Ronald Reagan fever has not subsided in the GOP. The most recent flare-up came with the proposal of Congressman Patrick McHenry to replace Ulysses S. Grant with Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill. "President Reagan is indisputably one of the most transformative presidents of the 20th century," McHenry wrote to his fellow members of Congress. "Like President Roosevelt on the dime and President Kennedy on the half-dollar, President Reagan deserves a place of honor on our nation's currency."
Not exactly. It's true that Reagan fans have been agitating for some time to memorialize the Gipper in a variety of ways, and, as the renaming of National Airport a few years ago indicates, they've been pretty successful. But putting him on the $50 bill doesn't make much sense.
For one thing, it's unfair to Grant. As UCLA historian Joan Waugh, who has written a history of Grant, observed in the Los Angeles Times, he has gotten a bum historical rap. He's largely remembered as a boozer and for presiding over a corrupt administration. But Waugh points out that there was more to it than that. Southern historians whittled away at Grant's posthumous reputation for reasons that had more to do with defending the honor of the South than with a concern for accuracy about the past. In other words, they were writing propaganda. She observes,
By the time of his death on July 23, 1885, Grant was an icon in the historical memory of the war shared by a whole generation of men and women. They believed that an appreciation of Grant could come only with the recognition that he was both the general who saved the Union and the president who made sure that it stayed together.
Rather than shunting Grant aside, Republicans should not only unite to keep him on the $50 bill but work to rekindle awareness of his stellar legacy.
That's unlikely to happen. But it's also the case that shunting aside Grant is a profoundly unconservative move. Conservatism, at least in the Burkean sense, is supposed to be about reverence for the past and hesitation to experiment, willy-nilly, with change. In that sense, dumping Grant for Reagan violates a core conservative precept. It's hard not to suspect that the Gipper himself would cringe at the idea.
There's another problem with putting Reagan on the $50 bill. American currency only circulates up to $100 bills. But the Gipper was a big spender who wasn't afraid of deficits. And given the way President Obama is spending, it's high time to start circulating $500 bills. Reagan could adorn them. The scary part is that if Obama keeps racking up calamitous trillion dollar deficits, which make Reagan's look positively puny, then a $500 bill may not even look like an exotic piece of currency. Quite the contrary. If America heads the way of Weimar Germany, then its citizens will be carting big bills by the wheelbarrow load to buy a loaf of bread or a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
Anyway, there are other ways to remember Reagan than sticking him on a greenback. The estimable Steve Hayward of AEI recently pointed out in the Washington Post that the leading Republican presidential candidates continue to invoke Reagan's name, whenever and wherever they can. He looks to Sarah Palin, an outspoken kind of libertarian, as the most similar in spirit to Reagan. It will be fascinating to watch the Reagan sweepstakes continue in 2012. In my view, Reagan would probably be proudest that his shade continues to influence the course of the conservative movement.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.