[Continuing our series on deception in politics and policy.]
In ancient Rome, politicians lied about the start of the new year. The Clinton administration lied about the beginning of the new century. And if you commemorated the federal holiday of Presidents Day, you’ve been scammed, because there’s no such thing.
Often, political deception starts with simple things, like what day or year or century it is.
Humans like things to come out even, but nature isn’t very accommodating. The year is approximately 365.24219 days, which means that a clever scheme is needed to make the calendar come out even, so that, for example, farmers can use it to decide when to plant their crops. A calendar of exactly 365 days would be easy to work with, but would “drift” by almost one day every four years. The calendar scheme we use today in most of the world is 365 days but adds a leap day every four years, except not in “00” years such as 1900, except that every fourth “00” year such as 2000 is a leap year. Whew. It’s a little complicated, but it’s off by only 26 seconds a year.
The Romans dealt with this problem by using variable years of 355, 377, and 378 days. There was supposed to be a system for the different year-lengths that, if it had been used, would have produced a roughly correct average length of 365 and a quarter days. But the system wasn’t used. Instead, members of the priesthood overseeing the calendar abused their authority to extend the terms of politicians they liked (or, to put it another way, politicians who paid them off). By the time Julius Caesar rose to power, the calendar was “off” by almost three months, which necessitated calendar reforms, resulting in the Julian calendar that was in common use into the lifetime of George Washington (and, in some places, longer; Russia’s delay in adopting the new Gregorian calendar is the reason that its revolution of November 1917 is called the October Revolution).
Flash forward a couple of millennia, to Bob Dole’s acceptance speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention. Dole and his speechwriters apparently thought it would be a good idea to promise to be a bridge to the past, to “a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action.” At the Democrats’ convention a couple of weeks later, President Clinton promised to “build a bridge to the 21st Century,” which tied in smartly to his campaign song, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).” That made the 1996 election a contest between a Man of the Past and a Man of the Future which—surprise!—was won by the latter. As the year 2000 approached, Clinton’s vice president (who claimed to have “taken the lead in creating the Internet”) was running for president, and Clinton’s wife was running for U.S. Senator as a prelude to her own presidential campaign. It was a happy coincidence that, just a few months before the election, the 21st Century would begin with fireworks and champagne and a spirit of renewal and hope for a new beginning. A century earlier, this feeling had a name, Fin de siècle, and Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would milk the new century for all it was worth.
There was a small problem, that the new century would not begin until the first moments of January 1, 2001. By then, the 2000 election would be over. Never let a thing like the calendar stop the Clintons and their friends, though! They would simply pretend that the 21st Century started on January 1, 2000.
In this, they would be supported by lots of businesses eager to cash in on the celebration of the new century. They would also be supported by sycophants in the news media, who, then as now, took the most absurd claims by a leftwing president as gospel. (At the last minute, on the eve of the January 1, 2000 celebration, the Associated Press would put out a correction about the century’s startdate.) Clinton and company could also count on the fact that Americans as a whole were less educated than they had been at the turn of the 20th Century.
In times past, regular folks around the world knew that centuries end in “00” years and begin in “01” years. The First Century was A.D. 1 to A.D. 100, the Second Century was A.D. 101 to A.D. 200, and so on—calculated according to the year-numbering system invented in 525 by the Abbot of Rome, Dionysius Exiguus (“Dennis the Short”), a system based on the estimated time of the birth or conception of Jesus and probably off by a few years).
The London Times in 1799 noted: “We have uniformly rejected all letters, and declined all discussion upon the question of when the present century ends, as it is one of the most absurd that can engage the public attention, and we are astonished to find it has been the subject of so much dispute, since it appears to be perfectly plain. The present century will not terminate till January 1, 1801, unless it can be made out that 99 are 100. Eighteen centuries are 1800 years, then how can 18 centuries be completed till the year 1800 has expired? What is the meaning of a century, but a clear distinct series of 100 years? How can 100 be completed by 99? . . . We shall not pursue this question further, nor should we now have said so much upon it, had not several applications been made for our opinion. It is a silly, childish discussion, and only exposes the want of brains of those who maintain a contrary opinion to that we have stated . . . ”
When Kaiser Wilhelm demanded that the end of the 19th Century be marked at the end of 1899, he was ridiculed by people around the world. Outside the Kaiser’s Germany, great celebrations of the new century were held on the night of December 31, 1900 and into the morning of January 1, 1901. When Queen Victoria died on January 2, 1901, much was made of the fact that she had just made it into the new century.
The 20th Century would last only 99 years, by Clintonian calculation.
Yesterday, Americans celebrated Presidents Day, the day on which we honor our presidents, including the incredibly awful ones like James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and, of course, the pardon-selling sexual harasser Bill Clinton. Except that it was not Presidents Day; it was George Washington’s Birthday.
Washington’s Birthday first became a holiday in 1880, originally a holiday only for federal workers in the District of Columbia. Back in 1968 when Congress was moving federal holidays around in order to create more three-day weekends, there was discussion about turning George Washington’s Birthday into Presidents Day. Under the new three-day-weekend scheme, Washington’s official birthday (the third Monday of February) would fall more or less between Washington’s birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s, and members of Congress from Illinois wanted the holiday to honor Lincoln as well. But—here’s the key—the measure to change the holiday to presidents Day failed. It was never changed, and remains George Washington’s Birthday.
Some state governments do have Presidents Day or something like it, typically intended to honor Washington and Lincoln. But when stores have President Day sales, retailers aren’t referring to some state holiday. They’re misnaming George Washington’s Birthday.
The misunderstanding is so pervasive that I once had to point out to the head of a federal agency that his notice commemorating Presidents Day was in error.
By the way, Rep. Dan Kuykendall (R-Tennessee) warned that moving Washington’s Birthday to a day that’s not Washington’s birthday would strip the holiday of its meaning. “If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a three-day weekend for some reason. This will come.” He got that right.
Among Americans, only George Washington and Martin Luther King are honored by their country with holidays marking their birthdays, or a nearby Monday. Calling Washington’s Birthday Presidents Day effectively strips Washington of that honor and, worse, honors lowlife presidents in a manner you might associate with a monarchy, not a republic where presidents, all presidents, are our servants—the hired help, not our masters. “Mr.” President, not Your Majesty.
(Another thing: The seasons of the year don’t start on the days that are usually noted by newscasters, such as the winter solstice for the winter season. Winter in North America starts on December 1 or so. That’s a story for another day.)
It may seem like nit-picking, to care about the name of a holiday or even when a century starts. The problem is that, every time we accept a little deception by some politician or bureaucrat, we’re making it harder to raise a ruckus over bigger deceptions. Before you know it, the government is taking control of one-sixth of the economy under Obamacare (which, as a tax that didn’t originate in the House of Representatives, never actually passed), and taking control of another one-sixth of the economy under the guise of protecting species-that-aren’t-species or fighting Global Warming. Eventually, there’s not much left for those of us who’d like to live in the world of reality.