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Replace FDR on the Dime with Reagan?

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.