Monday, February 20, 2017

Bah! Humbug!

Today is Presidents' Day in the United States, a day originally supposed to celebrate the birth of the first president, George Washington. He was born February 22, 1732, although when he was actually born it was known as February 11, 1731 because England and its colonies were using the Julian Calendar and because dates before March 25 were considered part of the previous year.

The switch to the modern Gregorian Calendar happened in 1752, and the birthday migrated to the date we use today. No word on whether or not Washington tried to swing two birthdays a year; we know he was scrupulously honest but he would not have been lying to call either day his birthday since each of them was according to different calendars. Today would be February 7, 2016 if we were using the system under which Washington was born, but we would have already had the election either way so at least we wouldn't have that mess to do again.

Anyway, Washington's birthday was made a Washington, D.C. federal workers' holiday in 1879. In 1885, it became a federal holiday in all national government offices. Back in those sensible times, folks had the quaint idea of celebrating Washington's birthday on -- get this -- his birthday, Feb. 22. Government by 1971 had become much more sensible, instituting the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that mandated federal holidays be on certain Mondays of their respective months in order to create more three-day weekends, It is tempting to blame this on then-President Richard Nixon, but the Act was actually passed in 1968 and is therefore one more thing caused by the '60s. The act set the Washington's Birthday holiday as the third Monday in February, guaranteeing that it would be between the 15th and 21st and never fall on Washington's birthday. The '60s made a lot of people fuzzy about dates.

The migrating date and the proximity to Abraham Lincoln's birthday (February 12, 1809) began to move us towards considering the day "Washington and Lincoln's Birthday" as it is observed in several states and then "Presidents' Day," which honors all the men who have served in the office.

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, suggests the day be eliminated entirely as a holiday. He notes that by morphing it into "Presidents Day," we celebrate some real zeroes in the White House and some men who, charitably, are less than zero. I'd be on board with this. If I'm going to pay for Joe and Jane Bureaucrat to have a day off, it at least ought to be in the summer when they can post stupid drunken beach selfies and amuse the rest of us.

Or it at least ought to celebrate the two top presidents we've ever had, Washington and Lincoln. There have been some other great ones and some pretty good ones who've earned a tip of the cap and a heartfelt thanks for your service. And there have been plenty who have earned having the door held open for them while decent folk chuck them out on the seat of their pants. But those two men -- the one who in more ways than we realize helped shape our republic and the one who managed to hold it together -- stand head and shoulders above the crowd. None of the others come close.

And while I'm at it I'm taking Tom and Teddy off Rushmore too. Jefferson was an excellent president and in some senses one of the greats, but he wasn't George-and-Abe level. Roosevelt got some good things done, but he was also one of the instigators of the expansion of the role of government. His successors took things way past where he would have ever gone, but they couldn't have if he hadn't helped start the engine. And he's on Rushmore because he was the best Republican in the White House between Lincoln and the monument's design in the mid-20s; Calvin Coolidge was in office then and would not have approved a statue of himself.

Williamson sees the elimination of the holiday as a way to try to reduce the "unelected king" atmosphere that's increasingly surrounded the presidency since the middle of the 20th century. The undisguised fawning over former President Obama and current President Trump is an extreme example of the problem, approaching worship, but we've been becoming more and more deferential to someone we've hired to run our country for some time.

So rename the holiday Washington-Lincoln Day and if someone wants to think special thoughts about the nation's chief executive they can do it on October 16. And federal employees can show their appreciation by showing up for work.

No comments: