You’ve played the game before. “Hey, it’s President’s Day. Who do you think the 3 greatest presidents are?” It was 1800, and George Washington had died the year before. Even by that time, he was the most important figure in our history. A day of remembrance commemorating his February 22nd birthday was already common (though it would not be until 1870 that his birthday would become a federal holiday). Another child of February was Abraham Lincoln (the 12th). By the latter part of the 19th century, many were observing not just February 12th, but also the 22nd. Today, we celebrate a single day of celebration, honoring the birth of both men, and our other presidents. In fact, there was a third great president also born in February, Ronald Reagan. I’d like to say there were four great presidents born in that month. But the fourth president born in February was William Henry Harrison. Born in February? Definitely. Great? Maybe not so much. A host put the question I ask above to a number of panelists on a talk show this morning. Their answers uniformly were what you would expect. George Washington was a common answer as was Lincoln. Their picks for the third were much more varied. My top three also include Washington and Lincoln. Washington because he embodied the essence of some of the most important things which served as founding principles of our nation – a commitment to freedom, honor and duty. He led with uncommon integrity and honor including walking away from a third term as president. He refused to accept a third term as president because of the perception which might have arisen from it. In his mind, there would be no American king, and a third term would have put him on a path that some might see as American royalty. His integrity helped shape the key compromises that permitted our Constitution to come into being. People trusted him to do the right thing. It was his sense of duty which shaped his behavior. Lincoln makes the top three for a different reason. The nation that sprang up from the Constitution that Washington had played such a key role in enabling, was in danger of dissolving as Lincoln took office. Lincoln was neither an idealist nor perfect man. He was, however, the right man at the right moment in history. His focus was on saving the great American democratic experiment, and he pursued that goal with every fiber in his body. Lincoln understood the critical truths that compromise was a necessary partner with ideology. Those fueled and inflamed by extreme ideology helped create the national crisis that Lincoln faced. As do we all, Lincoln had his personal shortcomings. But in him, our nation found a man who poured himself into the single-minded goal of finding the path that would permit the nation to emerge from a great civil war intact as a nation. All presidents age in office, but none more Abraham Lincoln. Look at pictures of him upon his being elected to his first term and then compare those taken near the time of his death. I suspect you will struggle to find a more stark example of how the burdens of office can weigh upon a leader. My pick to round out the three greatest presidents might surprise you. Washington faced the challenge of keeping our “founding fathers” together as they sought to give birth to a new nation. Our nation. They were often in disagreement over how best to solve certain problems or reach specific goals. Washington’s genius lay in his ability to help shape compromises which would resolve the disagreements. Those compromises were essential in giving birth to our nation. In his time, Washington faced the challenge of birthing our nation. In contrast, Lincoln faced the challenge of trying to preserve the nation that Washington had been so much a part of giving birth to. The very fabric that binds our nation together was on the verge of being torn asunder. Washington faced the challenge of birthing the nation. Lincoln faced the challenge of keeping Washington’s nation from dissolving. My pick for the third man is the president who faced more change, instability and peril outside of our nation than any of his predecessors as he sought to manage our nation safely through the end of the Cold War. A war that threatened in its final months to become the hot, nuclear war that two generations had feared. That man is George H. W. Bush (“Bush 41”). Newly available and declassified documents shed new light on the presidency of this extraordinary man. There are new books on the market looking at this in more detail and they are a read well worth your time. For this reason, he is my pick for the number three spot. Bush faced the challenge of keeping Washington’s and Lincoln’s nation from being destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. Up Next: What’s in a number? If it’s 41, it’s an American treasure.