“I Am Not a Coin! Oh Wait a Minute…”

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Got some interesting news on Friday. “Nixon in New York” will be released on paperback in the fall. Hopefully the price will be more reasonable this time around.

Anyway, to celebrate this news, I figured I’d show off my Richard Nixon coin.

I bought this coin on eBay as a memento of my years studying Nixon. The coin is one of the last in the Presidential $1 Coin series. Owing to the law against depicting a living person on currency (a rule that has been broken before) only two other coins came after the Nixon dollar: Gerald Ford and Reagan. (The program ended in 2016, so coins to honor Presidents that pass away after that date would necessitate a separate Act of Congress – in March, U.S. Representative Roger Williams of Texas proposed such a bill to honor George H.W. Bush, who had died the previous year).

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I really like the ultra cameo finish on proof coins, so this was an obvious purchase for me.

The obverse contains a side profile of Nixon that accentuates some of his more famous, or infamous, features:

Editorial cartoonists and satirists enjoyed drawing Nixon as a scowling or brooding man with dark circles around his eyes, a perennial five-o-clock shadow on his face and a large nose that became more and more prominent as his career progressed (his enemies likened it to Pinocchio’s nose—only they believed that Nixon’s telltale sign of lying was that his lips were moving). He was like a mean version of Droopy the Dog, a sad-sack cartoon pooch who had long, prominent jowls and a permanent hangdog expression on his face.

Victor Li, “Nixon in New York.”

The coin doesn’t quite go that far, but some of them are present here. There’s the prominent Nixon nose, as well as the trademark Nixon jowls, the latter of which had long been comedic fodder for impersonators including, most famously, Dan Aykroyd of Saturday Night Live. Other than that, this coin doesn’t look enough like him. Indeed, at first glance, I thought it was George H.W. Bush.

Maybe the Mint was trying to avoid using the traditional White House portraits as the basis for their coins, but they made some strange choices. For instance, the JFK coin looks like he’s trying to avoid making eye contact, the FDR one looks less like him and more like an actor playing him and the Ronald Reagan coin looks like he’s reciting Hannibal Lecter’s line about fava beans.

According to Coin World, art experts questioned the Mint’s portrait choices from the beginning, arguing that the agency lacked quality artists. Others wanted new portraits of each President, rather than relying on traditional or well-known images. Perhaps it was this stubborn determination to cast each President in a new light that doomed the series. After all, some of these portrait choices are jarring and take some getting used to – especially in cases where we have a preconceived image of a certain President that is challenged or countered by his coinage counterpart. Plus, as one young collector argued at the time, Presidents are not necessarily aesthetically beautiful and it’s hard to imagine anyone going out of their way to collect them. 

The series, like many modern coin issues, was the brainchild of U.S. Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE). Dubbed “the coinage Congressman,” Castle, a long-time self-described “fiscal conservative” saw coin collecting as a means to raising revenue without raising taxes while educating the public about this country’s history.

Beyond that, if anyone on Capitol Hill understood numismatics, it was Castle. From his perch as chair of the House Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology, he helped shepherd laws that limited the number of commemorative coins in a given year and gave greater autonomy to the U.S. Mint to issue bullion coins, such as the Platinum Eagle. Interestingly, the platinum coin law has been floated as a potential solution to the ongoing debt-ceiling crisis, as proponents claim the Mint could just mint a “trillion dollar coin” to pay off the government’s expenses. Castle, for the record, says he never intended for that to happen and has disavowed the idea of such a coin.

Most importantly, he had been responsible for one of the most successful coin programs of the modern era by serving as lead sponsor for a 1997 statute that created the 50 State Quarters program (of course that statute also paved the way for the much less-successful Sacagawea Dollar). 

Castle hoped that applying the principles behind the 50 State Quarter program to the Presidential dollar series would allow Americans to overcome their historical antipathy towards dollar coins. “I fully expect that having the rotating images of presidents on the coin will vastly increase demand for the one-dollar coin and help it find its natural place in U.S. commerce,” Castle said in discussing the program prior to its authorization. Castle and colleague Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) proposed the Presidential Dollar series in 2004, however, it was a bill introduced by Senators John E. Sununu (R-NH) and Harry Reid (D-NV) the following year, which had largely been modeled after Castle’s, that ultimately became law. 

Unfortunately, the Presidential dollars were about as well received as their predecessors. According to Coin World, the series failed in its primary legislative goal of increasing the number of dollar coins in circulation – in fact, only the first 20 coins were put into general circulation – the remaining 19 were minted in greatly reduced numbers and marketed towards collectors. 

A few years later, Castle seemed to have learned his lesson. With aesthetic beauty in mind, he created the America the Beautiful National Parks Quarter program in 2008, with the first quarter launching in 2010. What should have been a valedictory lap of honor for him before he was inevitably promoted to “Coinage Senator,” instead, became an early retirement party after he lost in a stunning upset in the 2010 GOP primary to “non-witch” Christine O’Donnell.

Luckily for Castle, he, like Nixon, had his Rolodex of business contacts and friends to fall back on, guaranteeing that a large law firm would want to hire him. As such, it was no surprise when DLA Piper announced in 2011, mere months after his Congressional career came to an end, that Castle would join as a partner.

2018 George Washington Silver Medallion – Mike Castle edition (image via me)

And, of course, he had his “Coinage Congressman” reputation. In fact, Castle is such a rock star in numismatic circles that the National Guaranty Corporation and Heritage Auctions even released coin slabs with the former Congressman’s signature and portrait on the label – much like how Fender issued a limited edition Eric Clapton guitar. Hopefully, when they finally get around to issuing a coin bearing Castle’s likeness, they’ll avoid using the folks who designed the Nixon coin and the others in the Presidential dollar series.