Now that the heat of summer is giving way to autumn cool across much of America, it might be instructive to take a closer look at what President Obama observed about this time of year in a much discussed recent radio interview. “There’s something about August going into September where everybody in Washington gets all wee-wee'd up,” he said, provoking a national debate over what his unusual terminology meant.
The most elegant suggestion attributed it to a transcription error; that what he had actually said was the French ”oui, oui." Others, with decidedly less elegant interpretations, thought that most unlikely as he was responding to a question about his health care initiative which, of late, has tended to produce more “non, non” than “oui, oui.” Or maybe it was, as he said, just August.
The month does have a bit of a disquieting history, as Barbara Tuchman observed in her epic work The Guns of August. Not only were the first battles of World War I fought in August 1914, but so, too, were the first battles of the Gulf War, as Saddam Hussein’s army invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990.
August wasn’t a very good month for President Warren G. Harding, who died in San Francisco in 1923 of still uncertain causes, or for the future President John F. Kennedy, whose PT boat was sunk off the Solomon Islands in 1943. It was in August 1974 that President Richard M. Nixon resigned his office, the first and, so far, only U.S. president to do so. It wasn’t too good a month for France’s Napoleon Bonaparte, either. As his fellow countrymen and women were setting off on their annual holidays, he was setting out for St. Helena, hardly a vacation spot. World War II ended in August 1945, but not before two atomic bombs were dropped that month on Japan.
The Berlin Wall went up in 1961 but, in earlier Augusts, communications between peoples actually improved. The first trans-Atlantic cable went into operation in 1858 (Queen Victoria sent the first message to President James Buchanan), and passage of the first ship through the newly-opened Panama Canal occurred in 1914.
The Emperor Caesar Augustus, for whom the month was named, died in August A.D. 14. In 1752, England skipped over 11 days in August as it switched to the Gregorian calendar. That prompted riots by people who demanded their days be returned to them.
In August 1790, the first U.S. Census was begun and, in due course, determined that there were 3,939,214 Americans, presumably including those on vacation. And, for those with an interest in numerology, on 8 August 1888 (8/8/88), the temperature hit 88 degrees Fahrenheit in New York City, which is no doubt why so many people, including President Obama, go on vacation in August.