Sometimes when we try to please everyone, we end up pleasing no one.
When Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin announced last week that he was accepting the recommendation of the Dollar Coin Advisory Committee, the choice certainly seemed like a compromise. Consider Treasury's own description of the sucessor to the Susan B. Anthony: ``the new dollar coin (will) bear a design of Liberty represented by a Native American woman, inspired by Sacajawea.'' Thank goodness we're not the ones charged with bringing that description to life. Further complicating matters is the fact that no one knows what the Shoshone Indian woman looks like, hence the ``inspired'' by and representing. (One office wag suggests that the countenance of Lady Liberty on the coin should suggest the late Donna Reed, since the Iowa-born actress played her in a film.)
We have no quarrel with the important role Sacajawea played in American history. Indeed, without the Native American woman it's unlikely that the essential Lewis and Clark Expedition would have succeeded. The pair might easily have died before returning the important maps and other information they carrie.
In a column posted on the U.S. Mint's web site, Philip Diehl, director of the mint, makes good case for honoring Sacajawea. The story he tells is remarkable. It begins when she is captured by a Hidatsa raiding party's attack on her Shoshone Tribe. She would be sold to a French-Canadian trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, and made one of his wives. In 1904, at age 14, Mr. Diehl writes, he is hired by Lewis and Clark, who need not the skills of the trader, but those of his wife. So she sets out, a full six months pregnant, to help map a new nation, often saving their lives and the expedition in the process. ``With her infant son bound to her back, she single-handedly rescued Captain Clark's journals from the Missouri whitewater when their boat capsized. If she had not, much of the record of the first year of the expedition would have been lost to history,'' Mr. Diehl writes.
Much of her amazing story is featured in Stephen Ambrose's marvelous accounting of the journey, ``Undaunted Courage.'' And Ken Burn's PBS series on the expedition no doubt has awakened a new generation to her contributions.
So, by all means, honor a flesh and blood American heroine, but why try to meld her with a fictional symbol?
The committees reasons for doing so are telling. ``The recommendation sounds like it might have been crafted by a committee, which of course it was,'' Mr. Diehl admits. ``It was written this way in order to bridge the most significant division in the committee: namely, whether the woman to appear on the coin would be a real woman of history or an allegorical figure. As deliberations reached a conclusion, four members supported a design representing Sacagawea. (No contemporaneous depictions of Sacagawea are known to exist.) In order to gain the votes of a majority, these four members agreed to place Sacagawea in an allegorical context, as Lady Liberty.'' Thus we come back to ``a design of Liberty represented by a Native American woman, inspired by Sacajawea.''
All in all, it's hard to fault the committee for trying to step carefully between the cracks. Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., for example, alreday has introduced a bill that would overturn the committee's selection in favor of his own, the Statue of Liberty, ``the greatest and most recongizable symbol of freedom worldwide.''
In a head-to-head contest, we'll take a real woman. ``It's all the difference in the world between flesh and blood and stone and iron. The iconic representation of the female figure in the Statue of Liberty is a fiction,'' said Patricia McGuire, a member of the advisory panel and president of Trinity College. ``Having a woman with a real personal history gives affirmation and recognition to the stories of all women. Women have been anonymous for too long.''
Now, if we just knew what she looked like...