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It's All About the Jeffersons

By Patty Wetli

This new Era of Austerity has all the markings of a Nanosecond of Austerity, one where everybody talks about cutting back while secretly praying for the stock market to just hurry up and rebound already, so we can get back to conspicuously consuming.

And yet, perhaps some good will come out of the "you-say-recession-I-say-depression" after all. Coins have suddenly enjoyed a resurgent popularity. What greater proof do you need than a Taco Bell commercial praising the value of the dime (it's all about the Roosevelts). Can the nickel, which was headed for extinction, be far behind in enjoying its own 15 minutes of fame?

The attention couldn't come at a more fortuitous juncture. Along with the penny, the nickel has been put on notice. New Zealand has already eliminated its five-cent piece, and Canada is considering following suit. In the U.S., each nickel costs nearly 10 cents to produce. Some might call that a waste of money.

What would Thomas Jefferson do?

Jefferson's profile has been featured on the nickel for more than 70 years. Along with Abe Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and George Washington, he makes up the quartet of noble visages that grace our most common coins. It's a far greater recognition than, say, having one's mug plastered on a stamp, where the bar has been set considerably lower and the company includes Lyndon Johnson and R2-D2.

But what happens should the coins disappear? Barring a daily reminder, will we gradually lose sight of the ideals these men represent? Have we already? For answers, look no further than the nickel.

The Jefferson hadn't received a makeover since it was introduced in 1938 to replace the Buffalo; then suddenly, between 2005 and 2006, like some common Beverly Hills housewife, it received not one, but two facelifts. It's not so much the why that troubles me - I get that the more buzz the Mint creates, the more it can con coin collectors into buying new releases, the more it can afford to keep on manufacturing nickels - as it is the message these changes convey.

According to the Mint, the latest incarnation of the nickel is the first U.S. coin to feature an image of a president facing forward. In the change business, that kind of progress merits a press release and is akin to Detroit engineering a fuel-efficient car. But the real news, for my money, is the hair. In his original profile, Jefferson sported the sort of powdered wig that grade school textbooks and costume dramas have long assured us were standard issue for the Colonial Era. Jefferson 2.0 has bangs. Bangs.

Where the old Jefferson appeared authoritative, intellectual and, dare I say, a tad bit regal, the new Jefferson has all the gravitas of a middle-aged man in denial about his receding hairline. Never mind that the bangs make a poor fashion statement, and possibly also a historically inaccurate one, what they symbolize is even scarier: they're meant to humanize the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, the bangs telegraph, is the kind of guy we'd all like to sit down and have a beer with.

Sadly, it seems not only has this become the criteria by which we select our current presidents, but also one we wish to retroactively impose upon the Founding Fathers. Jefferson himself might not take offense. He once noted, "[Some] ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human." He was, perhaps, slightly uncomfortable being viewed as a sort of god. But that doesn't mean we have to demote him to the level of Casual Friday.

The thing I've often wondered about Jefferson, Washington, Madison, et al, is, my apologies to Simon & Garfunkel, "Where have you gone James Monroe? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Or, in less lyrical terms, how is it that at the birth of the United States, when the population was a fraction of what it is today, there were so many brilliant minds engaged in creating and running our country? And so few since?

Pause for a moment and try to name all the U.S. presidents. Without consulting Wikipedia.

If you're like me, the first that sprang to mind were the Founders. Next come the crop from the most recent past, if only because their funerals are televised from time to time. Everyone in between, with a few notable exceptions like Lincoln and the Roosevelts, is a black hole of mediocrity. Most of them, unlike R2-D2, fail to even past the postage test. (If you've actually been playing along, here's my gift to you: Chester Arthur.)

True greatness, it would seem, is in short supply.

Every few years or so, someone will float a proposal that the foursome on Mt. Rushmore (which swaps the dime-store Roosevelt for another) ought to be expanded or otherwise altered to include Ronald Reagan, or an even more recent Commander-in-Chief (who, like Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort, shall not be named). I've been to Mt. Rushmore, and having seen Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," I was expecting to have the freedom to run willy-nilly up and down (and in and out) of Honest Abe's nostrils. I did not. Personal disappointment aside, however, I have to say that the monument is an impressive site, and the existing lineup seems - pardon the pun - pretty well set in stone.

There's a permanence to carving something into rock: Before taking pickax to mountainside, what you're about to canonize had best make sense hundreds of years hence. Who, among today's pretenders, fits that bill? Or, more to the point, fits that coin?

Some time back, my husband and I were invited to a dinner party where the wine-fueled conversation turned to this very topic: Whom among contemporary figures would we consider truly great? Greatness, being defined as more than fame or fortune, achievement or success - in which case, any garden variety Nobel Prize winner or MacArthur Genius Fellow would do - but encompassing a loftier position in our collective conscience. Not surprisingly, given the level of intoxication, my companions settled on Bob Dylan.

I don't recall the precise qualifications put forth in promotion of Mr. Dylan. I do know that as the least-drunk member of our little party, my reaction was a silent, "Um... no."

I kept my opinion from the group because:

  • A) It's illegal not to worship Bob Dylan, especially now that he's received an official stamp of approval from the Pulitzer committee (but not the U.S. Postal Service).
  • B) I was the oldest person in attendance save my husband, and we all know that in our current culture, age and experience have been completely cowed by youth.
  • C) I couldn't come up with a better answer.

My husband gamely threw out Bill Gates, but the others were all Apple fans, natch. We went home depressed, not just because we own a Dell, but also because it's sad to think that greatness is passé. That the quality, much like coins and the men whose likeness they bear, has seen its day.

Clearly, the media is to blame.

Think about it: Picture someone like Thomas Edison. You can't. His invention of the light bulb revolutionized life as we know it, but I have no idea what he looked like, except I'm pretty sure he wore a powdered wig. No idea whom he was married to. Or whether he wore boxers or briefs. Now, in an admittedly apples to pomegranate comparison, picture the Dyson vacuum guy. Piece of cake. I can even conjure up audio of his accented enunciation of the word "prototype." It should come as no surprise that one of these men occupies near mythical status and the other is eminently mockable.

Where Edison holds us at remove, Dyson draws us in - that's his face in the ads, that's his name on the product - inviting intimacy. I don't fault Dyson, he's simply giving the people what they say they want. There was a time when we preferred to fix our luminaries in the firmament; now we are determined to bring them down to earth, to assure ourselves that the "stars are just like us."

Maybe Dyson wasn't the best example for this argument, but my point is, the less dignity we afford public figures and the less they afford to themselves, the less the possibility for transcendence exists. Which leads me to wonder whether greatness, to a large extent, depends on remoteness?

It's a common cliché that few artists are fully appreciated in their own era, the majority dying penniless (what will happen to that hackneyed phrase if the penny pinchers have their way?), only to have their reputation flourish posthumously and their works sell for millions at auction long after their creditors have ceased to come calling. And yet there are so many exceptions to this rule, it would scarcely seem a rule at all. The passage of time was hardly necessary for Picasso or Shakespeare, or, broadening the discussion, someone like Albert Einstein, to earn the accolades of his peers. Nor, to the contrary, has the post-mortem period done much to burnish the stature of Grover Cleveland. So there's more to the determination of greatness than historical perspective.

Physical distance would seem a greater factor. There was a time when the public had little contact with its political or cultural leaders. They occupied an almost Mt. Olympian space - a there, as opposed to here. Back in the 1780s, it would have been easy for the average citizen to imagine George Washington as a legendary figure, a great man, because technology had yet to close the geographical gap. Individuals, reduced to a fraction of their actual size, weren't continually beamed into our living rooms or onto our computer screens. So if the first George W. pronounced "nuclear" like "newk-uh-ler," none but his closest circle would have been the wiser. Today's heads of state visit an African nation, and within minutes, video of them awkwardly attempting a tribal dance is posted on YouTube, which doesn't exactly inspire respect, much less awe.

Of course, respect and awe, along with admiration, have become quaint, old-fashioned notions. We are too cynical, too ironic, and perhaps now too grown-up as a country for such innocent ideas. I look at my young nephews and the way that their father, my brother, is reflected as larger-than-life in their eyes. Daddy is strong, daddy is smart, daddy is invincible. And then one day - hopefully in the far, far distant future - the boys will take their father's measure at eye level. Then Daddy will seem weak, daddy will seem dumb, daddy will seem human. This is what happens when we view our idols at high-definition, close range - we notice flaws. It's the very moment when we realize that these "stars" really are just like us - imperfect and fallible - that they are no longer stars.

We've long since learned that George Washington had false teeth and could, in fact, tell a lie. Abe Lincoln, it seems, was likely a depressive; FDR was unable to walk without assistance and dallied with his secretary. And Jefferson? Well, Mr. Liberty-and-Justice-For-All kept slaves, took one of them as his mistress and fathered various unacknowledged children with her. Yet these revelations came decades, or in some cases centuries, after these individuals had secured their place in history and on our currency.

Our modern-day heroes are afforded no such luxury. Barack Obama has had to defend, on national television, his propensity for wearing "mom jeans." If we're not willing to let these individuals rise above the muck, how soon before they stop trying?

So while we debate the fate of the nickel, we might also debate the fate of greatness. Are there some things that once served us well, but are no longer necessary to our existence? We manage, with debit and credit cards, to get along without dollars or cents. We manage, with email and digital photos and Facebook and Skype, to stay in touch with family and friends in an increasingly mobile society. We adjust, we cope. Though, not always without consequence.

Are we similarly prepared to muddle along in a world without greatness? Should Thomas Jefferson walk among us today, would he be the "Thomas Jefferson" of the granite profile and pompadour wig? Or would we rather have him rendered diminished and small? With bangs.

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