In his Feb. 16 “Forgotten history” letter to the editor, (p. 4), Joshua Isard writes that the holiday on the third Monday in February is “Presidents’ Day, a day in honor of all those who served as president of our United States.”
Actually, the federal holiday and state holiday in most states is designated as “Washington’s Birthday.” The federal government, post office, and many financial markets, including the New York Stock Exchange, closed Feb. 15 to observe “Washington’s Birthday.” The George Washington University canceled classes to commemorate “George Washington’s Birthday.”
Why the confusion?
The story begins in 1967 when tourism industry lobbyists persuaded a U.S. senator from Florida to introduce a bill that sought to move most federal holidays to Mondays to create more three-day weekends, thereby increasing travel spending.
The initial plan spared only Christmas and New Year’s Day; all other holidays, including Independence Day and Thanksgiving Day, were to be observed on Mondays. While the National Association of Travel Organizations dubiously asserted, “Monday holidays will increase patriotic pride,” Holiday magazine privately advised Congress, “the economic effect upon the travel and resort industry would be enormous.”
Washington’s birthday, one of the first four federal holidays designated in 1885, was originally to be re-named “Presidents’ Day” and commemorated on the third Monday in February.
The House Judiciary Committee attempted to compromise by naming the Monday “Washington’s Birthday,” but Virginia Rep. Richard Poff revealed the rub: “Now what this really means is never again will the birthday of the father of our country be observed on Feb. 22, because the third Monday will always fall between the 15th of February and the 21st of February.”
Rep. Poff forced a House vote on retaining the Feb. 22 holiday, but his amendment narrowly failed. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Monday holiday bill on June 28, 1968, the seeds of confusion were sown – George Washington’s holiday was doomed to never again coincide with his actual birthday.
In recent years, the White House and Congress have set the wrong tone for the nation by referring to Washington’s holiday as “Presidents Day.” In four of the past five years, the White House press office has issued “Presidents’ Day” press releases saluting all former presidents.
Congressional leaders complicate matters by touting “the Presidents Day Recess.” The infamous Starr Report is among the countless federal documents that erroneously cite the “President’s Day” holiday. Embassies on all six inhabited continents have replaced “Washington’s Birthday” on holiday lists. U.S. diplomats slipped “Presidents Day” into a NAFTA side agreement, even as the Mexican negotiators included the birthday of Benito Juarez, their national hero.
Although 12 states have established “Presidents Day” holidays, my research suggests that three were created under the mistaken assumption that the federal holiday had switched to “Presidents Day.”
Texas law refers to “Presidents Day” as “a national holiday.” Illinois is the only state with both “Presidents Day” and “Lincoln’s Birthday” holidays. Arizona voters abolished its Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday holidays in 1992 after Gov. Fife Symington and the Arizona Republic incessantly urged them to follow the fictitious King Day/Presidents Day “federal model.”
The Washington Post has erroneously characterized “Presidents’ Day” as a “federal holiday” for the past 14 years, re-shaping public opinion in the process. When the mistaken references began in 1985, 97 percent of the Post’s advertisers used “Washington’s Birthday.” In 1999, 87 percent of ad references were to “Presidents Day.”
The Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, The Baltimore Sun, The Des Moines Register and World Almanac are among the publications which have become aware of the error and restored usage of “Washington’s Birthday.” Other papers, such as The San Francisco Chronicle and The Detroit News, have asked Congress to repudiate “Presidents Day” and restore significance to Washington’s birthday.
Why must George Washington, America’s preeminent historical figure, relinquish his holiday because errant politicians, media outlets and advertisers insist on referring to it as “Presidents Day”?
Congress should re-affirm George Washington’s claim to the “Washington’s Birthday” federal holiday in this bicentennial year of his death to ensure that he remains “first in the hearts of his countrymen” in the 21st century and beyond.
-Jason A. Bezis
class of 1995