Does President’s Day Still Matter?

President
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Presidents’ Day is an American holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February. Originally established in 1885 in recognition of President George Washington, it is still officially called “Washington’s Birthday” by the federal government. Traditionally celebrated on February 22—Washington’s actual day of birth—the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. While several states still have individual holidays honoring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other figures, Presidents’ Day is now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents past and present.

Still somehow, today is a bit different.

The Associated Press reports: The United States on Monday marks Presidents Day, a holiday that’s taking on a new meaning for some Americans this year as President Donald Trump — to the dismay of some and delight of others — upends traditional notions of the office.

The holiday began as a celebration of George Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22, and its official name remains Washington’s Birthday.

Throughout the 19th century, communities celebrated with parades and fireworks, said Evan Phifer, a research historian at the White House Historical Association. In the late 1800s, Feb. 22 became a federal holiday.

The holiday was moved to the third Monday in February in 1971, creating a three-day weekend for many workers.

“There was fear when the holiday was moved to the third Monday that it would lose the distinction of Washington’s birthday, and people would forget his legacy,” Phifer said.

To some extent, that has happened. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is Feb. 12, and many people now associate both presidents with the holiday. It has also become a retail holiday, where shoppers can get deals on cars, furniture and other goods during Presidents Day sales.

The Associated Press spoke with people around the country about their ideas about Presidents Day, the presidency and how it is changing,

Robin Allweiss, a 56-year-old attorney from Tampa, Florida, considers herself a patriot and takes Presidents Day seriously – especially so this year. She is a Trump supporter and thinks he’s vastly different than any other president in the country’s history.

“He relates to us. He gives us a feeling that he could be our father, our brother, he could be our cousin or our best friend, and that’s what makes him so different. He doesn’t care what anybody thinks. What he wants to do is make America great again,” she said.

“Donald Trump cares about us. And no other president in the history of the United States, or even any foreign leader, has cared about his country as much as Donald Trump.”

Barbara Perry, presidential studies director at the nonpartisan Miller Center at the University of Virginia, has been fascinated by presidents since she was 4 years old and her mother took her to see John F. Kennedy speak one month before he was elected.

Children as young as 6 have a sense of the president – who he is and what he does – long before they understand Congress or the judiciary, she said, and teaching children about the president is an important way to help them understand our government.

“I still have somewhat of a childlike vision of the presidency,” she said. “I know my faith is not misplaced. I know we have had heroic presidents. Even the ones who were not great still were, by and large, great people.”

The presidency began to demystify under Franklin Roosevelt, who created personal connections with Americans through his radio “fireside chats” in the depths of the Great Depression, she said. That familiarity eventually “ended up breeding contempt, I think, for normal presidents, or traditional presidents.”

“In the end, this has led to a Donald Trump, a populist demagogue in the White House,” she said. “The Trump presidency, based on the baser instincts of people, is painful to me. It feels like a desecration.”

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