DON'T CALL IT PRESIDENTS DAY
By David M. Shribman
Sat Feb 18, 8:16 PM ET
Shout it from the rooftops: Monday is not Presidents Day. It's Washington's Birthday.
Only it isn't Washington's Birthday either, not really. The father of our country was born on Feb. 22, and Monday is only Feb. 19. What gives?
This February holiday is a real mess. Back in the middle of the last century, when Americans didn't hate all their politicians for the mere character flaw of being politicians, we celebrated two holidays. Every American schoolchild knew that Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12 and that Washington's birthday (with the car sales that made it famous) was 10 days later. Two presidents, two holidays. Made a lot of sense: the president who helped found the Union, the president who helped save it.
Then we had to go and get efficient, which was good for winter business but which wrung all the poetry out of February.
In 1968, a year in which virtually nothing good happened, Congress started to fiddle with the nation's holidays. Unable or unwilling to move American troops out of Vietnam, and unable or unwilling to move Americans away from violence, the lawmakers instead started moving holidays, the idea being that most of them should be on Monday so as to assure three-day weekends.
Three years later, with a Republican (Richard M. Nixon) in the White House, the birthday of the greatest Republican ever (Lincoln) disappeared, which was an irony and a shame. Nixon himself referred to the new holiday as Presidents Day, though in law if not in the popular mind it remained Washington's Birthday, which was an irony and a shame because by definition the third Monday in February can never be Feb. 22. Do the math and you will see what I mean. (The proof for the theorem governing the latest possible date for Washington's birthday is 7 x 3 < 22.)
Somehow this horrible Presidents Day name stuck, maybe because, as David Eisenhower (both the grandson and the son-in-law of a president) put it in a conversation last week, "This has the air of a pre-emptive strike to avoid awkward resolutions in Congress to create other presidential birthday holidays." Chester A. Arthur Day, anyone (Oct. 5)?
But there are three problems with the way things are today -- or, rather, the way things will be on Monday.
Problem No. 1: No proper celebration of Washington, who exemplified several American ideals, including the notion of the citizen-soldier, the idea that American presidents shouldn't be royalty, and the concept that leaders ought to step away from office after a decent interval. The coupling of restraint and power is a lesson all of our leaders would do well to learn.
Problem No. 2: No proper celebration of Lincoln, whose humanity and decency represent the best of America and are a reminder that it is possible, in the White House as in life, for a leader who makes hard choices to have a soft heart. Lincoln was always our greatest president, but Doris Kearns Goodwin's monumental new biography of him in power is reminding many Americans of why.
Problem No. 3: It's not proper to celebrate mere power. That, essentially, is what a holiday named Presidents Day does. It honors all presidents, which, when you think of it, honors the fact of achieving the presidency more than it honors any achievements in the White House.
Apply that reasoning, and John Quincy Adams is rewarded and remembered not for his role in sculpting the Monroe Doctrine (which he did before he went into office), and not for anything he did in office (like proposing a high tariff that Southerners would term the Tariff of Abominations and that would contribute to the crisis of the Union and the ascendancy of the secessionist ethic), but merely for sealing a "corrupt bargain" to win the presidency. Not the stuff of a holiday.
Nor, even in our zeal to have a day off from work, can we soberly argue that all presidents deserve honor. James Buchanan surely does not; he did little to nudge the nation away from civil war and a lot to nudge it toward armed conflict. Nor Warren G. Harding, who let the good times roll and the '20s roar but who is a role model for nobody, unless perhaps you are a contestant in the World Series of Poker. Nixon is enjoying a bit of a realpolitik renaissance, but a lot of Americans who were alive during Vietnam and Watergate will never forgive him. George W. Bush has a long wait for the verdict of history, but as long as there are early-21st century Democrats alive, there will be Americans who deplore him.
It's important, if for nothing else as a cultural lesson to the kids who have the day off from school, to insist that the mere achievement of high office or high prestige is not itself worthy of celebration, even if the climb to office or to a position of prestige was difficult or ennobling. It is what someone does with that forum that matters.
We remember President Thomas Jefferson, for example, not for his triumph in the tough battle of 1800 but for making the Louisiana Purchase and for commissioning the Lewis and Clark expedition. We remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt not for defeating Herbert Hoover in 1932 but for reviving the nation's spirits, and eventually its economy, in 1933.
We remember William Henry Harrison for, well, nothing. He won office, to be sure, but he died a month after his inauguration. He had an unpretentious way, a cultivated intelligence and a solid military record. He was a fine man, but there have been millions of fine men in American history, and being a fine man doesn't make him deserving of a holiday, or a fraction of a holiday.
A new Working Paper (beware that phrase, as you will see as you continue to read this sentence) prepared by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston concludes that Americans have enjoyed "a dramatic increase in leisure time" since 1965. The period the Fed economists examined is eerily congruent with the period since Washington started ruining the February holidays. No matter. Americans like a midwinter break, and I'm not here to spoil the fun. Just don't call it Presidents Day.