When the news broke this week that a North Carolina Republican congressman had introduced a bill (with 13 co-sponsors) to put Ronald Reagan's megawatt Hollywood grin on the $50 greenback, and that he had hawked his proposal by arguing that "every generation needs its own heroes," I flashed back to a Republican confab I had covered in Biloxi, Mississippi during the first week of March in 1998. A succession of '00 presidential hopefuls had wowed the southern audience by invoking Ronald Reagan, and when I asked a party strategist about that, he simply replied, "Every political movement needs its heroes."
I happen to agree with that. Put the Gipper on the $50 bill. Seriously, why not?
Patrick McHenry, the congressman behind the new push for Reagan-adorned currency (a previous push died in the House five years ago), said the other day, "President Reagan is indisputably one of the most transformative presidents of the 20th century. Like President Roosevelt on the dime and President Kennedy on the half dollar, President Reagan deserves a place of honor on our nation's currency."
That argument is solid. Like him or not, Reagan was indeed a transformative president - as even Barack Obama acknowledged during the Democratic primaries. Granted, some conservatives probably won't be satisfied until every public road and building is stamped with the Reagan name; and, yes, we already have (among other things) the Reagan airport in Washington, the Reagan federal building in Washington, the Reagan nuclear aircraft carrier, and the Reagan ballistic missile test site on the Kwajalein Atoll; and yes, prominent conservative activist Grover Norquist has a legacy project dedicated to Reagan adornment (seven years ago, when I spoke with him at length, he had his heart set on a Reagan $10 bill)...but, nevertheless, seriously, why not drop Ulysses S. Grant's brooding countenance from the 50?
When ranking presidents, virtually all historians agree that Reagan was far more successful than Grant. The guy may have been a great general during the last two years of the Civil War, but, as president, he basically drank and slumbered while at least a dozen financial scandals engulfed his administration. Top aides and congressional allies continually lined their pockets while he worked five-hour days; even his vice president took bribes. The scandals inspired critics to coin the term "Grantism," which came to be synonymous with greed and corruption.
The Grant drinking stories were so rife that one newspaper editor (a fed up former Grant fan) routinely referred to the president as "His Inebriated Excellency." Reportedly, Grant was even pulled over by a Washington cop for reckless driving of his horse and buggy; when the cop saw he was drunk, he ordered Grant to return to the White House on foot.
Naturally, anybody can build a case against Reagan as well - his early tax cuts triggered a decade of budget deficits, he was asleep at the switch during the Iran-Contra scandal, etcetera. Indeed, Democratic congressman Brad Sherman, a member of the House Financial Services Committee (which has jurisdiction over the $50 proposal) said the other day that he opposes adorning the currency with "someone whose policies are still controversial."
But many of the presidents on our coins and currency were controversial. JFK (stamped on the 50-cent coin a year after his death) was hated by the right and distrusted by the left during his truncated tenure. FDR (stamped on the dime a year after his death) was hated by the right, scorned by captains of industry as "a traitor to his class." Abe Lincoln (the penny, the $5 bill) was so hated that some of his own people called him a "baboon" and a lot worse. Andrew Jackson (another transformative president, the face on the $20 bill) feuded incessantly with enemies who dubbed him "King Andrew," and at one point, he even took a bullet and survived. Just like somebody else we know.
So what the heck, dump Grant for the Gipper. He's a sufficiently fitting currency candidate. And give this one to the Reagan legacy folks, because they could use the win. Some years ago, they were lobbying for a Reagan memorial on the Washington Mall, only to discover that federal law prohibited such honors until the person was dead for 25 years. And that the measure was signed into law...by Reagan.
And as for legacy leader Grover Norquist's ultimate goal - chiseling Reagan on Mt. Rushmore - that's never going to happen. As Norquist explained to me seven years ago, geology experts had already concluded that the granite might not support another 60-foot face. I said, "You must be seriously disappointed." He shrugged and smiled. Then he said, "There are other mountains."