Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Day That Doesn't Exist

Once upon a time there was a federal holiday called Washington’s Birthday and, in some states, a state holiday called Lincoln’s Birthday. I could see the point of both. I also could see the points made by some that they were very close together and that they were one holiday too many. So, combining them into a single federal Presidents’ Day made a certain amount of sense.

Although one never would know it from all the Presidents Day sales at malls and auto dealerships, the combination never officially happened. The bill to create Presidents Day died in a Congressional committee in 1968. It is still Washington’s Birthday, though we do move it around a little now to make long weekends. We owe the widespread notion that there is a generic Presidents Day to the advertising companies hired by those mall owners and car dealers.

There is nothing wrong with unofficial holidays per se. The fact that something didn’t come from Congress often is a solid argument in its favor – and the Presidents’ Day bill died in Congress for all the wrong reasons (that meddlesome Lincoln fellow still had enemies, mostly in the old Confederacy). However, in this case, I think Congress accidentally made the right choice. Do I really want to celebrate all the presidents? Franklin Pierce? James Buchanan? Rutherford B. Hayes who shamelessly stole an election by means of an even more shameless deal to end Reconstruction? I don’t think so.

It probably is too late to give the day back to George alone. If I have to toast some other White House resident, though, I think it will be Chester Arthur even though he wasn’t one of the greats. A beneficiary of party bosses and the spoils system and regarded as a political hack when chosen for Vice President in a backroom deal, he became President when James Garfield was assassinated. Against all expectations, he attacked corruption and cronyism (about which, after all, he had first hand experience) and instituted serious civil service reform. Chester rose above himself. I wish for nothing more from any president.

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