It’s nice to combine a long weekend with a chance to pick up some bargain kitchenware; but outside of that, what’s the point of Presidents’ Day? Modern presidents are ubiquitous and inescapable: hectoring us from above every treadmill at the gym and meddling in every area of American life, from where we get our groceries to which bathroom we’re allowed to use. It’s not as if we’ll forget they exist without setting aside a special day to salute them. Besides, neither the individual presidents we inflict on ourselves every four to eight years nor the institution itself is worth celebrating.
It’s some consolation, then, that, at the federal level at least, there’s no such thing as “Presidents’ Day.” The official designation for the third Monday in February is “Washington’s Birthday.” That’s been the case since one of our less meddlesome presidents, bewhiskered nonentity Rutherford B. Hayes, signed the holiday into law in 1879.
Granted, it hasn’t been observed on the first president’s actual birthday, February 22, since the Nixon administration. With the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Congress sacrificed accuracy in order to give Americans the benefit of three-day weekends, stipulating that “Washington’s Birthday” would be observed on February’s third Monday.
Still, every so often, some civic-minded busybody insists that it’s presidents—or worse, the presidency in general—that we should be commemorating. In the late ‘90s, for example, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill (cosponsored by Ted Kennedy and Tom Daschle) to redesignate “the legal public holiday of Washington’s Birthday as Presidents’ Day … in recognition of the importance of the institution of the Presidency and the contributions that Presidents have made to our nation’s development and the principles of freedom and democracy.”
Bah, humbug. Our presidents—especially the “great” ones—have more often trampled those principles than upheld them. When scholars rank the presidents, their “Top 10” lists typically include a Murderers’ Row of chief executives whose “contributions” to freedom and democracy include Japanese internment, Indian removal, unconstitutional wars, illegal spying, and the imprisonment of peaceful dissenters.
And while there’s no denying “the importance of the institution,” what freedom and self-government we still enjoy persists in spite, not because of, our presidential system. In a pioneering 1990 article, “The Perils of Presidentialism,” the political scientist Juan Linz argued that presidential systems—those that feature a powerful executive, directly elected by the people and serving for a fixed term—are prone to catastrophic breakdowns and degeneration into autocratic rule. By combining the roles of head of state and head of government in one figure, such systems encourage presidents to imagine themselves the living embodiment of the popular will. The president “becomes the focus for whatever exaggerated expectations his supporters may harbor,” Linz writes, and in turn may “conflate his supporters with ‘the people’ as a whole.”
Worse still, the rigidity of presidential terms makes it far harder to throw the bums out if they go rogue. Prime ministers serve at the pleasure of parliament and can even be replaced by their own party. But in all of U.S. constitutional history, we’ve never successfully used the impeachment process to remove a president (Nixon quit). Unless he’s catatonic or certifiable, we’re stuck with him for the duration.