Americans on Presidents Day: Admiration, fear mark holiday

PROVIDENCE, R.I.– 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.

Jack Warren is executive director of the Society of the Cincinnati, the nation’s oldest patriotic organization, founded in 1783. George Washington was the first president general of the group.

He calls the idea of Presidents Day “wrongheaded” and said referring to Washington’s Birthday as Presidents Day is a reflection of how out of touch we are with our revolutionary origins.

“The revolution George Washington led created the first great republic since antiquity. It articulated ideals of universal liberty, natural rights and equality that have shaped the entire history of our country and have reached beyond it,” he said.

“We don’t need a holiday to commemorate the presidency. We do need one to commemorate our greatest national leader.”

Curt Viebranz is president and CEO of George Washington’s Virginia estate, Mount Vernon. He expects between 10,000 and 15,000 people to visit on Monday.

“We wouldn’t have a country without him,” he said. “We wouldn’t have a republic.”

Many of the formal traditions of the presidency that survive today were established by Washington, he said, such as the open-air inauguration. But recent presidents are also different.

“He’s not a man who would have been tweeting, for sure. It’s not going to happen,” he said.

These days, people have a more informal connection to the institution: “It’s sort of the end of leadership as we know it, where the leader sets himself apart.”

Juathawala Harris, 67, of Baltimore, was on a trip to Dallas that included a visit to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, which is dedicated to telling the story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Harris, who works as a manager for a dialysis unit, said Presidents Day meant more to her in the past.

“We’ve lived through presidencies, and they have always been men that we look up to. That is not so for me now,” said Harris, who voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

“I am fearful now, and I’ve never been fearful in all of my years,” she said, adding that she is scared the country may be moving toward a war.

Presidents Day, she said, now feels tarnished.

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.”By MICHELLE R. SMITH

Associated Press