Menus Subscribe Search

Presidents’ Day: Just Another Presidential Fable

• February 14, 2012 • 4:00 AM

A number of folk stories and a few divisive rumors have surrounded the office of the U.S. presidency, and skeptical folks like us check a few of them out.

In the United States, February brings “Presidents’ Day” and some familiar stories, such as George Washington chopping down ye olde cherry tree, circulate anew. Sweet as it may sound about not lying to one’s father, this story is not true. Nor, to bite into a story of more recent vintage, did he have wooden teeth.

Let’s skeptically consider a few of the many fables that regularly appear about current and past presidents, and critically think about the purposes they may serve.

First, we need to address the initial fable of a “Presidents’ Day.” Yes, Martha, there is no such legal designation. Once upon a time there were two presidential holidays in February: Lincoln’s Birthday on the 12th and Washington’s on the 22nd. (Never mind that Washington was actually born on the 11th, based on the Julian calendar in effect in 1731. When Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar 21 years later, George’s b-day jumped almost a year to February 22, 1732. That’s some rejiggering for a Monday holiday.) Beginning in the late 1800s, Washington’s birthday became a federal holiday. Lincoln’s birthday was a legal holiday in a few states, and never an official federal holiday.

Then, as one of several holidays changed by the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Bill, Washington’s Birthday was officially moved to the third Monday in February in 1971 to guarantee federal employees a three-day weekend. Alas, poor George would no longer be associated with the 22nd — the third Monday can never occur after February 21.

Legally, the third Monday of February remains Washington’s Birthday. The so-called “Presidents’ Day” appears to be as much a marketing gimmick for special holiday sales as anything else, although there have been attempts to make it an official observance honoring all U.S. presidents. Grammarians may have already achieved that, though: Is it Presidents’, President’s, or Presidents Day? The apostrophe could indicate your preference for a holiday recognizing one or many leaders, or show the slow decline in our knowledge of proper punctuation, as the Apostrophe Protection Society argues.

Now that we’ve revealed “Presidents’ Day” as a myth, let’s return to our native-born skepticism and chop down some other whoppers.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Skeptic's Cafe

SKEPTIC'S CAFE
Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

[/class]

Brief, yet powerful, the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address may have taken only minutes to read, so a common story has it that Abraham Lincoln jotted it down on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. But Lincoln was also known as a thoughtful speaker who it is now said wrote it the night before and not hastily on an envelope.

For baseball lovers, the story of the creation of the seventh-inning stretch is often attributed to President William Howard Taft. Supposedly the tall, heavy man (at 300 pounds he does hold the record for the heaviest president) felt very uncomfortable in the narrow stadium seats, and when he rose to take a break during the seventh inning, the spectators also stood up, believing he was about to leave.  Although Taft is responsible for creating the traditional presidential opening day first pitch in 1910, the seventh-inning tale is, ahem, a bit of a stretch. Even though it is difficult to provide the actual origin of the stretch, historians trace the custom to an 1869 manuscript that describes the rest break.

Now consider something bequeathed by William Henry Harrison: the Curse of Tippecanoe. Sometimes called Tecumseh’s Curse for the Indian chief whom Harrison defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe, it claims that presidents elected in a year ending in a zero would die in office: Harrison, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy. (The only other president to die in office, Zachary Taylor, was not elected in a zero year.)

The streak ended with Reagan, who did survive being shot while in office, and the waiver was renewed with George W. Bush, who also survived a rather serious assassination attempt.

President Barack Obama’s election brought out numerous rumors about his alleged Muslim roots and false birth certificate that continue today. One study revealed that 91 percent of the public had heard the Muslim stories. In 2008, the fact-checking website Politifact.org concluded that the stories of Obama being a covert Muslim were “so wrong.”

Stories about Obama’s birth certificate also led another neutral investigative site, FactCheck.org, to conclude that “Obama was born in the U.S.A. just as he has always said.” (FactCheck is a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, which is directed by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who also sits on Miller-McCune’s editorial advisory board.)

As these stories about the present president demonstrate, the Internet contributes to the rapid and diffuse circulation of stories and myths. Yet, the effect of online exposure on credulity is minimal, according to a study by R. Kelly Garrett at Ohio State University, although what does seem to matter are e-mails circulated among friends and family that not only are believed more but also reflect strong political biases. And other research by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler demonstrates that trying to correct political misperceptions regularly fails to reduce false stories among targeted ideological groups and occasionally ends up increasing the misperceptions. Put another way, even new and perhaps more trustworthy information often fails to change our minds.

So let’s celebrate and honor our presidents, slice up that cherry pie, toss out a baseball, and jot down some profound lines on the back of your Kenyan birth certificate. And don’t forget to e-mail this column to your close friends and family!

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Peter M. Nardi
Peter M. Nardi, Ph.D, is an emeritus professor of sociology at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of "Doing Survey Research: A Guide to Quantitative Methods.”

More From Peter M. Nardi

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.