Presidents Day should be all about George Washington, lawmakers say

George Washington might be hailed as the “father of the country,” but to some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, he hasn’t been getting his due.

A group of Virginia members led by Rep. Frank Wolf (R) is pushing to change the date of the annual Presidents Day holiday, which now falls on the third Monday in February, back to the official date of Washington’s birth, Feb. 22.

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With support from a cadre of presidential scholars, Wolf says Presidents Day has become more about sales at shopping malls than a celebration of America’s “indispensable man.”

Wolf introduced his legislation about a year ago, and it is getting a hearing on Wednesday before a sub-panel of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The hearing is titled “Honoring George Washington’s Legacy: Does America Need a Reminder?”

“This is a national holiday, and I think it ought to be on his birthday,” Wolf said.

The United States used to have separate federal holidays in February commemorating the birthdays of Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were born that month. In 1968, Congress consolidated them into one holiday, observed on the third Monday of the month.

Wolf said that while the law still refers to the holiday officially as “Washington’s Birthday,” the commonly accepted moniker of Presidents Day has diluted its significance by lumping the heroic Washington in with a host of lesser leaders.

“When you’re celebrating Presidents Day, I mean, you’re celebrating presidents who have not been very good,” Wolf said in an interview. “I’m not going to get into who or what or why or where, but you’re celebrating some people that really don’t deserve to have their birthday celebrated. I’ll just put it that way. Washington — I think everyone agrees he was the indispensable man.”

Wolf also took issue with the commercialization of Presidents Day, pointing to a television ad for a Virginia furniture store he saw last week that used dancing cartoons of Washington and Lincoln to promote a sale.

“To basically denigrate his memory by having two guys dancing on the TV to sell furniture, I just don’t think it’s a good thing,” Wolf said.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, and fellow Virginia Reps. Gerry Connolly (D) and Jim Moran (D) have signed on to Wolf’s legislation.

Wolf said “every major [George] Washington scholar” has endorsed the measure, including historian Richard Brookhiser and the Pulitzer Prize-

winning authors David McCullough and Gordon Wood.

“Washington has become disconnected from his own birthday,” Brookhiser wrote in a letter to Wolf supporting the legislation. “Celebrating it on the most convenient Monday, and calling it by the lazy shortcut, ‘Presidents Day,’ creates the impression that it honors everyone who made it to the White House, or maybe car and furniture sales.

“Washington deserves better from us. He certainly did better for us,” added Brookhiser, who will testify at Wednesday’s hearing along with Wolf and a representative from Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.

If Wolf’s bill gains traction, it could draw the ire of retailers who have come to rely on the three-day Presidents Day weekend as a big sales event. 

So far, it has not.

The National Retail Federation has not taken a position on the bill and said it does not track sales on Presidents Day as it does for other prime shopping days, like Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

“There’s no doubt it’s a significant shopping holiday,” said David French, the federation’s senior vice president for government relations, who noted that he bought a car last weekend at a dealership offering a Presidents Day sale.

Moving Presidents Day off of the third Monday in February and making it a floating holiday, French said, “would make it harder for certain retailers to market sales opportunities.”

Wolf’s more vocal foe could be the Lincoln lobby. Of the 16 House co-sponsors of the Washington legislation, none are from Illinois, the home of the other revered president born in February. Under Wolf’s proposal, Lincoln’s Feb. 12 birthday would lose federal recognition, although it remains honored separately by Illinois and other states.

“We feel that Lincoln should at least be on an equal footing with Washington,” David Blanchette, spokesman for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, told The Hill. “They each should have their own day, or share a day.”

As for a potential Virginia vs. Illinois battle over presidential supremacy, Illinois likely holds the trump card — at least for another year, or as long as a certain former senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, carries the veto pen.