Long before Ronald Reagan died, an unprecedented lobbying campaign began to keep his name alive. There is already a Mount Reagan, a USS Ronald Reagan, and a slew of Ronald Reagan schools and thoroughfares.
And, if the former president's most audacious backers have their way, Ronald Reagan dimes will soon be jingling in pockets and purses across America.
The ambition of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project is to place a "significant" memorial in every state and to name something after him in all 3,067 counties in the country. Revering Reagan as an icon of modern Republican conservatism, organizers have not ruled out a place on Mount Rushmore.
"He defeated the most significant threat to liberty in America's history, the Soviet Union. He turned around the economy to sustained growth," said Grover Norquist, the tax-fighting chief cheerleader for the Reagan commemoration project. "We want one thing in each county."
First of all, though, they want the dime.
Norquist, better known as the leader of Americans for Tax Reform, started the legacy project informally seven years ago. He focused at one point on putting Reagan's face on the $10 bill. He started lining up Capitol Hill support, but it would mean displacing Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant first Treasury secretary, who was killed by Aaron Burr in a duel.
"The Hamilton lobby," Norquist said wryly the other day, would have blocked the move. Benjamin Franklin is firmly ensconced on the hundred. Andrew Jackson could not easily be displaced from the twenty, and, well, Abraham Lincoln could hardly be expected to relinquish his spot on the five.
Besides, he was a Republican.
Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) introduced a bill last year to put Reagan on the dime, replacing Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose image was assigned to the 10-cent piece within a year of his death in 1945. Souder had more than 80 co-sponsors, despite the objection of former first lady Nancy Reagan.
"Leave the dime alone," demanded Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). He got more than 100 co-sponsors for his rival bill to keep Roosevelt's face on the coin.
Norquist's current notion is to make half of the nation's future dimes with Reagan's image and half with Roosevelt's. He called it the "obvious compromise" and reported approvingly that a coin change requires only the approval of the director of the U.S. Mint.
"We're not trying to dis anyone. Having just talked to many governors and members of Congress and folks, half of the dimes seems the most reasonable compromise," Norquist said. "I have every reason to believe the administration is happy with the idea and that we would get support from them."
The battle over the dollars and the dimes shows that Reagan's early legacy is subject to the same debate that marked his two terms in office, when supporters beamed and detractors shook their heads in wonderment -- or collective resignation.
Some historians and commentators have argued that Reagan's image is being harnessed in an unseemly way by conservatives eager for a marketable hero, just as Cuban communists peddle the mystique of Che Guevara on banners and key chains decades after his death.
Conservative columnist George Will said there is "something un-Reaganesque about trying to plaster his name all over the country the way Lenin was plastered over Eastern Europe, Mao over China and Saddam Hussein all over Iraq."
"It's time for us to rescue Ronald Reagan and his legacy from some of his more zealous friends," Will said.
The list of roadways, buildings and institutions bearing Reagan's name continues to grow, however. Just this month, the Louisiana legislature named a stretch of U.S. Highway 190 the Ronald Reagan Highway. Last year, the New Hampshire Senate renamed Mount Clay -- previously honoring 19th-century politician Henry Clay -- after Reagan.
In Washington, the limestone-and-granite Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center is second in size only to the Pentagon among federal buildings. Republicans on Capitol Hill won a bitter fight to rename Washington National Airport after the former president.
Grenada, the island nation invaded by U.S. forces under Commander in Chief Reagan, honored Reagan with a set of stamps bearing his image. But hopes among members of Congress for a monument to Reagan on the Mall face a formidable obstacle.
In 1986, Congress delivered a bill to the White House barring any memorial to an individual from being built on the Mall until 25 years after the person's death. The bill was signed into law by . . . Ronald Reagan.