Replace FDR on the Dime with Reagan?

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Mr. Gordon is Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa and the author of New Deals (1994) and Dead on Arrival (2003).

Representative Mark Souder (R-IN) is pushing to replace the profile of Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- on American dimes since 1946 -- with that of Ronald Wilson Reagan. Why?

By most accounts, this is a simple and predictable episode of political symbolism. Conservatives, angered by now-infamous Reagan miniseries, are looking for a way to honor Reagan with the most common respected coin (pennies don't count) in America . Their choice of the dime is perhaps ill considered, as the connection between FDR and that coin are both poetic (consider the Depression-era anthem “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”) and practical (consider Roosevelt 's role in launching the “march of dimes” campaign against infantile paralysis). End of story.

Replace FDR with Reagan?But in fact there's more. Souder's bill is but another effort of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project – a campaign aimed at naming (or renaming) public landmarks “in the 50 states and over 3,000 counties of the United States , as well as in formerly communist countries across the world” in Reagan's honor. To date, Legacy has succeeded in attaching Reagan's name to Washington 's National airport, the former Mount Clay in New Hampshire , a commemorative stamp series in Grenada , and a ballistic missile test site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands .

Legacy initially proposed putting Reagan on the ten-dollar bill, but its turn to the dime is no accident or discount. Conservatives have long resented the affirmative federal state erected by the New Deal. “See the picture on those new dimes?” as one automobile executive complained when the Roosevelt dime was introduced in the 1940s, “It's our new destroyer . . . He was the beginner [sic] of our downhill slide. Boy what he did to this country. I don't think we'll ever get over it. Terrible.”

Legacy is no idle exercise in nostalgia. It is a spin-off of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), the ideological engine behind Newt Gingrich's “Contract for America ” and the current Administration's economic policies. As ATR (and Legacy ) head Grover Norquist summarizes his hopes for our country, it would be “McKinley . . .absent the protectionism," a return to an America predating “Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over," and one in which the ATR's Congressional acolytes would cut government “to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

By these standards, the Reagan dime is something of a compromise: less dangerous than dynamiting Teddy Roosevelt off Mount Rushmore , and less obscure than replacing FDR with McKinley's bag man, Mark Hanna.

But the message is quite clear. The “Reagan Dime Act” offers not just commemorative pleasantries, but a string of dubious and fiercely ideological propositions. It showers Reaganomics with all of the good news and none of the bad: Reagan “inherited a disillusioned nation” and engineered “an economic boom that lasted almost unimpeded through the end of the twentieth century” (one could, by same logic credit FDR with the long postwar boom). It remembers Reagan's slash-and-burn social policies as an “active agenda for the nation's children” (although, through 1980-1992, poverty rates for children under 6 swelled from 20 to 25 percent). And it leaves little doubt that Reagan's visage is meant not only to champion his economic policies but to rally the faithful against “abortion or infanticide” as well.

The Reagan dime is intended to commemorate not Reagan, but the take-no-prisoners triumph of his political vision in George W. Bush's America . With Roosevelt 's visage go the last remnants of the New Deal state. Taxes? FDR's steeply progressive vision has been turned inside out. Social Security? The “end of welfare” in 1996 is now joined by a drumbeat for the privatization of old age pensions. Health care? Medicaid is being pushed off to the states and Medicare has been turned into a slush fund for HMOs and drug companies. Basic rights for working Americans? Private employment is riven with insecurities, including a sub-poverty minimum wage, low-wage/no-benefit contingent work, inadequate and often inaccessible unemployment insurance, a threat to even the most basic protections (such as overtime), and the explicitly anti-union example set by the federal government.

Franklin Roosevelt, no friend of big government for its own sake, had a different view of America . Having known pain close up, Roosevelt is remembered as someone who thought the country was big enough and strong enough to lift those who been left out of its riches. Even in the harshest times, Roosevelt had a cheerful and confident view of America . He thought “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” Like the fear of terrorism that now confuses and distracts us all.

By the same token, I suppose, the “Dime Act” has a certain logic. The practice of naming public projects (even Hoover has a dam) and public buildings for former politicians is harder to sustain in an era in which the federal government is investing precious little in public goods. Little wonder that Reagan's principal honor to date is the renaming of an airport (Washington National) built – you guessed it – by FDR's New Deal. Putting Reagan on the dime is a safe bet; even Norquist's minions have not yet suggested abandoning federal responsibility for the nation's currency.

But why stop with the dime? Perhaps, to commemorate federal policies that echo the “states' rights” arguments of the 1950s and 1960s, we should alternate Lincoln 's spot on the penny with Orval Faubus or Bull Connor. Jefferson, that notorious separator of church and state, might share the nickel with (former) Alabama judge Roy Moore. And the popular “state quarters” program could be expanded – in keeping with Reagan's legacy – by closing the U.S. mint and giving states meager block grants to print their own.

The choice that Souder offers is simple, turning on the flip of a coin. Roosevelt 's confidence and courage, among imperfect humans who sometimes get sick but are capable of great courage and kindness, extending outward. Or a crackpot exploitation of Reagan for a program of jaw-dropping selfishness, with the rich running the rest of us, turning inward in fear.

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Rudy Zappa Martinez - 5/19/2010

Well, like so many republicans before him, Souder is now resigning in disgrace. Will this put the final kibosh on this absoltely terrible idea? I mean, FDR was the greatest president in the 20th century....regan was at best number 9 or 10!!!

Ronald Reagan - 12/11/2005

First of all, the ex-president passed away. Secondly, I don't think partisan politics has anything to do with this at all. Seriously, I don't understand why those on the left are so upset about this. FDR was put on the dime almost as a place holder. Granted, he did many good things for the country, but it was really an unfortunate state of affairs he was forced to react to. Reagan did many good things for the good of the nation- not for the repair of it. Think about it.. Reagan got drug testing in the work place, fought communism, made things better in the Middle East after a wet behind the ears Carter left office, and started the still raging war on terrorism. The man deserves to be on the dime. He is, not according to me but to other sources, the 20th century's greatest president. Its not partisan politics or a disliking of FDR, its that the man needs to be honored. I did not appreciate how biased this article was. The writer needs to seriously work on his balancing skills.

William L Webb - 6/16/2004

How about putting Reagan's likeness on the dollar coin? Nobody uses it anyway. Or we could revive the two dollar bill and put him on there.

kevin murphy - 6/9/2004

Maybe we can put his likeness on the tips of all nuclear warheads that he was so fond of.

kevin murphy - 6/9/2004

The only reason they are proposing the dime over the ten dollar bill is because they know the ten dollar bill would be defaced by the thousands. And still be able to be used as legal tender. Not as easy to deface a coin. If he is on the ten dollar bill I would suggest taking a red felt marker, circling his picture, and drawing a diagnol line through it every time you get a ten spot. Just think of thousands of these circulating throughout the country!!

JR White - 6/9/2004

I believe that Reagan should not replace FDR on the dime. FDR was probably one of the best presidents this nation has ever seen. However, I do think Reagan should be recognized on some sort of American currency. Some ideas could be replacing Washington on the quarter since Washington is already on the 1 dollar bill. Another suggestion would be to replace Jackson on the 20. Jackson was an awful president who hurt our nation. Sure he was a war hero but I don't see McCarther or Eisenhower on any piece of currency. I'm more in favor for replacing Jackson on the 20. Any other suggestions?

John A Elson - 6/6/2004

I used to draw Reagan dimes when I was in Jr. High and High School, that was back in the 70s, before Reagan became president (though he did run in 1976).

This was partly based on the idea that the person elected in 1980 was supposed to die in office...

John A Elson - 6/6/2004

Perhaps we could replace the stupid design on the back with the reagan prortrait.

There's nothing that says we can't have a two headed coin, instead of "heads or tails?" it would be "Franklin or Ronnie?"

John A Elson - 6/6/2004

How about "tear down this wall"?
or maybe "the best is yet to be", perhaps something he actually said...

John A Elson - 6/6/2004

There hasn't been any silver in dimes since the 1964 mintage!

John A Elson - 6/6/2004

Yeah, most of the depression (and the worst of it) did happen when FDR was in office. How long would it have lasted if he hadn't been elected? hmmm....

As for World War Two, I'm not sure that being in office during the start of that conflict was something to brag about...

Of course, not everyone can say that he and his wife already had the same last name when they got married (convenient!), or that they married the niece of one of the faces on Mount Rushmore!

John A Elson - 6/6/2004

Did anyone think that the Reagan dime would come to fruition while he was still alive?

Besides, living people *have* appeared on our coins, just not as themselves!

The girl in an indian headdress on the "indian" head penny, for example. The woman who was the model for the Sacajawea dollar is another example.

"Liberty" as she appeared on various coins was usually based on a then still living model.

Janet Murphy - 1/15/2004

People no longer remember, but the reason they chose the dime to honor Roosevelt was his work for the "March of Dimes" in it's campaign to end polio as a scourge, crippling children around the world. He knew times were tough but "everybody could afford a dime" and Americans did, sending their dimes to the Whitehouse.

Dave Livingston - 1/12/2004


No, I'll take your word for it.

Oh boy, Northern I Corps? Monkey Mountain, the Au Shau Valley, where Yours truly wuz hit attempting (successfully, more or less) to get some of your fellow Jarheads, III MAF Recondos, out-of-trouble & the so-called DMZ. Whoee! Not a fun place, eh?

Still, one of the funniest stories I heard about 'Nam was a little incident that occorred up there. Met an Army chopper pilot over at the Air Force Academy some while back. He told 'bout the time he was relaxing flying a UH-1, with his feet up on the dash, so to speak & letting the other pilot fly the aircraft, just south of the DMZ. They were buzzing along nap-of-the-earth, low level. Then suddenly his world went to pot. Charlie shot his buggy down & this guy awoke to discover an AK stuck up his nose & he'd taken a bullet through a thigh, a rude awakening, but a better fate than the other three guys on the aircraft had. The other pilot was killed in the shoot down, as was the crew chief. The PAVNs executed the Doprr gunner rather than bother with him, evidently hewas badly injured. Anyway, this guy who survived was hauled north to spend 5 1/2 years in the Hanoi Hilton.

He holds no grudge against the Viets. Moreover, he seemingly speaks fluent Viet--one way to utilize time on one's hands when in porison, learn the local language. He said the worst thing about being imprisoned was having no DEROS (estimated date of return to the States)

C.M.Les - 1/12/2004

An image from a 20-year-old Trillin column comes to mind- a bunch of spaced-out economists standing around a bubbling pot chanting "Voodoo, voodoo, trickle, trickle, trickle..." (And for you serious trivia buffs: Who, and under what circumstances, first coined the term, "Voodoo Economics"?)

Then, of course, there's the Hoover-era image, that applies equally well to Reagan and the current BushCo: Feeding the sparrows by feeding the horses.

Either of those would make a nice inscription...

Emily Duncan - 1/5/2004

What a ridiculous thought to try to replace Roosevelt with Regan on our silver coin! I have the utmost compassion for President Reagan and his family but this is not the right way to express our concern.

Jerry West - 12/21/2003

I posted it. You missed it. In Brief:

3d Mar Div, I Corps, Dec. 65 to July 67.

Want to confirm you got this one? :)

Sreve Brody - 12/21/2003

Dave, your post got me thinking about the effect that Kennedy’s assassination had on the US. Right after the assassination, there was a rush to lionize him. Cape Canaveral was renamed Cape Kennedy. His likeness was put on the 50-cent piece. All manner of public buildings were named in his honor (I worked in the JFK Federal Building in Boston in the 80’s). Every major city has a Street, Avenue or Boulevard named after him.

I wasn’t around when FDR died, but my mother, who was 13 at the time, told me that the national mourning that attended his death was similar to Kennedy’s.

I suppose it had a lot to do with the fact that they both died in office, during a period of great turmoil and were greatly admired by the world. It is difficult to see the same reaction had LBJ or RMN died in office. Hell, both of their deaths passed relatively unnoted.

A quick story about how JFK’s legend may have faded a bit for the younger generation:

A friend who worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles here in California told me that she knew it was time to retire when she gave an orientation tour to new employees. This was shortly after JFK’s son died in the plane crash. When one of the new hires asked her how long she had worked for the DMV, my friend replied, “I came to work here the week before John Kennedy was shot”. The new hire replied, “Oh no, John Kennedy wasn’t shot, he died in a plane crash”. The new hire was incredulous when told that John John was the son of an assassinated US President. My friend told this story at her retirement party.

Dave Livingston - 12/21/2003

If we're taking a vote here, I agree strongly with Cram & Jerry that we would be better served if no faces of people were on our coins. As Steve said, Ronnie wouldn't be impressed by having his face on a coin. Say all you want about Ronnie, he a man of the people, more a true democrat than the eliteist F.D.R. was.

BTW, Jerry, if you ever related where & with what units you fought in 'Nam, I missed it. If you would, post it here. I'll keep checking this thread to see if you post it.

Dave Livingston - 12/21/2003

Nemo & NY Guy have my agreement, although like NY Guy, I'm a fan of Ronnie. Moreover, I stronly agree with Nemo that putting FDR's & J.F.K.'s faces on coins in the years following their deaths were bad precedents, although I remain a strong fan of J.F.K. Regardless the above, I've on hand some Kennedy half-dollars, which are fed slowly into circulation & I intend to have my bank to acquire more of them for me, so I can continue my self-imposed duty of feeding Kennedy half-dollars into the economy

Of course, coin machine operators don't like the half dollar, but I can live with that. As a consequence of the development of coin-operated machines not using the half-dollar & the shrinking need of the coins the mints ceased minting half-dollars in '96, but there are tons of them on hand at the mints.

Rather than Ronnie on a new dime, how about Eleanor? For one thing, her maiden name was Livingston & she like Hillary thought she was co-president.

William Haywood - 12/19/2003

Dear Dave Hulbert,

I know that your concern is humanitarian, but because of his machinations in the 1980s 30,000 Nicaraguans never had the chance to make it to the age of 92.

William Haywood

David Hulbert - 12/18/2003

At 92--and now in a horrible state of mental decay-the ex-president is no longer able to dress or feed himself-much less appear in some courtroom,or at some tribunal.

I believe in the name of humanity and common sense that Ronald Reagan's last days should be left to himself and his family.He hasn't many of those days left.

David Hulbert - 12/18/2003

I can see the future dime now.Above the stately profile of the good natured Ronald Reagan an inscription:'In Supply Side Economics We Trust'.

AnotherNYGuy - 12/18/2003

I agree with you. While I personally feel that Reagan was a great president, I too feel that no living person should be on our coinage. I also agee that waiting a judicious amount of time (maybe 25 years rather than 50) would put enough distance from current politics to correctly assess the true impact that a politician had on history. Immediately putting Roosevelt and Kennedy on coins was a mistake!

Jerry West - 12/18/2003

Actually, I think that the Ike dollar was replaced by the Susan B. Anthony one, remember it? So Ike would not be on a current coin unless they either brought it back or never stopped minting it.

I vote with CRAM, no people on the coins, just national scenes and symbols. Liberty used to be pretty popular on the coinage, nickel, dime, quarter, half buck, silver dollars, let's bring her back.

Steve - 12/17/2003

It is a shame how eager we are as a nation to forget the past so quickly. While change in society is inevitable (& necessary), this is absolutely ludicrous. The Reagan Administration did do some good things for the United States, but it also did some very bad things. Government spending, particularly on useless military/defense projects, was out of control. Unemployment was severe, yet many upper class taxpayers benefited from the Administration's policies. Of course, Reagan's legacy is as the President who "defeated" communism - despite the fact it crumpled from with in. So what did he do that would deserve such recognition? On the other hand, FDR's Adminstration only did two things - saw the country through the Depression and guided it through the majority of World War Two. I guess, though, those aren't enough to merit eternal gratitude.

Josh Greenland - 12/17/2003

Good post. I concur.

Ken Melvin - 12/16/2003

They should rename the USS Missouri to the USS Ronnie

William Haywood - 12/16/2003

If you believe that history matters, then this is an important debate. Gordon makes the important point that conservatives are not content with simply laying claim to every branch of the US government. They also want to mark our public spaces with their personal, ideological heroes, and they want to bend history in praise of "their" history and "their" contemporary agendas.

Reagan is one of the worst presidents in recent US history, only exceded by Bush II in the amount of damage that he did to the United States. Asside from being a terrible president, he is an international war criminal.

I do not make the accusation lightly. His Contra War in Nicaragua was a violation of both US law and international law. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans died in Reagan's personal war in Central America. The Sandanistas were a popular party and they won sever popular elections legitimizing their leadership of the nation. Reagan ignored this and unleashed his mercenary thugs on Nicaragua.

I dream of one day seeing Ronald Reagan and Oliver North on trial in Nicaragua for their crimes.

William Haywood

Steve BRody - 12/15/2003

Actually, Ike has a coin, also. He's on the silver dollar

That being said, I really don't care if they put Reagan on the dime or not. I think he was a great Pres, but I don't think he would care one whit about being on the dime.

Cram - 12/15/2003

I realized after my last post that JFK is, of course, on a coin, but I would gladly sooner get rid of him than FDR.

(PS I will forgive anyone for no longer listening to what I say, given the rather stupid oversight).

Cram - 12/15/2003

I find this entire debate to be silly. Let us assume that Reagan was a good President (an opinion many will argue as fact, depending on the variables you choose to look at). How did his administration dramatically alter the nature of the executive in our government? How did Reagan change the role of the Presidency, as TR, Washington, Lincoln, or FDR had?

In other words, aside from policy, and aside from the geopolitical event of the collapse of the Soviet Union, how did the Reagan presidency transform America? I like JFK and I like Ike, but neither of them did anything that will have long range implications for our system of government, despite several important events in their presidency (such as the Cuban missile crisis, or the Korean War). Heck, even George W. Bush did more to reorganize the federal government and initiate a war on terror.

If you are going to put another president on a coin, how about Madison, or Wilson?

If this is how our monetary system is now to be decided, based on presidents whose policies we like or dislike in a partisan winner-take-all system where whoever controls the government gets to do whatever they like, I for one would support eliminating ALL presidents from coins completely and replacing them with some national symbols (assuming, of course, that the Republican Congress doesn’t decide to use the elephant).

Nemo - 12/15/2003

I realize Reagan's illness has put an end to his public career, but he is still alive and should not be honored on any coin (or paper money or stamp)while he lives as it would set a bad precedent for the future. In fact, in future let's not honor anyone who hasn't been dead for at least 50 years on money (stamps are a different story). Putting FDR on the dime and JFK on the half dollar in the year after their deaths are bad precedents that should not be followed.