Magazine article The New Yorker

TOO MANY CHIEFS; COMMENT; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

TOO MANY CHIEFS; COMMENT; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

According to some of the calendars and appointment books floating around this office, Monday, February 19th, is Presidents' Day. Others say it's President's Day. Still others opt for Presidents Day. Which is it? The bouncing apostrophe bespeaks a certain uncertainty. President's Day suggests that only one holder of the nation's supreme magistracy is being commemorated--presumably the first. Presidents' Day hints at more than one, most likely the Sage of Mount Vernon plus Abraham Lincoln, generally agreed to be the greatest of them all. And Presidents Day, apostropheless, implies a promiscuous celebration of all forty-two--Jefferson but also Pierce, F.D.R. but also Buchanan, Truman but also Harding. To say nothing of the incumbent, of whom, perhaps, the less said the better.

So which is it? Trick question. The answer, strictly speaking, is none of the above. Ever since 1968, when, in one of the last gasps of Great Society reformism, holidays were rejiggered to create more three-day weekends, federal law has decreed the third Monday in February to be Washington's Birthday. And Presidents'/'s/s Day? According to Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives, it was a local department-store promotion that went national when retailers discovered that, mysteriously, generic Presidents clear more inventory than particular ones, even the Father of His Country. Now everybody thinks it's official, but it's not. (Note to Fox News: could be a War on Washington's Birthday angle here, similar to the War on Christmas. Over to you, Bill.)

Just to add to the Presidential con-fusion, Washington's Birthday is not Washington's birthday. George Washington was born either on February 11, 1731 (according to the old-style Julian calendar, still in use at the time), or on February 22, 1732 (according to the Gregorian calendar, adopted in 1752 throughout the British Empire). Under no circumstances, therefore, can Washington's birthday fall on Washington's Birthday, a.k.a. Presidents Day, which, being the third Monday of the month, can occur only between the 15th and the 21st. Lincoln's birthday, February 12th, doesn't make it through the Presidents Day window, either. Nor do the natal days of our other two February Presidents, William Henry Harrison (born on the 6th) and Ronald Reagan (the 9th). A fine mess!

Here is the question thus raised: at this chastening juncture in our repub-lic's history, wouldn't everyone welcome a moratorium on Presidential glorifi-cation? Isn't the United States a little too President-ridden, much as post-medieval Spain was a little too priest-ridden? Our capital city groans under the weight of obelisks, equestrian statues, and grandiose temples fit for the gods but devoted to the winners of Presidential elections. "Presidential historians" populate the greenrooms of our cable-news networks. Presidential suites sit atop Vegas hotels. Presidential libraries gobble up ever-growing swathes of urban and, as the unhappy faculty of Southern Methodist University recently learned, campus real estate. Time to throttle down.

A good place to start, after securing the retailers' and calendar-makers' agreement to call Washington's Birthday by its true name (if not its true date), would be with the most sacred object our society mass-produces: money. At the moment, of the seven denominations of banknotes in general circulation, no fewer than five have Presidents on them, ranging chronologically from Washington (who would have frowned on the honor, as smacking of monarchy) to Grant (who would have appreciated the irony, given that he was habitually broke and presided over an Administration rife with finan-cial scandals). …

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