So tomorrow is Presidents Day (and if you’re in Arkansas, Daisy Gatson Bates Day as well). While for some it means an extra day off, for me and others it just means another day at work, but we can park on the street for free if we want. Woo hoo.
Technically, it’s officially Washington’s Birthday, but has been for years recognized as Presidents Day, though Washington’s actual birthday (Feb. 22) always comes after the day since the third Monday in February can’t be later than Feb. 21. Lincoln is often thrown in as well, though his birthday is Feb. 12.
For those who aren’t aware, my late friend Michael Storey was responsible for one of the modern myths attached to Presidents Day, which I think is worth rehashing. As related by the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine:
A Phantom Presidential Proclamation
Ahhhh, the Internet. A haven for homemade home pages. As web writers began pointing fingers at who was responsible for the federal Washington’s Birthday holiday title being changed to Presidents’ Day, web sites unanimously attributed the change to a presidential proclamation—issued by President Richard Nixon—who was in office when the “Uniform Monday Holiday Law” was enacted in 1971.
Like a platter of hors d’oeuvres, word-for-word segments of the “alleged” proclamation were passed from one web site to another (including educational based and various U.S. embassy sites) as if cut and paste was the new style of web writing. Supposedly—it was surmised—Nixon had issued a presidential proclamation in 1971 changing the name from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day.
Had any writer cared to call the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff of the National Archives and Records Administration; the staff at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California; or the law library at the Library of Congress, they would have learned that no such presidential proclamation exists. As an archivist at the Nixon staff commented, this phantom presidential proclamation was ‘the ultimate in presidential urban myths.”
In the absence of fact checking, web writers had relied on a fictitious source—an Internet story whose origins were traced to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette humor column authored by Michael Storey.
A “Cat’s” Tale
That President Bill Clinton really had issued a proclamation in 2000 declaring the third Monday in February to be Presidents’ Day irked Storey, who responded with a fictional interview as to how Presidents’ Day got its name. The source for the “interview” was the author’s cat, who “asserted” that Nixon had created a presidential proclamation changing the federal holiday’s name from “Washington’s Birthday” to “President’s Day. ” Web writers ignored the author’s “fictitious” disclaimer.
USA Today’s Richard Benedetto quoted from the mythical story. “So how did Washington’s Birthday morph into President’s Day? It seems we have Richard Nixon to thank—or blame—for that. On February 21, 1971, Nixon issued a proclamation naming the holiday ‘President’s Day,’ ‘the first such three-day holiday set aside to honor all presidents, even myself.'”
In 2002, Ron Wolfe, also of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, recalled the aftermath. “Told that he [Benedetto] may have quoted a . . . cat to prove his point, Benedetto set the paper’s library to work, trying to track down again where he found the quote. ” Although no citation was found, no retraction appeared in USA Today.
What Nixon did in 1971 was to issue the traditional standard executive order announcing the implementation of new federal legislation. Nixon’s executive order reminded citizens, as did many newspapers on January 1, of the new federal holiday calendar being implemented: New Year’s Day, January 1; Washington’s Birthday, the third Monday in February; Memorial Day, the last Monday in May; Independence Day, July 4; Labor Day, the first Monday in September; Columbus Day, the second Monday in October; Veterans Day, the fourth Monday in October, Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November; and Christmas Day, December 25.
Nixon did—in a separate statement—recognize the birthday of Abraham Lincoln but did not suggest, refer to, or use the term “Presidents’ Day” in either of the executive orders.
I can attest that Michael didn’t feel the least bit of guilt about setting the myth in motion. If he were still alive, I’m sure he would have Otus write something suitable for the current Oval Office resident … though one line might seem prescient in the original: “It does not help when the current resident of the White House throws the not inconsequential power of his office behind the forces of ignorance.”
The forces of ignorance were surely at work through the whole kerfuffle, not only because the column was written by a cat, but because the cat had been deceased for several years … not that it stopped anyone from believing this was true:
“My intrepid Head Cat staff of celestial researchers dug deep into the archives to uncover President Nixon’s proclamation on Feb. 21, 1971, when all this ‘Presidents’ Day’ controversy began. Like Clinton’s, Nixon’s statement was intended to thwart tradition and the law and preserve for himself some modicum of respectability that history normally reserves for those who have actually accomplished something without disgracing the office. My fellow Americans, it is with great pride that Pat, Tricia, Julie and I wish you the happiest of Presidents’ Days, the first such three-day holiday set aside to honor all presidents, even [pauses and chuckles] myself. Pat and I plan to celebrate at one of many Presidents’ Day sales, purchasing for her a good Republican cloth coat.“
About an inch under that bit of fiction appeared the disclaimer: “Otus the Head Cat’s column of humor and/or total fabrication appears every Saturday.” I don’t remember when the pointing hands were added to it to draw more attention to it, but I have a feeling it might have been around then.
Now that I think of it, though, maybe Michael should take a little blame for the fake news going around now. Dang it.