Patrick McHenry, a Republican congressman from North Carolina has rallied 13 other members of his party to create a bill proposing we put Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill, booting President Ulysses S. Grant.
There they go again! This, as if it needed to be said, is a bad idea. To get onto the U.S. currency, your contributions really ought to be undisputed. Reagan's, to put it diplomatically, are not, particularly in the financial category. This is the man who implemented the much-disputed trickle-down economics, and who installed the beginnings of our present cycle of budget deficits, government spending that taxes couldn't fund, heavy international borrowing, and trade imbalances.
By the measure of the Gipper's free-spending era, if anything maybe he ought to be on a much more expensive note, like the $100. Reagan's monetary achievements alone, whose legacy still resonates in our wobbly economy, should alone disqualify him from being on the money, at least until a generation or two passes and we see where the chips finally come to rest.
He's also the guy who turned his back on the mass deaths caused by AIDS, scuppered alternative energy programs that might have put us 20 years ahead of the fuel game, and was at the wheel while his men backed a clandestine cash-for-weapons scheme with our country's mortal enemy. Is that nit-picking? Then again, Andrew Jackson was responsible for the Trail of Tears -- genocide, essentially -- and he's on the $20.
Grant himself might not have been surprised that a congressman from North Carolina, a Confederate state, would try to sweep the Union general under the rug (and leave "Old Hickory" Jackson, a Carolina native, untouched).
But our ancestors might have been. Grant's Tomb in New York City was, for years after its 1897 dedication, the most popular tourist attraction in the United States. This fact, though remarkable, is made even more astonishing when you realize it didn't open until 12 years after his death, and 32 years after the end of the Civil War that Grant himself settled with a mercy for the losing side that was uncommon for warriors of the age. Banishing Grant from the $50 would be, at the very least least, a sign of deep disrespect for the resolution of the gravest, bloodiest period in our history.
It would also be foolishly hasty. Grant wasn't ensconced on the $50 until 1914, nearly 30 years after his death and with a half-century of perspective on his Civil War achievements. Even then, he arrived on our cash during a pre-World War I flurry of patriotism, when it seemed like every American was falling over themselves to prove who loved the flag more. By this measure, we shouldn't be considering Reagan for legal tender until at least the year 2034.
What schoolchild hasn't looked at a picture of Mount Rushmore and noticed that one face doesn't belong? It's Teddy Roosevelt, who might have been bully and all that, but hardly in the same pantheon as Washington, Lincoln, or Jefferson, by whose efforts our union still hangs together today. Roosevelt made it onto that South Dakota rock by dint of recent, warm-and-fuzzy memories, because he liked to be outside, and perhaps more tellingly, by dint of his patronage of its sculptor, Gutzon Borglum.
When Congress gave the go-ahead to carve the monument, T.R. had only been dead for six years, and he'd only been out of office for 17. Reagan has been dead for six years, too, and out of office for 22.
Lots of us might wish we could have a do-over on Mount Rushmore -- maybe even putting Susan B. Anthony up there, like was the plan before the Great Depression ended work.
John F. Kennedy was slapped onto the half-dollar coin just one year after his assassination -- when was the last time you used a 50¢ piece? Although Americans still reflect fondly on JFK, and his cultural impact cannot be underestimated, few count him among the very best presidents we've ever had. Certainly not cash good.
The street names of the lesser neighborhoods in your town are full of leaders who were like rock stars in their age -- Lafayette, Pitt, McKinley -- but whose luster faded with memory. Often, their celebrity was based on charisma, and sometimes it was the product of wily party public relations -- the kind that, when times get stark, waves a name like it would a flag in the hopes the career faithful will again be electrified.
The Republican Party, feeling some of its base bleed away to join the Tea Party hubbub, needs a totem to rally around, and in recent years, the name Ronald Reagan has been the one most frequently invoked to paint a broad-stoke image of purer ideological times. That his achievements are always selectively presented to modern ears is hardly the point. The mythology is the point, and what mythologizes an American leader more effectively than putting him on the cash?
Invoking political hot buttons the way some religions perform incantations of their deities is nothing new. It's a time-honored public relations trick used by political parties that are losing their grip on followers. In their respective times, "Remember the Maine" and "Remember the Alamo" inspired American families so fervently that they sent their boys to spill each others' blood. Now most of us no longer even know why we remember the remembering of them.
Like Kennedy, Reagan was popular, but true greatness is measured by time, not by contemporary popularity, and it can be argued that only later generations can truly judge greatness.
For now, Ronald Reagan is perfectly fine as the name of an airport. By all means, too, put him on as many postage stamps as public demand can bear. But on the money? When a monument is blatantly self-serving, it inadvertently ends up cheapening the subject -- and the view.
South Africa honors the "Big Five" of its wildlife (the R50 is the lion), New Zealand's $5 enshrines mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, Australia's $50 honors its first female Parliamentarian as well as its Parliament house itself (which, zealous America-first types should note, was not excluded from the money despite having been designed by an American firm). Many European notes praise their scientific and literary achievements. It cannot be disputed that any of those images are some of the greatest emblems of their respective nations.
Instead of continuing to use currency as a pandering political wedge, it's time we grew up as a nation and found images we can all agree upon. If anyone should be bumped from the money, it should be Old Hickory (who hated paper money anyway) from the $20, and in his place we should print an image that every American can be proud of, regardless of ideology, such as Jonas Salk or Helen Keller.
I'm proud to set forth the first nominee: the Apollo 11 moon landing. That was an America at the peak of its optimism and prowess. "Remember the moon," the motto could say, and then we could finally start shooting for it again.
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