You've got to love Nancy Reagan for the steadfast way she guards her husband's legacy against opportunistic political poachers.
The most recent example is her quick rejection of the boneheaded partisan move by nearly 90 congressional Republicans who signed on to a bill to have Ronald Reagan replace Franklin Delano Roosevelt's profile on the dime. "I do not support this proposal, and I'm certain Ronnie would not," was her no-nonsense reply.
Of course her husband would agree. His father had a job in Roosevelt's New Deal that saved their family and millions of others from starvation during the Great Depression. That's why Ronald Reagan voted for Roosevelt and became an active Democrat. Even after his conservative transformation, Reagan often insisted that he never left the party of Roosevelt but rather that the Democratic Party changed over the years and left him.
Nancy Reagan, the daughter of a successful physician, did not suffer through the Depression years, but this is a classy lady not given to fads.
"When our country chooses to honor a great president such as Franklin Roosevelt by placing his likeness on our currency, it would be wrong to remove him and replace him with another," she said. "It is my hope that the proposed legislation will be withdrawn."
What made this right-wing political ploy particularly objectionable was that the dime commemoration, a year after FDR's death, was in honor of the March of Dimes' support of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which Roosevelt founded in 1938. In the foundation's first year, more than 2.6 million dimes were mailed to the White House in what was to become one of the great private charity efforts. It led to the eventual eradication of polio, which Roosevelt had.
Roosevelt picked the dime as the fund-raising device because he felt that everyone could afford to make at least that contribution. Like the AIDS epidemic, polio was a pervasive plague throughout the world. In a message now echoed in AIDS fund-raising, Roosevelt viewed the fight against polio as a means of cultivating a greater awareness of our common humanity.
A Kansas City Star article reviewing this history quoted Roosevelt on the annual dances held on his birthday to raise funds, and of the dime collections: "In sending a dime ... and in dancing that others may walk, we the people are striking a powerful blow in defense of American freedom and human decency. For the answer to class hatred, race hatred [and] ... religious hatred is the free expression of our love of our fellow man."
Not only did Roosevelt lead us against Hitler's fascism, he also invigorated the populace, during the Depression and war, with the notion that responsibility for the commonweal be met by both the private and public sectors.
It is sad that Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who initiated the campaign to get FDR off the dime, should dismiss him as simply a "liberal icon" who must be replaced with Reagan, "the conservative icon." That diminishes both presidents, who had leadership styles more complex than Souder's simplistic labels can hold.
Fortunately, there are still some Republicans who can think outside of that tiny partisan box. An example is Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in his autobiography makes clear that he endorses much of what has come to be known as the Reagan Revolution. But Powell cautions:
"Because I express these beliefs, some people have rushed to hang a Republican label around my neck. I am not, however, knee-jerk anti-government. I was born a New Deal, Depression-era kid. Franklin Roosevelt was a hero in my boyhood home. Government helped my parents by providing cheap public subway systems so that they could get to work, and public schools for their children, and protection under the law to make sure that labor was not exploited...I received a free college education because New York taxed its citizens to make this investment in the sons and daughters of immigrants and the working class."
I was in Powell's class at the City College of New York and can attest that Roosevelt was a hero in all our classmates' homes, just as he had been in Reagan's. That shared memory of Roosevelt's immense contribution to this nation ought to be reason enough for not trying to steal FDR's dime.
Robert Scheer is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a contributing editor for The Nation. Public Eye, which usually appears in this space, will return next week.
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