Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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