Texans have a choice to make on Monday, and it’s not even election day yet. Do you want to observe Presidents’ Day, or Washington’s Birthday?
More on that later, but first — a holiday? Didn’t many of us just have a day off on Tuesday because of the weather? And isn’t today, Valentine’s Day, also a “holiday,” even though nobody gets time off from work?
Regardless, a holiday is what the calendar calls for on Monday — a somewhat vague observance we generally call Presidents’ Day. If its purpose seems confusing, it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s the result of a well-meaning attempt by Congress, but as happens with so many well-meaning attempts by Congress, things got a little muddled in the process.
What were once separate observances of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12 and President George Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22 yielded to a single day devoted, potentially, to multiple presidents on the third Monday of February. But officially, that’s not what Congress did. Basically, the observance of Washington’s Birthday on Feb. 22 was moved to a Monday to ensure a three-day weekend.
Lincoln’s birthday has never been a federal holiday, although Washington’s Birthday was first proclaimed in 1880. An effort began in 1951 to create a holiday to honor all presidents — perhaps on March 4, the original inauguration day — but that bill died in a Senate committee.
Washington’s Birthday was moved in 1971 from its actual Feb. 22 date to the third Monday in February after adoption of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Marketing geniuses introduced the Presidents Day concept, and states like Texas made that the official name of the holiday. That could mean we are to honor all presidents, or just two.
So, Texans with a holiday Monday must choose. While the federal holiday is designated as Washington’s Birthday, it will be Presidents’ Day in Texas. By the way, if you’re a stickler for Associated Press style, the preferred spelling drops the apostrophe, making it Presidents Day. Major dictionaries allow both.
Congress has a ton of unfinished business, if you haven’t noticed, so it may be years before lawmakers can join hands and put to rest how this holiday, which at the federal level bears only Washington’s name, can be justified with the notion many Americans have that this is a merged celebration honoring America’s first and 16th presidents.
Right now, it seems that dual purpose might never be dislodged, at least not as long as car dealers and furniture stores continue to promote Lincoln and Washington birthday sales. It’s capitalism and democracy rolled into one, all in their finest hour.
It’s possible that Congress will never agree to a holiday honoring all the presidents, if only because of partisan leanings. For example, it’s difficult to imagine a Republican House of Representatives approving a measure honoring all presidents after the majority realizes such legislation would include the current occupant of the White House. And history would suggest that there have been one or two presidents who, quite frankly, don’t deserve to be honored because of certain transgressions while in office.
Since 1948, various academic surveys have been conducted among historians and other professional observers of the U.S. presidency to establish a ranking of our presidents – from best to worst. I found an online compilation of 17 of those surveys taken over the past 66 years, and it even included one survey that contacted individuals with a particular party preference.
Abraham Lincoln – happy birthday, Abe, two days late – continues to reign as No. 1, and George Washington – happy birthday in advance – is ranked third, just behind Franklin D. Roosevelt at No. 2. Lincoln takes first in most of the surveys, and those three presidents are almost always shown in the top three slots throughout all the surveys.
Using only a 2009 C-SPAN survey rankings, the top 10 presidents in order are Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan.
Among other presidents in office since 1900, Lyndon B. Johnson was 11th, Bill Clinton was 15th, George H.W. Bush was 18th, Gerald R. Ford was 22nd, Jimmy Carter was 25th and Richard M. Nixon was 27th.
Meanwhile, jumping back to the average of the 17 surveys, Warren G. Harding was ranked at the bottom, beating out James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and William Henry Harrison.
Perhaps it only takes one bad move to earn a president low marks. A survey of presidential historians conducted in 2005 by the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center determined that the worst single presidential blunder was committed by President Buchanan, for failing to avert the Civil War.
Barack Obama was not included in any of the surveys, but those that were conducted after George W. Bush had served and was deemed eligible for consideration ranked him anywhere from 19th to 39th. It seems time has a way of providing perspective, and perhaps some consensus, on a president’s place in history.
I guess for now, we can choose to celebrate Monday as a holiday for Washington alone, for Washington and Lincoln, for all the presidents, or for any combination of the above. We get to choose, so fly your flag high.
Gene Deason is a former editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.