Reagan on the $50? Not yet

Whether you revere or revile Ronald Reagan, putting the Gipper’s face on the $50 bill, as a North Carolina congressman advocates, is a bad idea -- though not quite as outlandish as the perennial proposal to carve the 40th president’s visage into Mt. Rushmore.

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, a (surprise!) Republican, says Reagan should be substituted for Ulysses S. Grant “because every generation needs its own heroes.” We’re not sure what generation he’s referring to: the World War II “Greatest Generation,” of which Reagan was a member; the generation that came of age in the 1980s, when he served as president; or the current younger generation, for whom he is a dimly perceived historical figure. But ultimately, it’s not the generational aspect of McHenry’s pitch that is bothersome. It’s the notion that Reagan is a hero.

Certainly he is to conservatives, supply-siders and those who share his belief that government is the problem, not the solution. There are also those who credit Reagan with single-handedly bringing about the implosion of what he called the “evil empire.” But others, including some historians as well as ordinary citizens, would disagree. It’s simply too early for a consensus to form about either his foreign or domestic policies, though even most Democrats would acknowledge him as the Great Communicator.

If Reagan were to supplant Grant, he would be a jarringly recent addition to a roster of past presidents (and other historic figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton). In that event, the presidents on paper currency would be: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Jackson, Reagan, McKinley, Cleveland, Madison and Wilson. As they would say on “Sesame Street,” one of these men is not like the others -- i.e., long dead. (It’s easier and faster for presidents to be memorialized on coins. The Franklin D. Roosevelt dime was released within a year of his death in 1945, and the John F. Kennedy half-dollar four months after Kennedy’s assassination. Reagan eventually will appear on a dollar coin as part of a series commemorating all the presidents.)

Reagan’s name already graces -- or disgraces, depending on your point of view -- the former Washington National Airport and an international trade center on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s premature to put his genial countenance on paper money. Reagan, whose “aw shucks” modesty was one of his more endearing qualities, would probably agree.