Back on October 30, 2010, I announced my intention to vote for Tom Vendittelli, the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Representative from the 13th District of New York. http://www.cityofsmoke.com/archives/5585 My motives were simple (although I admit a general sympathy for political independents and insurgents of all kinds). The Establishment party opponents, Democratic Congressman Michael E. McMahon and Republican challenger Michael G. Grimm, had harassed my wife and me with up to ten telephone calls a day. Mr. Venditelli and his friends had not.
I find such interruptions extremely annoying at the best of times. I was enraged when the candidates’ volunteer callers began arguing with my wife about why she should listen to them. As I knew neither McMahon nor Grimm, I took their measure from the people who supported them. Hence Tom Vendittelli. At least his followers weren’t harassing me in my home.
I thought my readers and neighbors here in Bay Ridge, some of whom had also complained to me about the calls and the empty glossy mailings jamming their mailboxes, might join me in protesting this abuse by voting for Mr. Vendittelli. I knew nothing about him beyond the materials on his website. But Tom was clearly sincere about his libertarianism. He’d left me alone.
My neighbors apparently didn’t share my concerns. The New York State Board of Elections’ official results were: Grimm, 65,024; McMahon, 60,773; Vendittelli, 929. Out of 126,726 votes, Tom had polled less than one percent. As he noted on Facebook, “We lost by a nose.”
While my neighbors clearly disagree with me, I can only note that next year, the politicians will be back, harassing me in party games.
A neighbor talked with me over the back fence:
I live in the 13th Congressional District, which includes Staten Island and the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. During the last two weeks, Michael McMahon, Democrat-Independence, and Michael Grimm, Republican-Conservative, have barraged my wife and me with the usual meaningless glossy direct mail and telephone calls from recording devices and volunteers.
Although we are on both the Federal and State do not call lists, the politicians are exempt from such restrictions. After all, they wrote the laws creating them.
The telephone calls from machines are bad enough. We thought those were appalling, in fact, until we started getting calls from volunteers. Most of the callers are rude, touchy, and obnoxious. They’re largely working from scripts. They become aggressive or insulted when we tell them we’re not interested. They’re are poor advertisements for their candidates.
Everything about the way they behave and talk suggests that our lives are unimportant when set against the necessity of this or that faceless, indistinguishable candidate getting elected.
So, as we know neither McMahon nor Grimm, we can take their measure as men only from the people who support them.
That’s why we’re voting for the third candidate, Tom Vendittelli, Libertarian. Of him, we know nothing, but he’s clearly sincere about his libertarianism: he and his volunteers have left us alone. Perhaps he’ll do the same when he’s in Congress.
The use of the word “literature” to describe the campaign fliers and pamphlets that fill our mailboxes at this time of year has always intrigued me. Usually, the stuff reminds me of Talleyrand’s observation that language exists to conceal truth. Sometimes, though, the truth will out. Today’s example is a mail piece from the affable Bob Capano, a lawyer, long-time political appointee, adjunct professor, and genuinely nice guy who is presently the Republican candidate for the local City Council seat against the incumbent, who is a Democrat.
Like most local Republicans, Mr. Capano strongly supports the re-election of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mr. Capano’s literature complains that local residents are being bled dry with parking and sanitation fines. He argues that this is the fault of the incumbent City Councilman, who tends to oppose the Mayor. Mr. Capano suggests that he should be elected in place of the incumbent because, as he is more likely to get along with the Mayor than the incumbent, Mr. Capano is more likely to “sit down with Mayor Mike Bloomberg and get him to understand things from our perspective.” In other words, Mr. Capano can stop the ticketing.
There is a flaw in Mr. Capano’s argument. Ticketing was meant as a means of enforcing public order without invoking criminal sanctions. Better to ticket someone who parks when no parking is allowed or who fails to keep the sidewalk clean in front of his store than to haul them off in cuffs.
But for at least a generation, these laws and regulations have been abused into a mere source of revenue. Indeed, the City budget projects receiving a certain amount of income from such fines. Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that supervisors pressure their subordinates into filling a quota of tickets every month.
Mr. Capano’s argument is founded on the premise that excessive ticketing is oppressive. Indeed, extracting money unreasonably from a citizen sounds like tyranny to me. But who is the tyrant? Who heads the City government whose agents oppress those whom Mr. Capano would represent, the “middle class residents of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst”? None other than Mr. Bloomberg, whose re-election Mr. Capano supports.
Mmm. Am I alone in sensing a logical disconnect here?
In the autumn of 1992, when the original off-Broadway production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna” was about to open in New York, my wife, Mimi Kramer, then a drama critic for The New Yorker, was asked by the magazine’s new editor, Tina Brown, to write a puff piece about the play for Brown’s first issue. Mimi had been working for a couple of years on a book about the school of acting that Mamet and the actor W.H. Macy had founded in Vermont in the 1980s. She spent the next several months turning some of the material from her book into an article about the relationship between “Oleanna” and Mamet’s approach to acting training. Brown apparently never read the piece, and Mimi was fired several months later. The current revival of “Oleanna,” with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, seemed like an opportune moment to revive the essay, which appears in a slightly updated version on City of Smoke’s companion web site, Smoke & Mirrors.
I have a long-time love affair with the underworld of diploma mills which, in a society overawed by credentials, is an unending source of amusement and entertaining copy.
So I was unsurprised to learn that, as recently as February 2007, the New York City Department of Investigation reported that fourteen city firefighters had used bogus diplomas, purchased from St. Regis University (an on-line institution, supposedly located in Liberia) to seek promotion to officer positions such as deputy chief, battalion chief, and captain. This stemmed from a relatively new Departmental policy requiring college credits as well as practical firefighting experience to gain promotion.
Four of the fourteen were actually promoted on the strength of these counterfeit credentials, including Daniel O’Gara, who was advanced to Battalion Chief after obtaining a St. Regis baccalaureate for $550.
At the end of the scandal, the fourteen paid fines totaling some $136,000. According to the New York Post, those who had been promoted kept their jobs because they had all, since their promotions, obtained enough legitimate credits to qualify for their new jobs.
On May 29, 2009, The New York Times published the obituary of L. D. “None of the Above” Knox, 80, a farmer and politician from Winnsboro, Louisiana who had crusaded for over forty years to make “None of the Above” an option on the Pelican State’s ballots.
In 1979, he went so far as to make “None of the Above” his additional middle name and used it thereafter whenever he ran for office. The Times states:
From his notices in papers across Louisiana, Mr. Knox seems to have been well-liked and respected, although most of his electoral defeats were one-sided blowouts.
Yet, as I argued in 2004, the “None of the Above” option has increasing appeal when many elections are effectively uncontested—as in the case of the upcoming New York City mayoralty, where billionaire incumbent Michael Bloomberg’s unlimited funds effectively push his opponents completely out of the public eye.
From New York Press, Janury 21, 2004
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to throw out the old papers piled up on my desk. I’m not a pack rat like the Bronx guy who spent two days trapped in his apartment under an avalanche of his own magazines and newspapers, but I’ve a weakness for letting interesting documents accumulate. So, late on the afternoon of January 1, 2004, I went to work.
One thing I turned up was the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s Voter Guide for the General Election of November 4, 2003. I kept it for laughs after reading the statements published in it by the candidates in my city council district. Although the Democratic incumbent, an affable party hack, seemed pleasant enough, his pompous, jargon-ridden prose indicted him for bad thinking. His sole opponent, a Democrat who, having lost his party’s primary in September, had been nominated by the Republicans, was more interested in advertising his East Harlem restaurant—complete with directions—than public policy. I don’t know about his food, but publicizing one’s business with taxpayers’ money seems to betray bad taste, if not bad ethics. Neither man would have satisfied James Madison’s hope that our elections should feature candidates “who possess the most attractive merit.”
What to do about such losers? In New York, nothing. One of these guys was going to be elected. Furthermore, as we now know, despite their assaults on liberty and property (tax hikes of 18 percent on residential property and nearly 2000 percent on cigarettes, banning smoking in bars, and laws penalizing this newspaper’s street boxes), every incumbent city council member seeking re-election in November was returned to City Hall. Much of the reason wasn’t apathy. The incumbents were mostly unopposed at the general election, or opposed only by characters you would vote for only as a joke. The same was true of last year’s judicial elections in Manhattan. Nor is this a phenomenon peculiar to New York: in 2002, seventy-eight of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives were uncontested by one of the two major parties, which usually meant no contest at all.
Mere elections—even honest elections—are no symptom of democracy. For example, a generation ago in the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship held regular and contested elections. However, the only opposition candidates allowed on the ballot were wackos: the Filipino equivalent of our Prohibitionists, Greenbackers, and Lyndon LaRouche. Electable opponents had an odd way of being bumped off. And we all know now that Yugoslavia’s Milosevic repeatedly won freely contested elections on the road to ethnic cleansing. Democracy is more than a ritual we observe every November. At any rate, it should be.
A workable alternative to New York’s system of bad choice/no choice has been used in Nevada for a generation. One of the Silver State’s attractions (beside the absence of state income tax) is its voters’ right to vote against all candidates. Since 1975, under The Nevada Revised Statutes 293.269, ballots for statewide office or for president and vice president must always include “None of these Candidates.”
Consequently, sometimes you can beat somebody with nobody. In 1976, “None of these Candidates” won the Republican congressional primary with 47.3 percent of the vote, much to the embarrassment of the hack perennial candidates left far behind. Two years later, it won the Democratic congressional primary. In the 1980 Democratic presidential primary, it outpolled Senator Edward Kennedy and nearly defeated President Carter. It won the 1986 Democratic primary for state treasurer, beating five real candidates, and beat Ralph Nader in the 1996 Green presidential primary. Two years ago, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, “None of these Candidates” embarrassed the machine candidate (who openly favored raising taxes) by polling 24 percent of the vote to his 35 percent (a topless dancer came in third with 21 percent).
But Nevada law still lets the candidate with the most votes be elected or nominated, even if “None of these Candidates” wins. It’s a safety valve, not a barrier to the hacks. A better option would be to require a new election if “None of these Candidates” outpolled the candidates, with the losers barred from the ballot. This is the practice in Russia and a few Eastern European countries, where voters may simply reject all the candidates and try again.
The option of voting for “None of these Candidates” or “None of the Above”—NOTA for short—enjoys support on both left and right. The Wall Street Journal endorsed NOTA in 1996, after Representative Wes Cooley of Oregon was re-nominated despite being exposed as both a fraud and a phony war hero. Although unopposed at the Republican primary, Cooley received only 23,000 votes while 31,000 voters cast blank ballots or various write-ins. The voters had no effective way to deny his re-nomination. This was two years after Representative Mel Reynolds of Illinois was re-elected unopposed following his post-primary indictment for raping a minor, possession of child pornography, and obstruction of justice. (Later convicted, forced to resign, and imprisoned, Reynolds was pardoned by President Clinton on his last day in office so he could work as a youth counselor for the Reverend Jesse Jackson).
And the hits just keep on coming. Some of us remember the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial runoff between Klansman/hustler/racist agitator David Duke (now imprisoned for mail fraud) and the flamboyantly dishonest Edwin Edwards (now imprisoned for fraud, racketeering, and extortion). Then, it was a choice between vulgarity and obscenity. Governor Edwards, whose supporters proclaimed, “Vote for the crook. It’s important,” later quipped that the only folks who didn’t vote for him were one-armed people: they couldn’t hold their noses and pull the lever by his name at the same time.
Others may recall some local elections in New York, such as the 1987 Bronx district attorney’s race in which the effectively unopposed incumbent died before Election Day, requiring voters to elect a corpse; or the death of West Side Representative Ted Weiss in September 1992, which permitted the Democratic machine to anoint a loyalist assemblyman as his successor and then a party district leader as the assemblyman’s successor, all without a single primary.
Presently then, New Yorkers have three empty options in elections such as the one in my city council district last November: voting for one or another empty suit; writing in someone’s name (which will not be counted); or not voting. None of them matter. But adopting NOTA would let voters simply reject unacceptable candidates and try again. Even an unopposed candidate might lose if the voters found him unworthy, or felt they just didn’t know enough to make an informed decision.
Some oppose NOTA because holding a new election every time “None of these Candidates” won might be expensive. Against this is the possibility of defeating unqualified hacks who merely know how to game the system and whose incompetence would probably lead to inefficiency and waste at the taxpayers’ expense. More absurd is the possibility of a series of elections in which “None of these Candidates” wins, instead of allowing on the ballot better candidates who actually wage informative campaigns on relevant issues. (And some political puritans argue that the Nevada option would let voters avoid making hard choices: as if most Americans weren’t already avoiding such decisions by simply not voting at all.)
Of course we all understand that most of these arguments are mere eyewash to conceal the hacks’ self-interest. Having spent nearly fifteen years in City Hall, I speak from personal experience in suggesting that most politicians only pay lip service to democracy. For them, the paramount issue is controlling the system. Anything that weakens that control is unacceptable. They don’t have to read Machiavelli to understand that.
Yet, as Dr. John Pitney suggests in “The Right to Vote No,” NOTA really may come down to first principles. If free government is really based on the consent of the governed, the people should have a clear way of effectively withholding their consent from candidates who are unworthy, unknown, or unopposed. Otherwise, they simply may passively withdraw their consent. Perhaps, by not voting, they’re doing that already.
It’s a big relief to me that the television season has drawn to a close—particularly that there will be no new episodes of House to miss. I’d been having a terrible time since the show moved to Monday nights. I guess I’m not television conscious that early in the week. I did my best. Nearly every Monday a point in the day would come when it would occur to me that it was Monday, and that I had to remember to watch House that night. But something would always come up—even if I knew perfectly well at six o’clock or at seven that it would behoove me to finish whatever I was doing by eight, it would always slip my mind, and suddenly I’d look up and it would be twenty or ten or four or seventeen past the hour.
It’s not as though it wasn’t important to me. I like the way House episodes begin the same way I used to get a kick out of the old teasers for Law & Order. Remember those? The pleasant anticipation of waiting first for the gruesome moment when someone would stumble across a corpse and then for the tasteless crack that Jerry Orbach always made over the deceased? House teasers are formulaic in the same way. A knowing snippet of contemporary life leads us to expect that a particular person is about to fall writhing to the floor. Then someone else entirely falls writhing to the floor.
I don’t think I caught a single House teaser this season. Instead, I seemed to keep coming in on scenes between Chase and Cameron, and they bore me. Well, she bores me. Well, she bores me now. So I’d swear and sigh and promise myself that the next week would be different. And then the following week it would happen all over again. It reminded me of a phase I went through where I was trying to develop an alcohol addiction. I’d pour myself a drink and then put it down somewhere and forget all about it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t motivated. I just couldn’t focus. I couldn’t commit.
The season finale of House, as it happened, was about precisely this phenomenon—about a guy at war with himself because the right and left sides of his brain couldn’t communicate with each other. Of course, tuning in late, I didn’t know this; and having missed the show the week before, I had no idea that House and Cuddy had had sex in the previous episode after she’d helped him through a grueling night of Vicodin withdrawal. So the revelation that Cuddy and House had not actually had sex, and that all of it—including the detox session—had been an opiate-induced hallucination didn’t have the impact on me that it seemed to have on everyone else.
I’m not sure it would have in any case. More than any television series I can remember, House seems to me not to be about what happens in the story. Or maybe it’s just that what characters have to say about what happens in the story is always much more interesting—just as the metaphor, analogue, or association that ultimately leads to House’s diagnostic epiphany is always more interesting than the actual solution to whatever medical mystery is haunting him and his team.
Anyway, catching up on the series later, I couldn’t help noticing how much of the season past seemed to be taken up with this notion of The Divided Self.
At this point, I should really come clean about a condition I suffer from. It’s probably congenital—I know I’ve had since I was a small child: an impulse toward over-interpretation. It’s really more of a compulsion. I see patterns and motifs everywhere. I can’t stop seeing them, and even though I know they’re probably not there, probably don’t exist, I can’t stop finding them. I guess it’s like any other addiction: the truth is I don’t really want to stop.
Which is why, when I headed over to the online episode guides for House and began reading synopses to see where my viewing deficiencies lay, I seemed to see The Divided Self everywhere. I saw it in parts of the series I’d caught all or part of—in the episode about the teenage mother who changes her mind about letting Cuddy adopt her baby, and the one about Cuddy’s mixed feelings over the baby she does eventually adopt, and the one about her ambivalence over the continued need for her presence at the hospital.
Putting away the winter clothes, I caught up on episodes I’d missed and continued to see elements of psychomachia in various forms: in Cuddy’s attempt to have Cameron become more like her, taking over Cuddy’s job; in the incessant mood-swings the series seemed to be having over Chase and Cameron’s impending marriage; in the episode about the guy with “locked-in” syndrome, who was brain-dead to all outward appearances but very much alive and alert, albeit unable to communicate. I saw it in the episodes where House began hanging out with an apparition of Wilson’s dead girlfriend, Amber, which turned out to be the embodiment of his unconscious. And, of course, when I finally saw the episode that began with the suicide of the character played by the actor Kal Penn, I saw The Divided Self there, too—particularly given the way the script seemed to harp on no one’s having had any idea there had been anything wrong.
Some of this, of course, is legitimate; I understand that. (I saw there was even an episode called “House Divided.”) But some of the things that ran through my mind were just plumb crazy—certifiable. Like the thought I had during the scene after Kutner’s funeral and cremation, when everyone was standing around watching the smoke rise into the sky: I had the fleeting notion that the show had artfully managed to induce a state of schizophrenia in us, because we were simultaneously sad (well, sad-ish) and amused, knowing that the real-life circumstance necessitating Mr. Penn’s departure from the series had been his well-publicized decision to take a job in the Obama administration.
So, as you can see—and here we are back at The Divided Self—I’m of two minds about all this. There’s a part of me that wants to point out that the series creators could have chosen any number of ways to get rid of Kutner. They didn’t have to engineer it in such a way as to raise the specter of inner conflict. But there’s that other, more rational, side of me that knows that a television series like House is written by a committee of people, some working on one episode and some on another. And I ask myself how likely it is that they sit around plotting ways of making me smile and tear up at the same time. Or structuring a season so that a bunch of episodes that one character spends talking to a figure who responds but isn’t really there are balanced by an episode that a bunch of characters spend talking to someone who is there, even though he can’t respond.
Another example of how I can go haywire over a theme was what happened with The Sopranos. Early on, I’d taken it into my head that the series was about art on some very profound and interesting level—or about Tony’s relationship with art—and I wrote about this around the time the second season was about to air.
There was a certain limited validity to this. Tony certainly had issues with the artwork in Melfi’s office, for instance. The opening shot of the series showed him sitting in her waiting room framed between the feet of a life-size bronze—a nude that he was eying with hostility and suspicion. In another episode he took umbrage at a harmless painting on one of her walls—a landscape dominated by a large red barn. Catching sight of it, he frowned, walked over, and examined it more closely, zeroing in on a darkened doorway that, when the camera zoomed in, seemed to yawn eerily. In the next scene, he accused Melfi of having “a trick picture” in her office.
There was also an early sequence where Tony, dragged his bratty daughter into a church and waxed sentimental over the fact that his grandfather and great uncle had built it. When she was skeptical about their having built it alone, just the two of them, Tony was patient. No, they had built it with “a crew of laborers,” but the point was they’d known how to do it. In the next scene, we watched one of Tony’s “crew” blow up a restaurant.
I became a little obsessed with the theme of Art in The Sopranos. Then I decided that there was something going on with nature, too. Tony and his pals seemed to have a difficult time with art and nature both. They had artistic and idyllic yearnings, but whenever they got involved with art or nature, things seemed to go badly.
The fifth season included a sequence in which Tony commissioned a rather vulgar portrait of himself posed with a horse he had acquired a financial interest in. When the horse came to a bad end, Tony had asked Paulie, another subordinate, to destroy the painting, but instead Paulie had kept it and had the figure of Tony touched up to resemble Napoleon. Like everyone else, I thought that was hilarious, but I also pondered on how it figured in the art-and-nature schema.
Later that season, the painting came up again when Tony paid a visit to Paulie and saw it hanging in his living-room. He proceeded to have a rather complicated series of reactions: rage, indignation, bewilderment, something verging on awe, and finally a sort of lingering nostalgia as he gazed at the painting a last time before leaving it in the trash.
That was the episode in which Tony decided that his favorite cousin (played by Steve Buscemi) was going to have to get whacked and ended up doing it himself. In fact, in the very next scene—right after the one with the portrait and right before the one where Tony blew his cousin away with a shotgun—we saw Buscemi drive onto a property dominated by a large red barn and into the dark spooky doorway of another barn, which the camera lingered on as it had lingered on the dark doorway of the barn in Melfi’s painting.
Well, I went completely nerts, leaping up and gesticulating, shouting that it was the same scene. And my husband and the friends we were watching the episode with were all very kind. Because, of course, it was nonsense, sheer nonsense. As if David Chase and his crew of writers sat around mapping out complex systems of imagery, saying “We’ll put the scene where Gandolfini whacks Buscemi right after the thing with the portrait of Tony; oh, and let’s have the farm where the hit takes place look just like that painting way back three seasons ago.” I mean, really.
And yet…and yet. Not long ago, we started watching some of those late episodes again. I’d forgotten how unequivocally horrible everyone becomes in that last season. I’d also forgotten how Tony’s relationship with Melfi ends. Her own analyst (played by director and film historian Peter Bogdonavich) shames her into realizing that she has merely been enabling Tony all these years. (He draws her attention to a study suggesting that “the talking cure” simply gives sociopaths a chance to sharpen their skills rather than leading to insight.) Soon after, she terminates Tony’s therapy, offering to refer him to someone else.
Revisiting all this, I began to discern—or thought I did—a solution to some of the questions that the opening season of the series had left me with: about art and its importance in the series, about Tony’s relationship with it, about David Chase’s takes on psychoanalysis and on Melfi’s clinical skills, and even about the connection between psychoanalysis and art.
It seemed to me we ended up with a realization that the self-awareness that “talk therapy” engenders in the ordinary patient has merely offered Tony the tools and material with which to construct a false version of the truth and reinvent his own image of himself, and that this is the only kind of creative endeavor that people like Tony can every really successfully engage in. And I even found myself wondering whether David Chase might have read that Robert Warshow essay about the movie-gangster’s connection with the city and if there could be some validity to the uncomfortable relationship with nature that I’d wanted to ascribe to Tony and his crowd.
I honestly don’t know what to think anymore. I don’t know which is less likely, that someone as steeped in American popular culture as Peter Bogdanovich would not know the Warshow essay about the gangster-movie genre, and wouldn’t at some point over the years have brought it to David Chase’s attention, or the idea that the twenty-some-odd people it took to write the series could fashion and sustain a thematic structure that complex over a period of six years.
I’m reminded of the only time I ever went for a tarot reading. There was this guy that I couldn’t seem to break up with, and a friend of my mother’s, tired of the situation, finally sent me off to see this psychic she swore by.
I took a taxi down to Mulberry Street. The psychic was waiting for me on his stoop. And right off, while I was still coming up the steps, he started telling me that the moment he’d seen me emerge from the cab he’d had this very strong, very clear feeling…I had an aura…he sensed that I was involved with a guy who was no good, who was trouble…he thought his name began with an R…“Robert”…or “Richard” perhaps…
The session was a disaster: I didn’t respond to the psychic’s inept guesses in a sufficiently helpful manner, and he ended up throwing me out. All the same, afterward I couldn’t decide which was more implausible: that my mother’s friend had actually gone to the trouble of calling him up and tipping him off about my boyfriend’s name, or that the guy really was magic.
If you want to find a mirror of a society’s ideal—the image of what it hopes and imagines itself to be—public sculpture is as good a place as any to start, and none is more common or readily available than the public sculpture we carry around with us on the coins in our pockets.
This year will bring some changes to the world’s most common public sculpture, the Lincoln penny. The occasion is the Lincoln bicentennial, and the Mint is happy. Collectors and speculators were glad to pay $8.95 for the two-roll sets of the new coins (worth $1.00) that went on sale on February 12, 2009 and sold out within a month. And so far few have complained about the new reverse design, which represents the Kentucky log cabin at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site. (Of course, that cabin is itself a representation of someone’s idea of the original structure.)
Three more designs, one to be issued every three months throughout the year, will represent respectively Lincoln’s education, his pre-Presidential careers as lawyer and politician, and his Presidency. In 2010 and beyond, the Mint will issue yet another reverse, “emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country.” So there will be five new designs, each issued by the mints at Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco (each mint’s coins has a special mint mark, P, D, and S, respectively), creating fifteen new coins for the delectation of collectors within less than thirteen months.
The original Lincoln cent, designed by Victor David Brenner, reflected the genius of the sculptor and of President Theodore Roosevelt, himself an aesthete, who forced change on the Mint bureaucracy of his day because he found the coinage of the United States unworthy of a great republic. It still is. For the most part, the heroes on our coinage and paper money depict the men considered great half a century ago.
Surely John F. Kennedy’s reputation has undergone re-evaluation since he replaced Benjamin Franklin on the half-dollar in a moment of national grief. Walt Whitman, George Gershwin, George S. Kaufman, Jonas Salk, Earl Warren, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Sojourner Truth—from the arts and sciences alone the list of possible alternatives to the present set of political icons on our coins and currency (which date from the New Deal or before) is almost limitless.
All this brings to mind something I thought about while emptying my pockets the other day.
At some time in the last century, I was taken to a Broadway revival of the musical comedy “1776.” In one scene, an actor named Paul Michael Valley, who played Thomas Jefferson, briefly stood in profile, silhouetted against an open door. Some suburban housewife in the next row murmured to her neighbor, “He looks just like the guy on the nickel.” Indeed, he did, which may explain his casting.
Anyway, while putting my pocket change on the dresser, I noticed one of those odd nickels struck by the Mint to commemorate the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The obverse looked like the Man in the Moon. Of course, the head was still old Tom’s, but the image had changed.
The Purchase itself was commemorated in 2004 by adapting the design of Jefferson’s Indian Peace Medal for the reverse of the five cent piece. The Indian Peace Medals, a British tradition continued after Independence, were large, attractive silver medals awarded by the United States to Indian chiefs or other important men on such occasions as major conferences or the signing of treaties. Intriguingly, this custom reflected the European tradition of exchanging decorations at historic moments of concord, which the United States has otherwise never adopted.
In place of the King appeared the current President, and on the reverse, in Jefferson’s case, appeared two clasped hands, the one to the right with a metal wristband such as frequently worn by Indian chiefs, and the one to the left with an army officer’s braided cuff, all beneath a crossed hatchet and inverted peace pipe. The medal also bore the words, “Peace and Friendship.”
Many of Jefferson’s medals were given to Indians during Lewis and Clark’s expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast between 1804 and 1806. They are mentioned in the Expedition’s Journal as among the articles taken for presentation to the Indians. On August 1, 1804, the Journal records the gift of a “First Grade” medal and flag to a “Grand Chief,” medals of the Second Grade to lesser chiefs; and of the Third Grade to inferior chiefs. Certificates to accompany the medals were also issued, such as one surviving in a California collection which refers to “the special confidence reposed by us in the sincere and unalterable attachment of War Charpa the Sticker, a Warrior of the Soues Nation, to the United States…”
Later in 2004, the Mint issued yet another kind of nickel with a reverse featuring one of the Expedition’s flatboats, driven by both sail and poles, like a Mediterranean war galley.
In the spring of 2005, the year of the coin I found in change, the Mint had doubly changed the coin. The obverse had Jefferson’s profile, oddly presented as to leave the coin resembling the Man in the Moon, with the word “Liberty” in Jefferson’s handwriting. The reverse adapted one of the Mint’s most popular designs, James Earl Fraser’s Buffalo nickel of 1913-1938, for the next coin in the series. Over 1.2 billion Buffalo nickels were struck during that quarter-century. They have now vanished from circulation. But as late as the 1960s, one still found Buffalo nickels in change, with the stern profile of an austere Indian warrior on the obverse and the massive buffalo on the reverse.
Fraser’s visual economy in its design is profoundly moving: without a touch of sentimentality, few accessible works of art so powerfully visualize the nobility of tragedy. And his commanding, virile bison dominates the design of its coin.
But as is often the case in the Mint’s modern adaptations of older designs from a heroic past, the modern buffalo, despite its unequivocal masculinity, lacks confidence. It seems neutered, almost cringing, standing, somehow off-balance, on a small, sloping patch of prairie, fenced in by the words “United States of America.”
In the fall and winter of 2005, the coin was changed yet again: the Man in the Moon obverse was coupled with a new reverse, a view of the Pacific Ocean with a quote from Captain Clark: “Ocean in view! O! the joy!” The minor irritant here is that Clark, whose writings betray a libertarian, if not Shakespearean, attitude toward standardized spelling, had written “Ocian.” While the Oxford English Dictionary includes “ocian” among its citations, the Mint corrected Clark’s usage. According to CNN, when questioned about this, a Mint spokeswoman answered, “We didn’t want to confuse anyone into thinking we couldn’t spell.” Again, a lack of confidence, this time in the reality of Clark’s spelling.
The following year showed the most unusual change in the design. Even as Monticello returned to the reverse, the obverse had Jefferson gazing at the viewer in one of American coinage’s first full-face designs. This is unusual for a technical reason. Coins first show signs of wear on the highest point of the design. The traditional profile tends to wear gracefully. But a full face design tends to wear out nose first.
The most notorious example of this was Copper Nose coinage of England’s King Henry VIII. By the 1540s, Henry was running out of money due to his personal and public extravagance. He both raised taxes and debased the coinage, transforming the nominally silver shilling to a copper coin which was dipped into a silver nitrate solution. Electrolysis left a thin wash of silver on the coins.
Instead of a conventional profile, the new coins bore the King’s facing image, executed with surprising candor, bearded and repellently bloated. Even a little wear on the coin’s highest relief – which with a facing portrait is the nose – revealed its copper core. As the coating wore off the most prominent feature – Henry’s nose – it became reddish brown. Hence, the king acquired the nickname “Old Coppernose.”
Such a sobriquet is unlikely to be attached to Jefferson, who is, after all, nearly two centuries dead. His coin is silver-colored metal all through. But the full face design is off-putting and unattractive, and one hopes the Mint will return to the customary usage in its future coinage.
As becomes a citizen, I have occasionally run for public office. As Édouard Herriot, four times Prime Minister under the Third Republic, said whenever he was running for anything, from conseilleur municipal to Président de la République, “I have placed myself at the disposal of my friends and the service of the Republic.” In my case, I was simply doing my best to sabotage and annoy the office-holding element among The Wicked Who Prosper.
Most recently, I stood for Vice President of the United States in the New Hampshire primaries, which I wrote about in 2000. It was all in good fun and as—much to my surprise and delight—I won, I found myself with yet another anecdote for dinner conversation.
So I was saddened when the May 1, 2009 issue of Richard Winger’s indispensable Ballot Access News reported that on April 22 the New Hampshire legislature passed a bill to eliminate the vice-presidential primary. As Mr. Winger notes, “No other state has a vice-presidential primary.”
He goes on to point out that “Generally, no one who really has a chance to be chosen by a major party for vice-president ever files in this primary.” There is, in a sense, a reason for this. Since New Hampshire instituted the vice-presidential primary over fifty years ago, the contest had developed a laudable purpose uniquely its own: the potential embarrassment of an incumbent vice-president. If, like myself, you believe that politicians are fair game, then the vice-presidential primary is simply a happy hunting ground. Besides, until fairly recently, the vice-presidency was an absurdly empty job with its occupants as worthy of respect as the hapless Alexander Throttlebottom, the vice-president in Gershwin’s 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing.
All is not yet lost: the Legislature’s website indicates that the bill has not yet gone to the governor for signature. Though my stumping days are behind me, I for one fervently hope that it does not. While only one incumbent has actually been defeated (Dan Quayle, 1992, who did not have his name appear on the ballot, did not wage a subrosa campaign for votes as most incumbents do, and was overwhelmed by the unknown candidate who paid his filing fee and appeared on the ballot, never to be heard from again), the possibilities presented in 2012 by the loose-lipped Joe Biden seem limitless and irresistible. It would be a pity if New Hampshire were to spare him that potential humiliation.