Once again, government buildings, banks, and some businesses and schools have closed to commemorate that most "amorphous" of holidays: Presidents' Day.
The term, which came into use in the late 1960s, represents a convergence of the demands of the workplace with a good dosage of political correctness tossed in for good measure. Would that it were Washington' Birthday again.
For nearly two centuries, that's the way Feb. 22 was known across the nation. The general's troops set aside that day in his honor in the winter of 1776, following Washington's crossing of the Delaware and his surprising victories over Hessian mercenaries in Trenton and British troops in Princeton. The practice continued into and beyond Washington's presidency. Congress put its official stamp on it after his death.
Until 1968, no one questioned the wisdom of naming what had been the principal government holiday between New Year's Day and Good Friday in honor of the man who did more to found this nation and all it represents than any other. Washington's parents had even been thoughtful enough to see that he would be born at a time of year when his future countrymen had their minds on ski vacations and car sales.
In 1968, Congress decided retroactively that most events worthy of national commemoration - save for Thanksgiving, Christmas and July 4th - happened on a Monday. Its intent was to maximize the number of three-day weekends.
Washington's Birthday got lost in the shuffle. Complicating matters - but only in northern enclaves -was the observation of Lincoln's birthday Feb. 12. Some states retained this holiday regardless of whether it fell on a Monday. Others incorporated it into Presidents' Day weekend (over three days or four.) Then came a new winter holiday in honor of Martin Luther King. (Not a federal holiday until the 1980s, it falls beyond the scope of Monday-madness legislation. Give it time.)
Any renaming and reshuffling of the familiar necessarily creates confusion. This, in turn begets ample opportunity for mischief. Presidents' Day has been no exception.
About the time the term "Presidents Day" was taking hold, academicians who had been demanding that history be taught "from the bottom up" began winning out. Most claimed their goal was to include stories of people and groups who had been "left out." Regarding history as an exercise in building self esteem, rather than explaining the past, they gave equal weight to persons whose contributions may not have been of equal value as the presidents, generals, and other dead white men they gave short shrift. As Gary Nash || promulgator of the infamous "Goals 2000" curriculum - put it, "part of 'new history' is to liberate American students from the prison house of facts."
Others within this movement had an even broader agenda. In the name of "relativism," they wrought havoc on what were once symbols of national unity. What they could banish, they could denigrate, debunk, and tarnish. If their Victorian predecessors had found nothing wrong in the American story, this group saw little right. To this "blame America first" band of scholars, Washington was ripe for the pickings. Much of the "popular culture" soon followed suit.
President's Day soon became part their strategy. No longer the topic of essay contests, school assembly programs, plays and pageants, Washington was reduced in size and standing to but one of 42 men who had been president. His contributions were no more stressed and praised than those of Franklin Pierce.
Having leveled Washington, the academics set out to humanize him. More and more they cast him as an object of ridicule than as a figure worthy of emulation. In the age of Dr. Ruth, comedians joked about all the places Washington had slept. Where would they have had the head of a guerrilla army, who visited his home once in seven years, hang his hat? There were wisecracks about his wooden teeth. (Actually, they were ivory.) What was so humorous about 18th century dentistry?
In order to make the world safe from hypocrisy, they seized upon fabricated stories about Washington - like Parson Weems's tale of young George admitting to having chopped down his father's cherry tree - to call his reputation for honesty and integrity into dispute. They ignored what there was in Washington's character that inspired parables inviting the young to emulate the father of their country.
Many really were inspired. En route to his inauguration in 1861, Abraham Lincoln told the New Jersey State Senate:
"May I be pardoned if, upon this occasion, I mention that away back in my childhood, the earliest days of my being able to read, I got a hold of a small book, such a one as few of the younger members have ever seen, Weems's Life of Washington. I remember all the accounts there given of the battlefields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here Trenton . . . and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for . . . that something even more than national independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time come."
In 1932, the commission that oversaw the bicentennial of Washington's birth, hopeful it might encourage other 14-year-olds on to greatness, placed reproductions of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Washington in the classrooms of America. Commission members, like Lincoln, had no doubt that leaders could and should serve as role models to American youth. (Bring those photos back!)
That something to which Lincoln referred was human freedom. He drew upon Weems's again in his greatest speech. He had seen in that volume, a woodcut of Washington inspecting graves at Valley Forge. Beneath was the caption: "that these dead shall not have died in vain." Lincoln incorporated the line he read at 14 into the address he gave at Gettysburg at 54. His talk remains the most concise definition of self-government in existence.
In this year, which marks the 200th anniversary of Washington's death, Congress should recommit the nation to the values that gave it life and continue to inspire the world. It should launch the new millennium by insisting that the Monday holiday set aside each February be called George Washington's Birthday.
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association is working hard to attract attention back to George Washington. They have assembled a traveling exhibit and have asked the 50 governors to dedicate a day to honor Washington. The nation's leaders should proclaim there already is one. Calling the holiday by its proper name will not cost a dime, but will speak volumes about what the nation values as it turns another century. They can undo the nonsense that goes by the name Presidents' Day. Make today the last Presidents' Day.
Alvin S. Felzenberg, is a former visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally published in The Washington Times (02/15/99)