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Presidents Day

Published February 15. 2010 05:00PM

Presidents Day has succeeded as a holiday. Who can quarrel with a Monday off in the midst of a generally grim, gray month that left the national capital and other major Eastern cities immured in record snowfalls?

But it has failed in its principal purpose. Indeed, most of us are not even sure of the name of the holiday. Is it "Presidents' Day" or "Presidents Day"? Most newspapers and the bible of their usage, The Associated Press Stylebook, say it is "Presidents Day," without the possessive. That's settled. The Mainstream Media have spoken.

Except it's not. The relevant executive order calls it "Washington's Birthday," the name it bore since the first president's birthday became a government-wide federal holiday in 1885. And, of course, the holiday was observed on Washington's actual birthday, Feb. 22.

In 1968, Congress, lobbied by commercial interests, took four holidays and jiggered their dates so they would fall on Mondays, thus creating the three-day weekends. Many perhaps now believe that the official name of the second Monday in October is "The Columbus Day Sale."

Congress relented on "Veterans Day" and returned it to Nov. 11, since there is something almost mystical about the slaughter of World War I ending on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

"Washington's Birthday" was moved to the third Monday in February, guaranteeing that the holiday honoring his birth would never fall on his actual birthday. It did bring the observance closer to Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 12.

Although Lincoln's birthday was a holiday in some states, it was never a federal holiday. Nonetheless, the proximity gave rise to the popular belief that the new three-day weekend honored both Washington and Lincoln.

In the 1950s, a movement to so declare March 4, the original inauguration day, as "Presidents Day" got all the way to Congress, but died there. The holiday would have honored no specific president but all of them and the office of the presidency. That would have been truly a diluted observance.

And that's the problem with the popular creation of Presidents Day. In seeking to honor both Washington and Lincoln, the holiday effectively honors neither. That's too bad because they were both remarkable men who rose to occasions that literally meant life or death for the United States.

By Dale McFeatters

Scripps Howard News Service

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