls (Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst) overthrow Nixon.