There are some great Presidents Day stories out there Monday morning. CNN has a piece on the myths and secrets of presidential monuments: Did you know there’s Civil War-era graffiti at the Washington Monument? NBC tallied the US counties named for presidents, finding that a shocking number – OK, more than 10 – are named for James Polk.
Research organizations are taking a somewhat more abstract approach. Pew Research, in honor of Presidents Day, put up an examination of how presidents have adopted and used the new media of their day, from Abe Lincoln’s use of the telegraph to Barack Obama’s promotion of the "selfie stick." The Brookings Institution unveiled a poll of political scientists that rates the presidents in order of perceived greatness. We won’t spoil it by telling you where Mr. Obama ranks, but we’ll give you a hint: 18th.
OK, we did spoil it.
Like we said, this all great, or at least interesting stuff. Too bad it’s based on a false premise. There is no federal Presidents Day. It’s a myth. The United States as a whole does not have such a holiday.
We’ve been ripping the lid off this scandal for years. Shockingly, the charade continues.
There is a federal holiday Monday, but it’s called “Washington’s Birthday.” It’s right there in the Office of Personnel Management’s list of federal days off for 2015. If you click through and look, you’ll notice it has an asterisk, which leads to a note of explanation.
“This holiday is designated as ‘Washington’s Birthday' in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees,” writes OPM. “Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.”
Section 6103(a) of Title 5 of the US Code! That’s almost as good as being in the Constitution, right?
How did things get this way? Long story short: Washington’s Birthday has been a US holiday since 1886. In the late 1960s, Congress embarked on a renovation of US holidays to make three-day weekends, and Washington’s Birthday got thrown into the mix. Some members of the Illinois congressional delegation thought it would be a great idea to expand the day to honor Lincoln, and so they suggested the “Presidents Day” business. But their Virginia counterparts wanted to protect the singularity of the day for the Father of Our Country. In the end, they prevailed. It’s a lot easier to block change in Congress than it is to bring change about.
States and localities do what they want, and some have voted to make this “Presidents Day” in their environs. Others have not.
Some states always vote to recognize favorite-son presidents. There’s a Lyndon Baines Johnson Day in Texas. It’s Aug. 27, LBJ’s actual birthday.
Mattress retailers and used-car sales lots tend to make this Presidents Day in their ads, wherever they’re located, and they’re the institutions we blame for making this a national holiday that really isn’t. Why “Presidents Day Sales” instead of “George Washington’s Birthday Sales”? Well, the former is shorter and punchier, for one thing. Also, you can use drawings of Lincoln in your ad. The beard and stovepipe hat are a good counterbalance to Washington’s breeches and wig.
Other than that, we have no idea.