Strap yourself in for another sizzling installment of our regular feature, Issues In Numismatics.
As you've heard, a new dollar coin LINK TO http://www.usmint.gov/dollarcoin/default.htm will be jangling in our pockets in a few months. This is due to the U.S. One Dollar Coin Act of 1997 (soon to be a major motion picture starring Bruce Willis), which mandated that the Treasury Department finally figure out how to make a dollar coin that doesn't feel and look like a quarter.
The design of the tails side (the "reverse") was never much a mystery. It had to be an eagle, the law declared. But the design of the heads side (the "obverse") required one of those excruciating Washington processes that requires the formation of committees and panels and task forces and special invitations for public comment -- what you might call the institutionalization of disagreement.
Eleanor Roosevelt? That was one suggestion. But she was probably too much of a flaming Democrat. Harriet Tubman? Sojourner Truth? They had their advocates. There was some talk of retaining Susan B. Anthony, since it wasn't really her FAULT that her coin was such a catastrophe. There was strong support for Bessie Coleman, the first black aviatrix.
But the strong favorite initially wasn't a human being at all. It was the Statue of Liberty. Go allegorical, was the sentiment. A hundred years ago, Liberty and other such allegorical figures were the norm on a coin. (I should confess that I'm not exactly sure who "Miss Liberty" is. Is she some kind of pagan goddess? Was she married to Zeus, or whatever? What is her relationship to that creepy eyeball over the pyramid on the dollar bill?)
Allegorical figures have the benefit of being easily discarded when you want to change your design. When you put human beings on a coin, they tend to get locked in place. That's why our coins have become so static, little more than a Dead Presidents Society. No one has the courage to get rid of a Jefferson or a Washington. The country can't even stop making the ridiculous penny, because the Illinois crowd can't stand to lose all those little Lincolns.
The Liberty advocates had to deal with a version of this dilemma. Susan B. Anthony was the only woman on an American coin. Philip Diehl, the director of the U.S. Mint, and the nonvoting chairman of the Dollar Coin Design Advisory Committee, told me this morning, "There was a lot of discomfort that the decision to put an allegorical figure might be read as a decision that there was no woman in American history who merited the honor."
And so much debate ensued. I wish I could report that final vote come down to a flip of the coin, with someone calling out "obverse or reverse.
Finally, someone floated an inventive suggestion: Sacagawea, the Shoshone teenager who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition, carrying her infant son, Jean-Baptiste, on her back. Sacagawea's story had been in the air, in Stephen Ambrose's marvelous book "Undaunted Courage," and in the Ken Burns series about Lewis and Clark on PBS.
Jim Benfield, executive director of the Coin Coalition, and a Statue of Liberty advocate, says, "I saw Sacagawea and I said, `My gosh, this is it, she's not a Democrat, she's not a Republican, and best of all, we don't know what she looked like, so we can make her pretty.' "
But of course simply selecting Sacagawea would be too easy. To win the necessary votes for Sacagawea, there had to be a compromise. The result was a recommendation to the Secretary of the Treasury to show a design of "Liberty represented by a Native American woman, inspired by Sacagawea."
An allegory within a representation within an inspiration. (Or is it the other way around?) How wonderfully gaseous! This is what is meant by the term "postmodernism." The fictional is slathered onto the authentic without apologies. If this is still confusing, please consult Edmund Morris.
Fortunately, the Secretary of the Treasury ignored the "represented" and "inspired by" portions of the recommendation, and declared that the coin would show Sacagawea. So it's her, and her baby. As we imagine them.
(Rough Draft appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1 p.m. Coming Monday: Adventures in Philately.)