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February 16, 2004

Presidents’ Day

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I haven’t been willing to take this holiday very seriously. I’ve generally dispensed with it in one paragraph, except for last year, when I used it as an excuse to go off on a lengthy tangent about the politics behind Christo’s impending Gates project in the Park. That dubious display is still one year away, but Presidents’ Day is here again, and since I’m trying to take a broader view of the Holidays this time around, I thought I should make the effort to consider the occasion in more depth.

My observation of the Holidays is in part a defense against cynicism, my own not least of all. Most people I know are more or less cynical about holidays, and I’m probably more cynical about politics than anything, so a politician’s holiday is a bit hard to stomach in this day and age. But, as is often the case for the cynic, who presumes to see beneath the surface, it turns out I knew less than I thought about Presidents’ Day.

For one thing, I’m not even sure how to write the name. I seem to have spelled it differently each year. Presidents? President’s? Presidents’? But it’s not just me. It turns out this Holiday is remarkably confused, as much so as any rewritten ancient rite. It all started with the first public celebrations of George Washington’s birthday (presumably sincere), which began at the end of his term in office. Even then, however, there was confusion about the date. Britain, and her then colonies, were famously reluctant to accept the revised Gregorian calendar of 1582; not until 1752 did the English world make the adjustment, which required excising eleven days from the current year, eliminating the excess built up by an imprecision in the old Julian calendar’s calculation of leap years. The missing days were a cause of some consternation, and there was disagreement about how to account for them in matters of reckoning, such as birthdays. So it was that Washington’s Birthday was initially celebrated by some on February eleventh, the original calendar date, while others adjusted it to the twenty second, to account for actual time passed.

Washington was already a semi-mythic figure in his own time, and appears to have enjoyed more bipartisan support than any president in mine. I suppose I cannot begrudge him a holiday, for everyone needs a myth of origin, and even a cynic should admit that America has been a worthwhile effort, whatever its failings. Personally, I’d be satisfied with the Forth of July, but we are people, and will personify. George Washington, the man-who-would-not-be-king, is no mean symbol, and not so far from the truth as some of them.

So Washington became the iconic President, raised above the dirty business of actual politics. It took an entire lifetime before another president impacted so deeply on the national psyche, and only when the country that came together for Washington appeared to be coming apart. Lincoln is the dystopian president, martyred mentor of dissolution. The nation’s survival has hallowed his memory, but his fate recalls the ultimate cost of political “disagreement.” Lincoln’s birthday, too, became a holiday, but one imposed by victors, and long resented in the South.

They could ignore him if they chose. Federal government holidays are not binding on anyone except the federal government. The states are free to name their own official holidays as they see fit, though they largely follow the federal schedule. The real problem with Lincoln, a century on down the road, was merely bureaucratic, for his birthday also falls in February, on the twelfth; too close for comfort to Washington’s. This tended to have a diminishing effect. When I was a kid in Detroit in the sixties, both birthdays were holidays, but we only got half a day off from school for each, which seemed like a raw deal to me. A real holiday means a whole day off. And you wonder where my cynicism comes from.

Like Pope Gregory with his calendar, there are always reformers. By the end of the sixties legislation was enacted by Congress to overhaul the whole federal holiday system. Most significantly, many of the “minor” holidays were divorced from their traditional dates and made to fall on the nearest Monday, ensuring a long weekend for the working masses. I’m sure we appreciate the sop, as far as it goes. They could hardly change the date of the Fourth of July, or Christmas, but Washington’s Birthday (whatever its “real” date may have been) was among those holidays set afloat, and Lincoln’s Birthday disappeared from the schedule altogether.

That’s a literal reading of the law, as incorporated into the United States Code. The third Monday of February is designated to commemorate George Washington; no mention of Lincoln or any other President. But here’s where the plot thickens, thanks to, you guessed it, a president.

And what a president. Richard Nixon it was, who presided over the institution of the new holiday schedule, which was first celebrated in 1971. His responsibility was limited to issuing a routine Presidential Proclamation of each holiday, thus executing the legal authority of the language in the US Code. But Nixon never shied from exceeding his authority, and it seems that somewhere along the line there were second thoughts about the Washington/Lincoln business, so Nixon’s proclamation announced, not Washington’s Birthday, but a new Holiday, in honor of Washington, and Lincoln, and all the presidents. This was the first Presidents’ Day as we know it. It may be that Nixon thought his proclamation had the force of law, and that the new occasion had been officially instituted as such, but it was not so. That would have required an Executive Order, or a change in the actual law, but this was never done, and as far as the law of the land is concerned, there is no such holiday as Presidents’ Day.

The states, however, generally accepted the language of the proclamation. Most of them went over to the new Monday Holiday schedule, and most included a single Presidents’ Day in February, under that name (and usually spelled that way.) So while there’s no official federal Presidents’ Day, most of us celebrate one under the auspices of our individual states. Which is a funny way to honor centralized power. Actually, the term “Presidents’ Day” is widely used within the federal government, and appears in official documents, but it would be cynical of me to suggest that one hand of the government doesn’t know what the other is doing, or that it fails to follow its own law.

Then again, it was Nixon who brought us to this pass. And since we’re remembering presidents today, I will say that of those in my experience, the man-who-would-not-be (but was) a crook is the most memorable. And not a little responsible for whatever political cynicism I may own. Was he trying to horn in on an honor undeserved, enlisting such lesser lights as himself in the mythic van of our Founding Father? That seems to be the result, for now the lot of them are celebrated equally. But I was working for the federal government, years later, when Nixon died. Then we got an unscheduled day off to mark his passing. I guess that’s customary upon the death of any president, and not untoward. But it’s a good thing I’m not really a cynic, or I’d be tempted to say that was the real holiday…

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