Who says money isn't part of the American psyche?
Sorry, Pittsburgh and Seattle fans, but the most important new coin minted in 2006 is not the 24-karat gold-plated .999 fine silver commemorative created for the opening coin toss of next week's Super Bowl. You can buy a replica of that one for $69.95. Instead, the most important new coin is 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel. You can get one of those at your bank for 5 cents.
Never has the nation made a bigger, or more important, statement at so little cost.
The new Jefferson nickel, which in the next couple of weeks will be in full circulation, won't buy you a good 5-cent cigar; there is no such thing, as Vice President Thomas R. Marshall said in despair eight decades ago. But though this new nickel still has a value of only 5 cents, it says a lot about American values.
This new coin is notable for only one characteristic; but then again, how much do you really expect for a nickel? That characteristic: Thomas Jefferson is looking forward.
Now that's not a small thing, particularly when you remember that there was a big national contretemps when Jimmy Carter moved the part on his hair from the right side of his head to the left, or when James Watt changed the Interior Department seal to have the famous buffalo image moving to the right instead of to the left, or when Ronald Reagan decided to move his inauguration from the east side of the Capitol to the west.
Mr. Carter's hair and Mr. Watt's buffalo immediately took on semi-serious political symbolism, though Mr. Carter lost the election to a man who parted his hair on the right, and even the secretary of interior doesn't have the power to affect how the buffalo roam, or even whether the deer and the antelope play.
But Mr. Reagan's gesture of looking to the west in January 1981 had real meaning, political and symbolic. It marked the coming of age of the West in American politics (even though another Californian, Richard Nixon, beat him to the inaugural dais) and symbolized the meaning of the westering process in American life (even though a man from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, beat him to the New Frontier metaphor and slogan).
There is no debate, however, that the Jefferson nickel is a billion-dollar statement about America. Never before has a figure on an American coin looked forward - a shame because this is, after all, the nation that has always prided itself on its ability to look forward and that was founded on the most forward-looking idea ever: that all of us were created equal.
The man who wrote that line, and who also synthesized the Enlightenment ideas of human freedom in the Declaration of Independence, was Thomas Jefferson himself.
Let us leave aside the question of whether the current resident of the house that Jefferson occupied in 1801 is pursuing policies that are forward- or backward-looking. Nor should we linger on whether his opponents have a better claim on resting their arguments on their awareness of the burdens of the future or on their affection for the comfortable nostrums of the past.
We can all agree that, just as this country has always looked west, it also has always looked to the future, to tasks remaining to be tackled, to dreams still unformed. "For this is what America is all about," Lyndon B. Johnson said in what may have been his most lyrical remark. "It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest that is sleeping in the unplowed ground."
Jefferson had his faults, to be sure. Unlike Benjamin Franklin, whose status in the national pantheon has remained remarkably stable, there have been dramatic changes in the way Americans regard Jefferson. It is telling, for example, that the nation built the Lincoln Memorial before it built one for Jefferson; it wasn't until 1938 that ground was broken for the Jefferson Memorial. In years in which the preservation or extension of freedom was the leitmotif of our politics - during World War II and during the civil-rights years, for example - Jefferson has risen in the national estimation.
But the fact that Jefferson owned slaves has in recent years diminished his luster. And yet he remains the pre-eminent philosopher of the American ideal, if not always the American practice.
That is what this new nickel celebrates. It wasn't, after all, the world that existed in 1776 that so motivated the American founders. It was the world these founders sought to build after 1776 that was the oxygen of their efforts.
The new nickel was designed by Jamie Franki, who is an associate professor and coordinator of the illustration program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He used as his model an 1800 life study by Rembrandt Peale. "There was an aspect of Mr. Jefferson that Peale was able to capture that no other artist was able to: his subtle wit, his good nature," says Mr. Franki, whose drawing was chosen from 147 entries. "Many of the portraits of Mr. Jefferson were quite formal. This (reflected) only one part of his personality. His optimism was a good part of who he was."
For years the U.S. Mint preferred profiles over forward-looking images, mostly because of worries that the figure's nose would be too high and might rub off in circulation. Now the mint is warmly embracing the forward-looking Jefferson. It is, says Michael J. White, the mint spokesman, "definitely a statement about Americans looking to the future."
The American penny may be in jeopardy; every once in a while someone proposes eliminating this pesky coin that seems to be worth so little these days. But with the infusion of this new Jefferson coin, it looks as if the nickel will be with us forever - just like the ideals that Jefferson himself sowed in the American mind. That's a heavy statement of principle you'll be carrying in your pocket one of these days. Spend it in good health, and wisely.