Ronald Reagan would turn 100 Feb. 6, 2011, though he left this life in June 2004 at age 93. His legacy lives on to the point that acolytes and others continue to try to cement his achievements by placing his image on and American coin paper note or both.
Legislative suggestions occurred about the time of his death and they included placing his effigy on the dime and a commemorative silver dollar, and, the most recent suggestion is the $50 bill.
The rationale for replacing Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill is that each generation is entitled to its own heroes.
The dime idea fizzled quickly. Former first lady Nancy Reagan’s statement declining to support the switch ended that idea. A Gallup poll at the time took the pulse of about a thousand citizens who overwhelmingly disfavored the change while polling data from America on Line showed that nearly 60 percent of its voting subscribers – aggregating more than 250,000 votes – favored the proposal.
Coin and currency design changes and controversy are nothing new. The current brouhaha points up several inconsistencies in law, policy and the way that new coinage comes about. Some of the objections are based on incorrect factual premises. Others are strictly ideological, but not correct, either.
What remains is the legacy of America’s 40th President, which is still developing from the front pages into history.
Two numismatic bills – introduced before the June 2004 death of Reagan (introduced Nov. 21, 2003 in Congress) help frame the controversy. H.R. 3633 was a bill “to provide for dime coins to bear the likeness of President Ronald Reagan, the Freedom President”. The second was H.Con.Res. 343, a bill “affirming the support of Congress for preserving President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s profile on the dime”.
Neither bill was enacted, but that doesn’t mean that the idea is off the table.
The first proposal requires the force of law – full action by the government’s legislature, and signature by the President – while the other is a legislative suggestion that requires the approval of both houses but does not require the signature of the President and does not have the force of law.
Reagan’s political awareness came as he voted for Roosevelt – he did not formally become a Republican until 1962. But, like Roosevelt, he had a decided appreciation for the arts.
As a New Deal democrat, Reagan would appreciate the irony: the era of big government that he then supported being represented by the portraiture on the dime, being replaced with his own image, it in turn reflecting the revolution and dynamic change in American society that Ronald Reagan himself helped engineer.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency began in 1981, ending the malaise of the Carter Administration that saw soaring energy prices, runaway inflation with home mortgage interest rates as high as 21 percent, and Americans held captive at its embassy in Iran.
Remembering those days, the United States was locked into an escalating arms battle with the Soviet Union, the spiritual headquarters of Communism, and it appeared for all purposes that America’s defeat in Vietnam (then a memory of just a few years) was coloring our world outlook and willingness to support freedom.
Reagan had served two terms as governor of California (1967-1975).
When he was sworn in as President on Jan. 20, 1981, at age 69, he was the oldest person ever to take the office of his 39 predecessors. (Eisenhower took office at age 63; William Henry Harrison, who took office in 1841, was 67 years old.
His vigorous even youthful appearance, as well as his outlook and style was more reminiscent of one of America’s youngest presidents, Theodore Roosevelt (42 at the time of the McKinley assassination), perhaps because of his long training as an actor where physical good looks and appearance were so essential.
While a Hollywood actor, Reagan had been a liberal Democrat, president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, a “B” movie star who made 53 feature films, and later, hosted “Death Valley Days” a weekly television series seen in millions of American homes.
Somewhat mockingly, those who were dismissive of him as an actor, and politician, preferred to recall one of the movies where he appeared to co-star with a chimpanzee, “Bedtime for Bonzo.”
When the Reagan Revolution swept America in 1980, he carried 44 states on a promise to cut taxes and social spending, while vastly increasing defense spending. Railing against an “Evil Empire” in the form of the Soviet Union, Reagan presided over the rebuilding of America’s peacetime military.
Today’s consensus is that Reagan wore a Teflon suit – all criticism of his administration never seemed to stick to him – and that, in the vernacular of his movie career, when appearing as President, he always hit his mark.
By the time of his retirement at the end of his second term, he had the highest public approval rating of any president since FDR, and was even given a Honorary Knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II of England.
A little known sidelight about Reagan was his devotion to medallic art. When it came time for his presidential inaugural medal to be produced, his is one of the few that is a virtual straight-on portrait (one of the most difficult to produce) – its success assured by his willingness to sit for a life mask (a process involving breathing through straws into the nostrils, while fresh plaster is poured over the face).
Legislation matters aside, a congressional directive is unnecessary to place Ronald Reagan’s portrait on the dime. The Act of Sept. 26, 1890, merely prohibits a change in coin design more often than once in 25 years without congressional approval. The FDR design came into being in 1946, 64 years ago.
And although it has been written authoritatively that the Act of 1890 encouraged design change every quarter century, the opposite was its intent; the legislation was specifically designed to halt the Mint from changing coins with a frequency of more often than once in 25 years – unless Congress changed the law.
Congress has gone on to do so periodically. For example, all of the commemorative coin proposals from 1892-1954 were in the context of a design change more frequently than once in 25 years, and all required congressional and presidential approval.
When President Theodore Roosevelt took the motto “In God we trust” off the coins, Congress enacted a law requiring its restoration. The Washington quarter, first struck in 1932, came as a result of a 1931 law written 15 years after the Standing Liberty design was created. Likewise, the Kennedy half dollar interrupted the Franklin design after 15 years.
Since more than 25 years have passed since the FDR design was introduced, the Treasury secretary unilaterally – and without need of congressional approval – could direct the design be changed. That is not likely to happen with a Democratic President and both houses of Congress.
The 2010 move by Rep. Patrick McHenry, a third term member, R-N.C., calls for a “redesign [of] the face of $50 Federal Reserve Notes so as to include a likeness of President Ronald Wilson Reagan.”
The Los Angeles Times responded by comparing Reagan (who is buried in Simi Valley at the presidential library, and whose wife Nancy lives in L.A.) with Grant: “A short-term wartime Army Air Corps captain or a general? A lifeguard who reportedly saved dozens of lives, or a wartime Army officer responsible for thousands of deaths? A one-time Democratic union activist from Illinois or a career Union Army graduate of West Point from Ohio? The first divorced President (who married two actresses) or the one who married the daughter of a slave owner after four years of wooing? A man who sold cigarettes or one who smoked cigars? A young man nicknamed Dutch by his father, or a soldier nicknamed Dudy by his wife? A Republican who headed the U.S. government at the end of the Cold War or a Republican who headed the U.S. Army at the end of the Civil War?”
McHenry offers this analysis as to why he thinks a change should be made: ““Every generation needs its own heroes. One decade into the 21st century, it’s time to honor the last great President of the 20th and give President Reagan a place beside Presidents Roosevelt (on the dime) and Kennedy (on the half dollar).”
Newspapers across America egg the debate on. The Chicago Tribune wrote “Grant, who has been on the $50 bill for nearly a century, has had a good run. It’s time for him to step aside and make room for Reagan.”
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.), who serves on the House Financial Services Committee, said Reagan is too controversial. “Our currency ought to be something that unites us,” he said.
Joan Waugh, a professor of history at UCLA and the author of “U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth,” wrote in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Shame on the 14 Republican congressmen who last week proposed substituting Ronald Reagan for Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill. Their action suggests they need a history lesson about the Northern general who won the Civil War and went on to lead the country.”
Countered the Philadelphia Daily News, “Meanwhile, if the Treasury really wanted to honor Reagan, it should bring back some of the large bills that were pulled out of circulation in 1969, like the $100,000 bill, which featured Glenn Beck’s favorite President, Woodrow Wilson. Why? Because it was Reagan who took the United States from a creditor nation into a debtor nation, so if we ever do pay that gazillion or two back to China – don’t hold your breath – we could turn over a suitcase filled with Ronald Reagan funny money.”
My money’s still on Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President of the United States. An American hero – the genuine article – a man so revered that recent Gallup polls consistently rank him as the people’s choice of the best of all the men to hold that office, a position over George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and even Franklin D. Roosevelt. So much so that I think it likely that one day he will supplant FDR on the dime ... or Grant on the $50 bill.