By Ananda Shorey
WASHINGTON – If it were not a bill in Congress, it might sound like a line-up for the next Celebrity Death Match: In this corner, the Father of Our Country, facing off against Honest Abe the Rail-Splitter.
But Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, insists it was not his intention to pit one president against the other when he introduced a bill to require that federal publications and agencies refer to Presidents Day as Washington’s Birthday again.
“Abe Lincoln was my favorite president,” Bartlett said. “But Washington was the only president to be elected twice with every vote in the Electoral College.”
Bartlett said the problem began in 1971 when President Nixon announced that the third Monday of February would be Presidents Day. Bartlett said the name of the holiday was never legally changed from its original title, Washington’s Birthday.
“There has never been a law that has said this has been Presidents Day,” Bartlett said. “It was a proclamation by President Nixon that has caught on, contrary to what the law says.”
The George Washington Bicentennial Act of 1999 would require all federal agencies and publications to refer to the holiday we observe on the third Monday in February by its legal name, Washington’s Birthday.
“The federal government needs to be in compliance with the federal law,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett has 38 co-sponsors on the bill, which promptly went nowhere after he introduced it last year. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate in May by Sen. John Warner, R-Va.
Bartlett’s bill, introduced on the bicentennial of Washington’s death, was stalled after a former co-sponsor, Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., reversed himself and objected to the bill at the last minute.
LaHood said Wednesday that he backed off after he realized that the bill would be disrespectful to Lincoln. He said that calling the holiday Presidents Day captures what the country should remember and honor about both Lincoln and Washington.
“I think it (the bill) detracts from the current Presidents Day holiday,” LaHood said. “I think it is trying to ignore Lincoln and I do not agree with that.”
Bartlett said his objective was not to be disrespectful to Lincoln, who he called one of the country’s most prominent leaders. But he also said that holidays are not always the best way to honor individuals because the hype can take away from the purpose of the celebration.
Bartlett also has a local interest in this legislation: His district includes the first Washington monument and the first county named for the president.
The bill would not affect states or the private sector, Bartlett said.
“States and businesses can call it whatever they wish,” Bartlett said. “We need to set a good example and hope that everyone else will follow.”
In a prepared statement, he said 29 states and the District of Columbia celebrate only Washington’s Birthday. Maryland is one of those states, according to tourism officials.
Fifteen states have a separate holiday honoring Lincoln and Massachusetts celebrates “Presidents Day” to honor its four native-born presidents, according to Bartlett’s office.
A spokesman for Warner said that although the senator thinks other presidents should get recognition, the law says that it is Washington’s Birthday and that needs to be kept in the forefront on the federal level.
Bartlett, a staunch Republican, said all president should have a day in the honor, even President Clinton, a Democrat with whom the Western Maryland Republican frequently disagrees. But honoring Washington separately, he said, is just the right thing to do.
“Presidents Day is not a day to celebrate the presidents’ birthdays, thank you,” he said.