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Plan for State-Minted Quarters Runs Against Tradition

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion editor

Excuse me - you have a quarter? No, not for me; I want you to take a look at it. One side portrays a bust of George Washington, the other shows an eagle under the usual motto, "E Pluribus Unum."

Take a good look, because you may not be seeing much of this quarter anymore. The Department of Treasury has just completed a specially commissioned study on the concept of letting the individual states design their own "commemorative" quarters. The state-designed quarters would be minted by the U.S.; five new quarter designs would appear each year, starting in 1999. And yes, according to wire service reports, the commemorative designs would be in actual circulation, just like the quarters in your pocket.

The whole project is part of the 50 States Commemorative Coin Program Act, sponsored inCongress last year by Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del. The legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton. On August 1, Secretary of the Treasury Robert E. Rubin gave his assent to the program's inception, pending legislation designating the review process for the new coins' designs. Thus it appears that, like it or not, we'll have the new quarters within a couple of years.

The whole situation is fraught with irony. For one, the federal government was born in part because of the country's need for a central mint. Prior to the establishment of a national currency, the states had perpetrated such numismatic monstrosities as the three-dollar bill featuring Santa Claus on his sleigh.

Unfortunately, uniformity in national coinage did not improve its appearance. In the case of the quarter, the national mint struggled with various awful designs for over 150 years. Ironically, the current quarter's design was intended as a one-year commemorative issue in honor of the 200th anniversary of Washington's birth. But the design it replaced, called Standing Liberty, was so universally despised that rather than return to it, Treasury officials decided to stick with Washington. That was in 1932.

The story of the 1932 Washington commemorative (the version now in circulation) is even more bizarre. To come up with a design, the National Fine Arts Commission held a contest. The winning entry, portraying Washington on one side and an eagle on the other, was sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser. Unfortunately, the Republicans were in power at the time; Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon vetoed Fraser's design on the grounds that she was a woman. He commissioned John Flanagan to do the job instead. Although the Fine Arts Commission deemed the Flanagan quarter "unacceptable," Mellon decided to run with it anyway.

Flanagan's work, as you may have noticed, isn't very flattering to the first president. Washington was a strong, physically powerful man - he was perhaps the most masculine president with the exception of T.R. Yet Flanagan's rendition makes him look about as male as Martha. This is all the more ironic considering the circumstances of Flanagan's commissioning. Mellon had rejected a woman's design in favor of one that portrayed Washington as a woman.

The Mint Act of 1792, which governs currency designs, provides that only Congress shall have the authority to change the design of coins. However, the law makes the exception that the Department of Treasury may alter a design if it has been minted for 25 years without alteration. If that's so, why hasn't the Department of Treasury intervened in the case of the quarter?

It turns out that after spending its first 150 years turning out hundreds of coin redesigns (most of them ugly), the Department of Treasury abruptly changed its tune. Now coin redesigns are officially frowned upon. The reason is that designs seem to acquire merit more through nostalgia than beauty. The Treasury Department whispering campaign against the penny has failed thus far, by Treasury's own admission, largely because of national penny nostalgia.

Thus it was with considerable reluctance that Secretary Rubin committed to supporting the 50 state commemorative quarter this month. Rubin pointed out that his study found "a large percentage of people who are indifferent to the program or are unfavorably disposed toward it." And rightly so.

Few would argue in favor of the quarter's current design. But is circulating 50 new quarter designs an improvement? Worse, one shudders at the thought of what those new, state-designed quarters will portray. Who in Congress will want to reject South Carolina's Strom Thurmond quarter? Come to think of it, how will I feel about having Strom Thurmond in my pocket? Not good, that's for sure.

For many states, the choice of venerable person will be divisive in itself. Is a political leader the appropriate symbol for a state? Or would a sports figure be more appropriate? What if all 50 states choose white men for the front side -will the mint intervene in the interest of diversity? And what if one state lays claim a hero of another? Montana may want Chief Joseph, but wasn't he really from Idaho?

All these controversies may make our coin purses too hot to handle. Rather than live with the new state-designed monstrosities, an angered public might chuck their new commemorative quarters across the Potomac to the politicians who conjured them up in the first place.

The upshot is that the legacy of George Washington may come out ahead after all.