Ronald Reagan and the Dangers of a Cult of Personality

June 10, 2004 Thursday

HEADLINE: Replacing Giants On Currency Is A Bill Too Far

As the nation mourns the death of Ronald Reagan, there are some who are intent on marking his passing with more than heartfelt tributes and tears. A massive memorial on the Mall and other projects are currently being proposed to immortalize this conservative icon. However, two proposals appear to be moving quickly through the halls of Congress: One would replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, while the other would replace Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the dime.

The move to bump Hamilton and Roosevelt raises serious historical and symbolic questions – but few of these questions are likely to be discussed, let alone answered, during this period of mourning. While many Americans fiercely opposed Reagan and his policies, most of these critics have remained silent in deference to their fellow citizens who embraced Reagan as a political revolutionary.

The problem is that tossing great leaders such as Hamilton and Roosevelt off our currency risks turning a “celebration of life” into a cult of personality. There is no question that Ronald Reagan deserves memorials and praise. However, since he left office, the appetite for memorials among his disciples has been insatiable.

In Washington, one will soon be able to move from Reagan memorial to Reagan memorial without touching non-Reagified ground. There is a move to give Reagan a memorial on the Mall akin to Abraham Lincoln’s, and to rename the Pentagon after the president. Congress has already built a $338 million, 3.1-million-square-foot complex named for Reagan. And Washington National Airport is now named after Reagan – despite the fact that, like the city, it already carried the name of our first president. There is a mountain in New Hampshire, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, and thousands of other “legacy” memorials already in existence. Members are also pushing to squeeze Reagan onto Mount Rushmore.

Hamilton and Roosevelt deserve better. A Revolutionary War figure and one of the central framers of the Constitution, Hamilton should be viewed as safe from the passing fortunes and popularity of politics. Ironically, Hamilton wrote a great deal in the Federalist Papers about the power and dangers of factions in politics and the “arts of designing men” in the use of factional politics. On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Hamilton’s death, the removal of this Framer from the $10 would be an affront to our history and his legacy.

Roosevelt, ironically, may only be saved by the fact that Reagan supporters view the dime as too insignificant a platform for their icon’s image. It is the declining use of the dime – not the accomplishments of this great president – that has caused hesitation. Sure, Roosevelt pulled the country out of the Great Depression and saved the world from fascism. But what has he done for us lately?

One possibility would be to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill. Jackson is hardly a figure worthy of such an honor. Where the others did little good, Jackson did much harm. After the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson exercised dictatorial powers and engaged in outrageous attacks on his critics. He later openly defied the Supreme Court and, in open violation of the Constitution, ordered the eviction of the Cherokees from their land – an act that led to the infamous “trail of tears” and would be defined as a crime against humanity today.

However, the question is less whether Jackson could be removed on historical grounds, but whether Reagan deserves this honor more than other historical figures do. Such leaders as George Mason and John Adams are not to be found on our currency. Missing also are jurists such as Chief Justice John Marshall or Justices Louis Brandeis or Oliver Wendell Holmes. Thomas Jefferson got stuck with the $2 bill while James Madison – perhaps the most important constitutional framer – has a bill that is no longer in circulation (the $5,000 note).

What Framers such as Hamilton lack is any lobby or constituency beyond a few endomorphic academic geeks. Reagan has an actual committee – the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project – that spends all of its time jawboning to get things named after Reagan. The project is committed to creating major Reagan memorials in all of the 3,067 counties in the country.

The current effort to replace Hamilton and Roosevelt proves the need for a moratorium on any government memorial to any president for 25 years after his death. There is already such a moratorium for Mall memorials, which some members are now seeking to override. It was a law signed in 1986 – by Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s support for this moratorium should be extended to cover all government memorials. That would be the truest testament to his legacy.

Ultimately, memories fade even for Framers and presidents like Roosevelt. The great E.Y. Harburg wrote a song during Roosevelt’s life that spoke of such fading memories of the accomplishments of prior generations. It is a song that could well have been written for this Congress: “Once I built a railroad/ I made it run/ I made it run against time/ Once I built a railroad/ Now it’s gone/ Brother can you spare a dime?”

Whether Congress will spare the dime or the $10 bill is very much in doubt, particularly given the current frenzy among Members to outdo each other in proposing Reagan memorials. Perhaps it is too much to expect Members to have an appreciation of the contributions of past leaders, but they ought to have enough judgment to know that Reagan would have been the last man to relish the idea of building a memorial atop the rubble of his predecessors.