The Presidential Participation Prize


Presidents’ Day weekend — a three-day car sale extravaganza capped with a federal holiday — is the participation trophy of patriotic celebrations. All you have to do to be honored is to serve as president — whether you were a great one, like George Washington; a merely decent one, like George H.W. Bush, or a total scoundrel like Warren G. Harding or Richard M. Nixon. Whether you served a month, like William Henry Harrison, or got elected four times like FDR, it’s your day!

Unfortunately, it’s also 45’s day. Just what the man needs — another stroke to his oversized ego.

In case you don’t know the term, a participation trophy is a token prize given to every member of a children’s sports team or other group endeavor, no matter how large or small the individual contribution may have been. The phrase is often used sneeringly by conservatives who apparently think that no child is too young or too fragile to be denied a trophy and thus labeled a loser.

Presidents’ Day originated with the national commemoration of George Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22. Some states also celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, placing two presidential birthday parties within 10 days of each other in the shortest month of the year.

According to, the idea of combining the two into one holiday and calling it Presidents’ Day was first floated in the 1950s.  The Uniform Monday Holiday Act that took effect in 1971 moved the Washington’s Birthday observance to the third Monday of February. While the law originally proposed combining Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays into a single holiday and calling it Presidents’ Day, the official name of the federal holiday remains Washington’s Birthday.

So why Presidents’ Day? Some states chose to combine the two commemorations under that title.  (New Jersey is one of them.)  Alabama celebrates the birthdays of Washington and Thomas Jefferson on the third Monday of February. In Arkansas, the day is known as George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day, Ms. Bates being a journalist and Civil Rights activist who was instrumental in the integration of Little Rock High School. Some states celebrate Washington on another day, and some don’t celebrate at all.

Now the National Review has called for the abolition of Presidents’ Day. In an essay published on Feb. 17, author Kevin D. Williamson calls it the “Worst. Holiday. Ever” and argues that it’s time to put it aside.

“It is time to roll back the imperial cult,” he writes.

He’s right. Nothing to celebrate here. Honor Washington and Lincoln and Jefferson; learn more about Daisy Gatson Bates, an unsung American heroine. But let’s not pretend that the current occupant of the Oval Office deserves as much tribute as any of these.

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