Stupak’s Giant Leap

Congressman and Roll Call Reporter Share the Ups and Downs of Leap Year Birthdays

Posted February 25, 2004 at 3:52pm

When some school kids in Menominee, Mich., recently asked their Congressman his age, Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D) answer — that he was about to turn 13 — left them stumped.

“You are not! You can’t be!” Stupak recalls the incredulous youngsters saying, as he encouraged them to think harder and handed out more clues.

“Look, now, if I am 13, and my birthday only comes once every four years,” Stupak prodded, until one student sprang — or shall we say “leapt” — forth with the correct answer.

“Usually the future head of the class will figure it out,” the adolescent lawmaker explained in a recent interview about his leap year birthday, a curious phenomenon attributable to the calendrical tinkerings of two Caesars and one pope.

The entire leap year puzzle boils down to the fact that because the earth takes slightly longer than 365 days to orbit the sun — 365.24219 days, to be exact — a 365-day calendar simply doesn’t keep pace with seasonal changes over time.

Not exactly the answer you want to hear when you’re turning 6 and you can’t point to an actual date on the calendar — a fact to which I can attest, being a leap day baby myself.

Stupak and I regale the highs and lows of being born Feb. 29 — for purposes of full disclosure, this reporter will turn 8 in exactly three days — and he tells me that he first discovered “something kind of different” about himself while watching television.

“I was really, really small and a local clown show along the lines of ‘Howdy Doody’ or ‘Captain Kangaroo’ [was on] and I actually won the birthday club,” Stupak says, recalling how the announcer made a “really big deal” out of the fact that he was born on the 29th.

In Julius Caesar’s day, the original 355-day Roman semi-lunar calendar that was inherited from the Egyptians had an extra 22-day month every few years to help correct the seasonal glitch.

By around 45 B.C. that solution no longer appeared to be working — spring holidays were falling in the heat of late summer months — so to make up for the discrepancy Caesar decided to dump the extra month. He added a few extra days to make the calendar reach 365 days annually and dedicated a month to himself. We now call that July.

The original leap year day appeared at the end of February every three years — thanks to an error by the priests computing the calendar — but in 4 A.D. Augustus Caesar clarified that it should occur once every four years.

Yet more tweaking of the calendar ensued in 1582, when Pope Gregory XII tried to make things even more precise. He decreed that leap day should fall on any year ending in “00,” except when the year is divisible by 400.

Fortunately, kids today with the luck — or misfortune — of being born on the 29th have tools to cope with the complex explanation for their birthdates.

For example, Michelle Whitaker Winfrey, the proud mother of a “leapling” named Miles born Feb. 29, 1992, last year published a children’s storybook called “It’s My Birthday … Finally! A Leap Year Story.”

Where was Winfrey when I needed her?

Wanting no part of this unglamorous unbirthday, I spent much of my youth simply telling people I was born Feb. 28 and blaming my mother — I was actually due to arrive Feb. 14 — for delivering me behind schedule.

“The obstetrician asked if I was sure I wanted to have a baby on the 29th, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to wait another day,” my mother explained to me countless times as the years ticked by, sans my birthday.

“Besides that, it makes you special,” Mom would say.

But before we get to the advantages of being a leap day baby — fewer spankings, for instance — Stupak and I feel obliged to discuss some of the annoyances associated with being born Feb. 29.

A Capitol Hill paper that shall remain nameless, for instance, galls Stupak when it fails to mention the Congressman’s birthday.

An insurance company’s computer, Stupak tells me, once refused to recognize his actual birthday, forcing him to choose Feb. 28 or March 1.“Those are just some of the odd things about our birthday. It doesn’t show up,” Stupak says, with a sigh.

Like me, Stupak is a staunch Februite, choosing to celebrate his birthday Feb. 28 — but never, ever in March. (Unless, of course, you are really turning 21 and would rather celebrate with a toast.)

“I was born in February and I stay in February,” said Stupak, explaining that he also thinks his birthday is nifty because his wife, Laurie, was born Feb. 1, so the couple can start and end the month with celebrations.

Overall, how does the only sitting lawmaker with a Feb. 29 birthday feel about being born on leap day?

“I like having a February 29th birthday. It’s something unique — something different,” Stupak remarked, noting that he tends to stand out in other ways as well.

“My first name isn’t normal. I’ve got this white spot on my hair,” Stupak says, with a bit of self-deprecating charm.

Besides that, it’s a great fundraising gimmick. “Which Member of Congress is only 13 years old?” an invitation to this year’s leap year fundraising party for Stupak — who really turns 52 this year — teases.

“You know, you gotta be 25 in the Constitution,” Stupak says. “I hope the Republicans never figure that out.”