The face of politics: Who gets on the money?

NEW YORK – He beat Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale handily at the polls. But when it came to a face-off with FDR, Ronald Reagan lost.

Reagan’s fans pushed for legislation last December to replace Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s image on the dime. The bill gathered support from House Republicans but was blocked by Democrats determined to preserve FDR’s legacy. Conservatives, though, say the fight is far from over and vow to eventually get Reagan’s portrait on the dime, and on the $10 bill as well.

“Our coins and currency are supposed to reflect prevailing attitudes and opinions,” said Martin Green, press secretary for Rep. Mark Souder, R- Ind., who proposed the legislation in Congress. “The dime has changed before and it will change again.”

It is often said that money and politics are intrinsically linked. Some people in Washington take that axiom literally, all the way down to nickels and dimes.

“This is a fight over the politics of history,” said Michael Mershon, press secretary for Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who led the opposition to the Reagan dime. “FDR is on the dime and that’s where he should stay.”

For as long as the United States has had money, it has seen bitter political debates over whose face should be honored on coins and bills. George Washington was vehemently opposed to displaying his image on coins, as that was what monarchies did. “I am certain it will be more agreeable to the citizens of the United States to see the head of Liberty on their coin than the head of presidents,” Washington told Congress shortly after becoming president.

In the early history of the nation, coins championed symbols, like bison and the head of Liberty, rather than real-life personalities. But in 1909, Abraham Lincoln was placed on the penny, becoming the first president featured on a coin. The president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, a coin collector who took an avid interest in legal tender, influenced the move. Washington was later placed on the quarter and the $1 bill.

All the faces that adorn U.S. paper money belong to former public officials, ranging from the Civil War hero, President Ulysses Grant, to Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon Chase. These choices have remained since 1928.

Coins, however, have seen a few changes. FDR was minted on the dime in 1946, and John F. Kennedy on the half-dollar in 1964. Most recently, Sacagawea, a Native American guide to Lewis and Clark, was introduced on the dollar coin in the year 2000.

Republicans feel left out.

“Conservatives don’t have icons like that [on money],” said Christopher Butler, director of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, a Washington-based group lobbying for the Reagan dime. “It [the dime] is a way to remind people that this is one of our heroes.”

However, altering pictures on money is not easy. While the secretary of the treasury has the authority to make the change, the sensitive matter has historically been deferred to Congress.

“In theory, it can be done,” said Mike White, a spokesman for the U.S. Mint, which falls under the treasury’s control. “Generally, though, it goes through Congress, with a bill, legislation, the whole process.”

Reagan loyalists are hoping to take advantage of the current political climate, in which Republicans hold the key positions in the process. Portraits on each coin were originally intended to only remain in circulation for 25 years before being replaced, but over time the choice of images has become a partisan matter.

“It’s more politicized now than ever before,” said Beth Deisher, editor of Coin World, a magazine that covers coins, medals and paper money. “We live in an age of icons. Politicians have realized the power of coins.”

Reagan’s face won’t be seen on the $10 bill soon. While it is merely tradition not to emblazon a living face on coins, it is outright against federal law to do so on paper currency. According to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a prospective bill candidate must be deceased for at least 10 years. Coins have been historically viewed as the preferred route to pay homage to someone since there is always the option of issuing commemorative coins and medals. One such medal already exists of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

A bipartisan compromise could be the “Presidential $1 Coin Act,” introduced in March by Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del. He proposed a series of coins that would honor each of the 43 presidents.

While politicians argue about honoring past leaders, average Americans have expressed strong opinions about who should be on the money, too. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing said it receives up to 15 suggestions a month from the public. A recent poll, conducted by Coin World, revealed such nominations as Thomas Edison, Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse.

Deisher said that she would welcome a diversity of images on coins, although not necessarily of cartoon mice.

“There are a lot of other things we can celebrate on our coins besides people,” she said. “Isn’t there more to our nation than five white men?”