April 07, 2020

The U.S. Department of the Treasury may be one of the stodgier bureaucracies, but somebody down there has a delicious sense of humor. Or a wicked mean streak.

Treasury is about to mint a new line of quarters boosting every one of our grand and glorious states. George Washington keeps his rightful place on the heads side, but the bald eagle on tails will give way to a tiny representation of a person, place or thing that makes each of the fabulous 50 so darned splendid. Beginning next year, five states go at a time, in order of admission to the Union, which means Maine’s two bits will start disappearing behind sofa cushions in 2003.

Each state gets to design its own coin and the rules — at first glance — seem simple: No head-and-shoulders image of a person (so it’s clear the Father of our Country is heads); no designs that are “frivolous or inappropriate.”

There’s the rub, given that Maine’s two recent attempts, just last year, at self-commemoration show it to be a state with an especial knack for the frivolous and inappropriate.

Remember the license plate fiasco? Picking a replacement for the suddenly reviled lobster was going to be so easy: A legislative committee would consider the most promising candidates, engage in thoughtful debate, make its choice (eventually, the chickadee) and be done with it. The process would bring the state together through a symbol of a shared heritage.

Instead, frivolity tinged with rancor ruled. Every critter that ever set foot, paw, hoof, fin or feeler anywhere in Maine had its constituency, as did physical features from Mt. Katahdin to the satellite dish. A Bangorite of no little fame in the literary world suggested that a pregnant teen smoking a cigarette best represented Maine, and that wasn’t even the most inflammatory suggestion offered.

For inappropriate, look no further than the attempt in Portland/South Portland to name the new bridge linking those two dynamic communities. Politically correct burghers decided right off that the span would not be named after a person, living or dead, lest one resident’s hero be another’s bum. In the end, they chose Casco Bay, which, like the Ganges and Lake Titicaca, has the distinction of being a body of water over which the new bridge does not pass.

Here’s the best part. Treasury says the new coins will save taxpayers some $5 billion because folks will hang on to these mass-produced collectors items instead of spending them. Assuming the nation has the sugar jar/dresser drawer capacity to hold 20 billion of these coins, it should be a great relief to international finance markets, long concerned about this country’s low savings rate, to know that Americans are salting away the quarters.

What to do? Fish a quarter out of your pocket. Turn it over. There’s the answer — the bald eagle. See how it fits, how the outspread wings echo the overall shape, how E Pluribus Unum snuggles so nicely atop his head? Why tinker with perfection?

When Maine’s turn comes to design its quarter, Maine first should reflect upon its recent, embarrassing past. Then, Maine should say: “We’ll stick with the eagle. We see no need to supplant the symbol of our nation, a symbol for which brave men and women have fought and died, with some cheesy tourism gimmick. We are a better people than that.” Or, Maine could once again squabble over pine cone tassles and lighthouses. It’s a tossup. Call it in the air.

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