AS A "government corporation," the Postal Service often likes to boast of its independence from some of the rules affecting the federal bureaucracy. But when they have a major announcement to make, postal officials still like to do what all federal bureaucrats do: hold a White House ceremony.
So last month when Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank decided to make official the design for the Postal Service's World War II stamps, he headed for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
With President Bush nodding his approval, Frank unveiled the design for a souvenir sheet of 10 first-class stamps that will commemorate the events of 1941. The sheets will be released in August and will be followed during the next four years by four similar sheets, each marking a year of the war. When complete, the stamps will be one of the largest series of commemoratives the Postal Service has issued.
As previously disclosed, each sheet will contain two strips of five commemorative stamps separated by a large outline map of the world, pinpointing the location of key war events. Titled "1941: A World at War," the first sheet was the product of a joint Pentagon-Postal Service committee that researched the war and came up with 50 major events to be saluted on the stamps.
The 1941 sheet will mark establishment of the draft (in 1940), construction of the Burma Road into China, support of the Allies through the Lend-Lease Act, establishment of war goals under the Atlantic Charter, the buildup of war industries, the sinking of the American destroyer Reuben James, Civil Defense preparations, construction of the first "Liberty" ship, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Congressional Declaration of War.
Designs for the stamps became public last summer when postal officials summoned private printers to a Washington briefing. The designs shown the president carried a "00" denomination instead of the 25-cent denomination shown to the printers, a change reflecting uncertainty over what the new first-class postage rate would be. Assuming the recently proposed 29-cent rate becomes effective Feb. 3, the sheets will sell for $2.90 each.
For many collectors, however, the big news about the long-awaited souvenir sheets was what went unsaid in the Oval Office. The Postal Service has retreated from its plan to have the sheets printed by private printers.
Instead, the service has agreed to let the Bureau of Engraving and Printing handle the massive, five-year project. That decision will be welcomed by the many collectors who admire the commemoratives produced by the bureau and its high-tech "D press," which uses a combination of intaglio and offset printing processes.
Until last year, there would have been no question that the bureau would print the stamps. But after a bitter feud between the bureau and the Postal Service became public, the two agencies signed an interagency agreement that will reduce the service's dependence on bureau stamps. The World War II stamps were among the first to be placed out for private bids.
A number of firms bid for the work, but none of the bids were "responsive," according to Donald M. McDowell, director of stamps for the Postal Service. Private firms offered to print the stamps, but not with the combination of intaglio and offset printing.
As a result, the postal service turned to the bureau, which has had a virtual monopoly on U.S. postage stamp production since 1894.
"I think the significance that should be read into this is that things are working under the interagency agreement," said McDowell. "It provided a way for the former combatants to work things out in a professional manner."
McDowell said the decision required considerable study by bureau officials because they had to commit to a highly complex printing project that will run five years.
"Technically, it is a sheet of stamps, but this is a breed of cat that requires an extrordinary effort by the printer," he said.
Postal officials remain committed to using more private printers, which McDowell said may well lead to more varieties of seemingly identical stamps like the 1990 contemporary Christmas stamp.
Printed by both the bureau and American Bank Note Co., the stamp carries the image of a Christmas tree. The privately printed sheet version of the stamp bears an ornament not visible on the booklet version of the stamp, which the bureau produced, and the red backgrounds, lettering and perforations are markedly different.
"It is what was expected and what should be expected," said McDowell, noting that different presses, paper and inks will produce clearly distinct varieties of the same stamp. "After all, every stamp is a printer's interpretation of a design. We maintain that . . . if we provide the public with two gorgeous stamps, no harm is done."
THE WASHINGTON International Lions Stamp Show will be held 10 to 6 Saturday and 10 to 5 Sunday at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 6111 Columbian Dr., Bowie. Admission is $1 for adults, free for children. Call 301/568-5230.
Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.