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Archive for Sunday, December 24, 2006

Presidential coins honor attainment, not achievement

December 24, 2006

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There is no more revered spot in the United States, from its founding as a mercantile nation, than on the country's coins. Here reside George Washington, who won the colonies their freedom, and Thomas Jefferson, who put the new nation's philosophy into poetry, and Abraham Lincoln, who saved America in its greatest hour of peril, and Franklin Roosevelt, who preserved capitalism and then democracy. In grief we put John F. Kennedy's image on a half-dollar, and in respect we put Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea on the dollar coin.

But we did not put Daniel Webster, or Henry Clay, or John C. Calhoun, or Henry Cabot Lodge, or Mike Mansfield on our coins. They were great men, huge pinions of power, but ours is a lucky nation for having had so many great leaders in so few years of existence. This is a profligate country, but we are stingy, and rightly so, with our biggest honors.

Until now. The U.S. Mint, which presumably is better situated than most federal agencies to understand that the rare is more valuable than the common, this month announced a new series of dollar coins, one for each president, a new one to be distributed every three months. This rapid rate of distribution disrupts the natural order of things in a country that has put so few of its residents on its coins, even in a nation that sometimes feels as if it would like to change presidents after three months of foolhardy behavior.

But that is the least of the problems with this plan, which has the rancid air of a publicity stunt gone awry. Putting all the presidents on a classroom calendar or on a metal ruler is one thing. Calendars last a year, and metal rulers are lost in a month. Putting all the presidents on coins is another thing altogether. It's a very bad idea. (There's nothing wrong, however, with the accompanying series - pure gold coins, for the collector's market, featuring the presidential wives. It's wisely called the "First Spouse" series, though, to allow for future gender shifts at the Oval Office.)

Because the truth of the matter is that not all of our presidents deserve to be honored. James Buchanan was the worst president, unless of course you consider Warren G. Harding, and the temptation is strong to say that they are both worth forgetting, except as examples of blunderers and fools. Messrs. Buchanan and Harding do not deserve coins of their own, and no amount of historical revisionism will likely change the verdict on their presidencies. William Henry Harrison was president for a month. He doesn't deserve a coin. William Howard Taft was a good man and a good chief justice, but, as a president, he left few marks. No coin for him either.

Regular readers of this column know of my abiding respect for Calvin Coolidge, but the 30th president, known for his abstemiousness in speaking as in spending, would be appalled at the idea of a dollar coin in his honor. Put him on a penny if anywhere, and expect to save it, not spend it. Lyndon B. Johnson was one of the biggest spenders, and one of the biggest egos, ever to inhabit the White House. A dollar is not big enough for him. Richard Nixon devalued the dollar. Shouldn't we think of giving him a 75-cent piece?

None of that, of course, is really the point. The point is that not all presidents are equal, and they should not be treated, or honored, equally.

Putting Chester A. Arthur and James Garfield on the same plane, or on the same coin, as some of their presidential predecessors is a moral equivalency that the American people, who say they love equality but who honor excellence, should not tolerate. This effort proves only one thing, about which we might not be particularly proud: In the United States, money is the great equalizer.

But the real problem with this notion is that placing every president on a dollar coin rewards attainment, not achievement. That is not a good lesson for our children, or for our country. It is one thing to be elected president, or to be admitted to Harvard, or to win the corner suite in a Fortune 500 company. It is another thing to do something with that attainment. Some presidents win the White House, just as some young people get into Harvard, and then do nothing with the opportunity. You know who they were, and who you are.

The first four coins, which are to be distributed next year, are to be Washington, John Adams, Jefferson and James Madison. That's a good start, and it should make everybody feel good about the old phrase "as strong as the dollar." But how are we going to feel when we get beyond James K. Polk? Franklin Pierce will be a favorite in New Hampshire, where his Southern sensibilities have been forgotten, and Mr. Buchanan may be a favorite in Pennsylvania, which is so bereft of historically enduring political figures that anything is a consolation. But will those coins make the nation swell with pride?

Now - and here is a sentence you never expected to read in a daily newspaper - let us pause to consider Grover Cleveland. An interesting man, perhaps underrated historically. But his eight years in the White House were interrupted by the four years of Benjamin Harrison (can't wait to get my hands on that coin!), and thus he is entitled to two presidential coins. Is he twice as worthy as FDR, who was elected twice as many times? Or twice as worthy as Gerald R. Ford, who wasn't elected at all but who helped and healed a hurt nation? Bet you a Herbert Hoover dollar that he isn't.

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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