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A Tricky, Sticky Situation : What is an American icon? Elvis? A mushroom cloud? That’s a decision for the Stamp Advisory Committee.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s time again for the ultimate test of what’s in and what’s out. Early next month, behind closed doors, the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee will meet here to discuss who and what should appear on that singular place of national honor--a U.S. postage stamp.

The issues are sticky. What about popular but tainted? Think Elvis stamp, with its $36 million in revenue last year--although other drug-using singers (Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin) were rejected.

What about historic but tainted? Think mushroom cloud, an image on a stamp scheduled for 1995 that the Postal Service agreed to withdraw on Wednesday.

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These are difficult days in the increasingly difficult business of minting American icons.

“It is a burden, no doubt about it,” says John Foxworth Jr., the auto industry executive who chaired the World War II subcommittee that in the late 1980s chose a picture of an atomic blast for a stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“We recognized the atomic bomb would be controversial, that some people would object. But we just didn’t feel we could represent the end of World War II without depicting the event that ended the war,” says Foxworth, who retired from the group in 1990.

Plenty of people, from Japanese officials to the U.S. State Department, disagreed.

President Clinton, who last month pressured the Postal Service into reinstating a Madonna and Child Christmas stamp after a national squawk about its discontinuance, also prevailed in the matter of the bomb stamp. The White House did not object to commemorating the bombings, but the artwork depicting the nuclear mushroom cloud was a poor choice, said Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers.

The Postal Service will substitute a stamp with a picture of Harry S. Truman announcing the end of the war.

These controversies have raised provocative questions for the Stamp Advisory Committee and the country: Just who or what is an American icon?

There are some rules. A subject can’t be commercial. It must have broad national appeal. It can’t be a living person. The subject must be American, or at least American-related. It shouldn’t be religious (with the exception, it appears, of Madonnas). Major anniversaries and events, such as wars and statehood, can be commemorated only every 50 years.

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Here’s a quick look at recent decisions.

Richard Nixon? In. All Presidents get a stamp the year after their deaths, even the ones who quit. (Other people have to be dead for at least 10 years.)

Marilyn Monroe? In. The stamp, due out next year, is expected to be a big seller.

John Lennon? Out. (He was British.)

Annie Oakley? In, finally, after 10 years of tireless lobbying by one of her descendants.

Hanukkah? Out--again--to the dismay of a Marietta, Ga., plastics engineer who has been writing to the committee for years championing a stamp for the Jewish Festival of Lights.

Free Enterprise? Out. A swell idea, but how do you draw it?

No decision is final. The 15 members of the Stamp Advisory Committee--artists, scholars, business executives, marketers, all with an interest in philately--can always decide to approve Lennon, Hanukkah or Free Enterprise at a later date.

The committee, chosen by the postmaster general, does its national duty for expenses and a small stipend. The current group includes actor Karl Malden, sports figure Richard (Digger) Phelps and Los Angeles designer Michael Brock. Among former members are author James Michener and actor Ernest Borgnine.

Four times a year, the group meets for two days in a conference room at U.S. Postal Service headquarters. Working several years ahead of when a stamp is actually issued, members pore over an agenda that postal officials cull from thousands of submissions from groups and individuals.

As the Postal Service moves toward hip, contemporary and socially inclusive, the chance of an average American’s hero, passion or ancestor appearing on a U.S. postage stamp has skyrocketed.

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“You’re right up there with George Washington,” says committee chair Virginia Noelke, a professor of history at Angelo State University in Texas.

Some of the new George Washingtons include Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman aviator and Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, a Confederate nurse who fed soldiers her famous chicken soup.

Panel members say there isn’t a subject that doesn’t surface in the requests--Shaker chairs, fishbowls, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, somebody’s grandmother. Can your grandmother make it? Possibly.

“What did your grandmother do?” asks 10-year stamp panel member Phelps, the former Notre Dame basketball coach. “If your grandmother did something great in her own neighborhood, she probably won’t make it. But that submission could spark an idea. There might be a groundswell of people whose grandmothers did great things in their neighborhoods, and then we might look at the idea of grandmothers in general. We try to reflect what’s going on.”

The committee is not without its critics. “With their need to be politically correct, they’re ending up with all these obscure people that John Q. Public has never heard of,” says Michael Laurence, editor of Linn’s Stamp News, the country’s largest stamp publication. “George Washington hasn’t been on a stamp in 10 years. Some of the old subjects my constituency longs for have been jettisoned.”

Laurence and some other stamp experts say the committee is really a political buffer between stamp hopefuls and the Postal Service. “You can bet that of those thousands of submissions the committee gets each year, a lot of them are already in the works by the Postal Service marketing department,” Laurence says.

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The committee says it isn’t so. “We look at everything,” says panel member Mary Ann Owens, an international stamp show judge from Brooklyn.

While the stamp group sorts through thousands of submissions for about 50 to 100 annual spots, final approval belongs to the postmaster general.

The President pushes a stamp agenda by pressuring the postmaster general. “Once, President (Ronald) Reagan wanted a Hispanic veterans stamp. He wanted the Hispanic vote,” Phelps says. “Our view was, if you do one group of vets, you have to do every other group--Irish, Italian, you name it.

“So we said no.” But the decision came down on the President’s side.

Of the White House victory on the atomic bomb stamp, “I’m not surprised. There certainly are two sides to the issue,” says committee chairwoman Noelke. “Ultimately it’s the postmaster general’s call. He cares what the President thinks as have all postmasters general.”

In the end, what is retained in the national memory may have very little to do with what is commemorated by the Postal Service. As with Mozart and Salieri, time--not a committee--will tell.

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