Paul Greenberg

Despite the outward signs last Monday, there's actually no such holiday as President's Day to be found in the federal statutes. Or should that be Presidents' Day? Or just plain old, apostrophe-less Presidents Day? Like its legal standing, even the name of the holiday is uncertain.

Unmoored from the past, like a Presidents' Day connected to no particular president, holidays lose their meaning. Honor all presidents and you honor none; pretend all presidents are equal and they all fade into an equal obscurity.

It would be a harmless practice, designating the third Monday in February as an all-purpose, all-presidents holiday, if it didn't obscure what used to be two real holidays and the real significance of our greatest presidents -- Washington and Lincoln. If we lose touch with them, we lose touch with how we came to be, and stayed, a nation. We lose touch with what we are. For without them, America wouldn't be America.

Today, February 22, is not President's/Presidents'/Presidents Day, but Washington's birthday, at least according to the Gregorian calendar we now use. He was actually born February 11, 1731 Old Style. That is, according to the calendar then in use in this part of the world. That was before the colonies skipped 11 days to make the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and young Washington obligingly moved his birthday to the 22nd. That date would become widely celebrated even in his own lifetime by a grateful nation.

But over the years General and President Washington faded from real-life hero into icon. His was the face on the dollar bill, his the portrait that used to hang in every American classroom. Like those pictures, he became just part of the background.

In the story once told to every American schoolchild, George Washington was the little boy who chopped down the cherry tree and wouldn't tell a lie. That tall tale was invented by his biographer and mythmaker, Parson Weems, but the parson's stories can't begin to compete with the saga of Washington's real, improbable life:

An awkward, rawboned countryman teaches himself to be a gentleman by laboriously copying "The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation," and makes every one of them his own. For life. Those rules become not only his practice but his self.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.