Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Obama Gets a Nickel?

Which White Guy Should Obama Replace When We Honor Him on Our Currency?  By Ben Mathis-Lilley April 20 2016

 The future? Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by U.S. Mint, Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images.

In a triumph of common sense, historical awareness, and crazed enthusiasm for a Broadway rap musical, the Treasury Department has announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, which will void a previous decision to take Alexander "Hamilton" Hamilton off the $10. 

(Update, 4:45 p.m.: Treasury says there will still be some sort of image of Jackson on the back of the bill.) This is great news, and it brings up another important question: Which historical figure should our current president, Barack Hussein Obama, replace when we honor his legacy by putting him on an item of currency?

That Obama is the United States' most admirable, accomplished modern president is a widely acknowledged fact, of course, but it seems possible that controversy might develop if he replaces another equally beloved figure. Here's who's currently on our coins and bills:
  • Penny: Abraham Lincoln
  • Nickel: Thomas Jefferson
  • Dime: FDR
  • Quarter: George Washington
  • Half-dollar: JFK
  • Dollar: George Washington
  • $2 bill: Thomas Jefferson
  • $5: Lincoln
  • $10: Hamilton
  • $20: Tubman replacing Jackson 
  • $50: Ulysses S. Grant
  • $100: Benjamin Franklin
The most obvious candidates for replacement would seem to be Grant and JFK, whose historic import is not quite as weighty as that of the others on the list. If we're removing someone from the currency, though, it probably makes sense to take off a slave owner rather than an individual like Kennedy who, for all his faults, did not perpetuate the system of owning human beings as property for purposes of unpaid labor. On that note, we should probably also continue to honor Grant, whose support for civil rights during Reconstruction was for many years unjustly maligned because of the influence of white Southern revisionists.

So who does that leave? I would suggest it leaves Thomas Jefferson, who—in addition to having owned slaves and held demeaning views about racial "inferiority"—is already on two items of currency. To respect the positive elements of Jefferson's legacy, let's leave him on the $2, giving the nickel over to the first black president. And, while we're at it, how about we make a symbolic statement about George Washington's own mixed legacy by leaving him on the dollar but reserving the quarter for the first female president, Hillary Clinton?


Personally, I’d give him the half-dollar.  Or, in the words of Harold Kingsberg: 

There have been several presidents over the years who had the advantages JFK did. Warren G. Harding, for example, was a wealthy man everyone thought "looked presidential." He's now viewed as one of the worst, if not the worst president in US history. Similarly, not all assassinated American presidents are still beloved - James Garfield isn't really very well remembered at all.

There are three reasons JFK has a generally positive image in American history.

1) The Cuban Missile Crisis. There have been few incidents in world history that have brought us to full-scale nuclear war than the Cuban Missile Crisis, and certainly none as famous. The situation had every reason to blow up, and miraculously ended without a nuclear winter. Kennedy's decisions during those 13 days had much to do with why there wasn't a nuclear holocaust.

2) He was young, handsome and charismatic. In a way, he was the embodiment of a new generation. People still remember that sort of thing fifty years on, particularly when the man in question doesn't age out of being that embodiment.

3) He had three people looking after his posthumous reputation. Lyndon Johnson might not have been Kennedy's friend - and he might have gotten along with Bobby Kennedy like fire and petrol - but he would subsequently get passed many of the initiatives that Kennedy had attached himself to. The civil rights cause got furthered more because of Johnson than Kennedy, but the idea that it was Kennedy who had set the tone was something that even Johnson didn't deny. Bobby Kennedy also beefed up his brother's legacy in history. But the big one from the perspective of public policy was JFK's wife, Jackie Kennedy.

People loved JFK, but they went nuts over Jackie. Jackie was determined to protect her husband's legacy - it's largely her doing that JFK's tenure in office has been nicknamed "Camelot," for example. She set the tone, the nation listened.

(Oh, and for what it's worth, while Bay of Pigs was a fiasco, it was mostly planned during Eisenhower's tenure. JFK did give the go-ahead, so he does bear responsibility for it, but it mostly wasn't his operation. Not that I think very much of JFK's presidency - I think it's mostly a Baby Boomer thing to be enchanted by the man, and I was born after that generation.)

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