- - Sunday, February 19, 2017

Today, Feb. 20, is a federal holiday. The government in Washington dubs it “Washington’s Birthday,” but if you look at your calendar, chances are good that it’s called “Presidents’ Day” or “Presidents Day” — a term that became popular among states in recent years, along with “Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday” in a few states.

All this tinkering with history began with President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and members of Congress imbued with the idea that passing legislation was more important than retrospection and contemplation. In fact, Public Law 90-363 was enacted by wide margins in 1968, giving Americans three-day weekends in place of the come-what-may scenario of the traditional holiday calendar.

As a result, Washington’s Birthday, traditionally celebrated on the date of his birth, Feb. 22, was changed to the third Monday in February, along with similar changes to Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and, more recently by legislation, the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rather than rejecting the 1968 proposal or applying it to all holidays (July 4, Thanksgiving and Christmas were excluded, as was Veterans Day subsequently), Congress cherry-picked a few — compromised, in other words, just as it has done with daylight-saving time, whose observance does not fit squarely into the time peg when Mother Nature provides the most light.

But George Washington should be special. In 1880 Congress formally made his birthday a federal holiday, the first time it ever honored a person. Subsequently, Feb. 22 was the only holiday, along with Christmas, that all states celebrated. What is more, nearly two-thirds of the states have a Washington County. No American president did more to set the United States on a proper course for all its history, and GW is consistently ranked by historians as one of the five best presidents.

President’s Day, on the other hand, honors all chief executives, some of whom richly deserve the obscurity they’ve gotten over the years. Do Americans really wish to honor Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan? Or Franklin Pierce, who said at his inauguration: “My countrymen, it is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others than desirable for myself.”

The third Monday in February honors neither Washington nor Abraham Lincoln (born on February 12) in a special way, and the result is a murkiness, especially among young children, about the specific qualities that made these presidents the objects of high regard. Part of the dilemma in this matter has been freedom of choice in a democracy, with Americans rightly having no stigma in choosing to observe holidays in their own way. For that reason, some states don’t even observe the Monday holiday scheme.

And that’s OK. Even in GW’s time, some Americans illustrated their propensity to disregard even the history that was closest to them, namely, their forebears. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1835: ” … not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him. It throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitudes of his own heart.”

But in the case of Monday holidays, there’s only one villain. And that’s Congress, which averages only about 130-139 work days per year. Worse, in rationalizing the 1968 Monday holiday law, it used absolutely outrageous language, with the House Judiciary Committee convinced that the holidays could be observed “without doing violence to either history or tradition.” Violence? Then there was the schmaltzy rhetoric of its Senate counterpart that equated the new dates with “substantial benefits to both the economic and spiritual life of the nation.”

All this nonsense brings to mind one of Mark Twain’s quotes: “Suppose you were an idiot,” suggested Twain. “And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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