I hope you all had a nice POTUSmas Eve. Now here we are, celebrating the true meaning of Presidents’ Day. Your life has three stages that relate to this holiday:
Childhood: A book report on the Father of Our Country.
Adulthood: No mail, free parking.
Seniorhood: Is the mall open? I want to walk at 7 a.m.
Some complain that we mushed Washington and Lincoln’s birthday into one holiday, creating a gangly, broad-shouldered Frankenstein with bad teeth and long legs. But there was never an official Lincoln’s Day, at least as a federal holiday. For that matter … there’s no official Presidents’ Day.
What? You say. My computer calendar says it’s so. Let’s go to the internet for the definitive answer!
According to an online encyclopedia, Washington’s birthday was renamed “Presidents’ Day” in 1971 by President Richard Nixon, who said it would be a “holiday set aside to honor all presidents, even myself.”
That sounds either self-deprecating or aggressively petulant, so I went looking for the original source, to see if the original story said “Nixon chuckled,” or “Nixon snarled, glowering at the reporters.”
Well, the things you learn. Turns out the internet is wrong. Nixon didn’t say that. Nixon didn’t rename it Presidents’ Day. In 1971 he standardized the day Washington’s birthday was celebrated. The source for the Nixon quote was an Arkansas newspaper humorist who made it up.
So, the official name for today is Washington’s Birthday, but most of us still call it Presidents’ Day. That means we pay little attention to any president in particular.
If you think about it at all, you probably imagine the presidents like this: hickory-headed and resolute, then some bit players who preceded Lincoln, then a procession of increasingly stout guys, then stern schoolmaster Woodrow Wilson, Silent Cal, apple-cheeked Hoover, then about 28 years of FDR. And so on.
We hardly think about lesser known presidents like Icarus Q. Gorn, who declared war against the moon, and, while in office, could be found on the roof of the White House, shooting into the sky. Or the brief occupancy of James Polk’s brother, Piggin A. Poke, who bought Eastern Canada sight unseen, but ended up taking it back because the first lady didn’t like how it clashed with the drapes.
It’s the presidents we supposedly learned a lot about who left the deepest impressions.
Washington’s story, for example. Concise, heroic and filled with good moral instructions. He chopped down a cherry tree as a small child, which is somewhat disturbing. We never knew if he had some deep-seated animus toward trees in general or what. Some say a tree fell on his brother when he was young. In any case, it sure was ironic when he ended up with a mouthful of wooden teeth, eh? Moral: Brush between meals.
But Washington didn’t have wooden teeth, and he didn’t say “I cannot tell a lie” when confronted about the sundered tree. Those are myths that surrounded the man. Good thing, too; you don’t want a military leader who is incapable of deception.
If the Redcoats had thought that, they’d have sent a scout to his camp to yell “Hey, George, you planning on crossing the Delaware tonight?” Washington would sigh, bite his knuckles, and start to speak just as his second-in-command clamped a hand over his boss’ mouth and whispered, “You really don’t have to say anything, you know.”
Washington was a great man, and deserves his own day. So does Lincoln, a fascinating fellow. In grade school we learn that he did his lessons on a shovel with chalk, then one day got up, walked a long ways, got into a debate with two guys named Steve and Doug, then he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, after which he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. (The police found him right away because they just had to look for a guy with three names.)
There’s so much more to learn about Washington and Lincoln. But you could say that about all the presidents. If we’re going to have a real Presidents’ Day, let’s do it: Washington can have the first half-hour, then John Adams, and on until we finish with President Biden at half past 11. Each segment would be devoted to a president’s most notable accomplishment, and his worst decision.
“Hey, why is the internet down?”
“It’s Woodrow Wilson’s half-hour, so there are restrictions on speech. Just sit tight, it’ll be back up.”
“Should I reboot?”
“Nah, just wait for Coolidge.”
Anyway, enjoy the day, whether you’re writing a book report, enjoying free parking or mall walking.
And lest something I wrote above make it into an online encyclopedia, Nixon did not order the ashes of President Gorn placed on the moon. I made that up, and I cannot tell a lie.
Well, no, as wise George might have said: I can, but I shouldn’t.