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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.”

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