Columns » Bob Lancaster

Bumping the sot


The Reagan enthusiasts who want to put the Gipper's picture on our money have advocated redecoration of just about every denomination except the obvious one. That would be the $50 bill, which for the moment bears the likeness of U.S. Grant, the dour Civil War general and 18th president. I sort of like ol' Grant - did you know he got drunk at Appomattox and tried to surrender to Lee, and would have, if his teetotaler adjutant, and Lee himself, hadn't intervened? - but concede that most people in these smug, sanctimonious times would consider a Reagan-for-Grant swap to be an overall tonal improvement. They would give Reagan an edge in "character," God help us. The practicalities also favor Reagan on the fifty. He wasn't a drunk. He could handle a horse comparably. His twilight Alzheimer's was even more redemptive of a pisspoor presidency than Grant's ghastly stomach cancer was. He had a hit monkey movie, and it wasn't held against him that the monkey came closer to an Oscar nomination. The one and the five seem to be out of range for obvious reasons - I mean not even George Will or that Coulter harpy would elevate Reagan over Washington and Lincoln, would they? … or would they? … well, maybe they would, certainly they would, the latter surely having already enrolled them both in her dossier of traitors, so never mind - and I think the $10 and the $20 are unlikely, too. Grant and Reagan were both Republicans, so Democrats couldn't complain that the bumping on the fifty was partisan, as they seem poised to do if the designated replacee is Andrew Jackson on the twenty. Also, Jackson kept a sharp watch for slights, and there'd be hell to pay in the presidential TransJordan if he were scrapped in favor of one he regarded as a mere minstrel. Ghost duels on sandbars in the Twilight Zone. One of the TV networks, pondering a congressional proposal to put Reagan rather on the $10 bill in place of Alexander Hamilton, identified Hamilton, too, as a Republican, which he wasn't, of course, except in the important sense that he thought up the enduring guiding principle of the Republican Party: that the government should partner with the rich, and the two of them look out for one another, allowing the poor tag-along sustenance on the trickle-down. So it's hard to imagine the GOP hard-right agreeing to spurn so admired an ancestor when there's legal tender aplenty out there to Republicanize bearing repulsive Democratic likenesses from Jefferson's to JFK's. Hamilton isn't without drawbacks here, however. There is the matter of his prickly intelligence, a suspicious commodity in 21st Century GOP circles where an amiable chuckle-headed dumbassedness as personified by Harding, Ford, Reagan and W. Bush is much admired, is become the ideal. Problem 2 for Hamilton is that he wasn't FROM anywhere. Because Jackson was from Tennessee, even the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, a fellow Tennessean, took his part against Reagan in the current money-adornment competition. But Hamilton was born on one of the little-known Caribbean islands with zero political clout, and if he came to be an adopted son of New York , well, New York then as now was not a place that carried much political weight. Its politicians were all glamor and no grit. Even TR himself, for all the huff, was more softspokenness than big stick. Problem 3 for Hamilton is that he was a bastard. You can't blame a bastard for being a bastard, of course, but you don't have to put one of the sons-a-bitches on your money, either. Or leave him on there if a more legitimate contender (in the strictest sense) comes along. A bastard might be the most honorable man of his time - and Hamilton almost certainly was that - but his bastardy raises family-values red flags in the very precincts that the present-day GOP doesn't want them raised in. In sum, considering the sudden brainless enthusiasm for glorifying all things Gip, Hamilton and Ben Franklin both might be in trouble. Who'd be surprised after last week's hosannafest, by a move to dump them both, off sawbuck and C-spot, in favor of Reagan? Shouldn't the singlehanded conquerer of Communism also supplant those mere women now taking up space on those misshapen metal dollars? And how is it that George Washington, great American though he was, gets to hog the most popular denomination of both coin and folding money? One other thought about Grant is how he got to the front of the line for monetary immortalizing ahead of some of the other patient worthies - for instance, Theodore Roosevelt, Daniel Webster, Patrick Henry, Daniel Boone, Mark Twain. And how come we haven't already replaced his $50 picture with Harry Truman's? Or Martin Luther King's? No longer printed are the $500 bill with William McKinley on it, the $1000 bill with Grover Cleveland on it, the $5,000 bill with James Madison on it, the $10,000 with Salmon P. Chase on it, the $100,000 bill with Woodrow Wilson on it. A tightwad Democrat on a $100,000 bill?-Go figure. And speaking of bastards, Salmon P. Chase was as sorry a human being as this country has produced. Who did he have to salmon to get his mug in there?

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