It is ironic, in light of the controversy that once surrounded the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, that its celebration has shown how all national holidays should be observed. Particularly striking is the contrast between Dr. King's birthday and George Washington's birthday a few weeks later.

At the time of the King holiday, newspapers and television and radio stations show a wonderful appreciation for their educational role and provide many stories, documentaries and interviews that advance public understanding of the legacy of Dr. King. That legacy, succinctly stated, is that the rights and liberties this nation was founded to preserve should be enjoyed by all Americans, regardless of ethnic background.

In contrast, commercialism has completely overtaken the observance of the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Lost in the hoopla is any real appreciation of the roles those leaders played in establishing and preserving the rights and liberties that Dr. King strove to extend. Presidents' Day, instead of being used to reinvigorate our sense of national purpose, is merely an occasion for winter sales when powdered wigs and stovepipe hats are donned. It is not a time for historical reenactments but a time for props and hucksters.

Perhaps the contrast between the holidays is due to the fact that no one today can personally remember Washington or Lincoln, while everyone over 30 has vivid recollections of Dr. King. If so, we have all the more cause to deplore the shortness of our collective national memory. For it may come to pass that a generation from now a pitchman made up to resemble Dr. King will appear on television to say that he has had a dream about the wonderful white sale at a mall near you.