At a ceremony on March 11 — the six-month observance of the 9-11 attack — President Bush unveiled the design of a commemorative postage stamp showing three New York City firefighters hoisting our flag amid the rubble of the World Trade Center based on a photograph that has been compared to the immortal photo by Joe Rosenthal of the Marines and a Navy corpsman on Iwo Jima in 1945. To my knowledge this will be only the second U.S. postage stamp ever to bear a surcharge; it will cost 45 cents but only buy you 34 cents worth of postal services, with most of the remainder going to 9-11 relief funds. (The first was the breast cancer stamp.)
But it is not this aspect of the stamp that gives pause.
From the establishment of this nation no living person’s face has ever appeared on our coinage, currency, or postage. We sought early on to make the democratic point. Monarchies and dictatorships still adorn their coins, paper currency, and stamps with the faces of their living kings, queens, and assorted despots. We would never do so. For the longest time the tradition further mandated that the honoree be dead at least several years. Franklin Roosevelt’s fans took care of that requirement. His profile has adorned our dimes since 1946 and the first stamps bearing his likeness were issued within months of his death. The Postal Service now claims to adhere to a rule requiring that the person honored by a stamp must be dead at least ten years, with the only exception being for deceased Presidents, who can be honored at any time after their demise.
What about the beautiful 10-cent air mail commemorative issued for Apollo 11 in 1969? It shows an astronaut on the surface of the moon saluting our flag. Well, what about it? Look closely. The astronaut’s gold-tinted visor is down and his face does not show. And getting back to Joe Rosenthal for a minute, what about the most popular commemorative stamp of World War II — the Iwo Jima flag raising. Again, look closely. Because of the angle at which Rosenthal snapped this magnificent photo the faces of our servicemen do not show. Helmets, necks, shoulders — but no faces.
At the end of World War II stamps were issued honoring our victorious Armed Forces. The faces in the massive parade of soldiers on the Champs-Elysées are too small to be identified. As for the faces of the eleven sailors clearly displayed on the Navy stamp, well, those men never existed. Every face is a composite. (This is also true of the profiles of the Indians — excuse me, native Americans — on our old Indian Head pennies and Buffalo nickels.)
Has no one told President Bush and the Postmaster General what we are about to do? With so many of the finer — not to mention grosser — points of United States history now slipping away down the flaming memory hole due in large part to the inadequacies of our public education system, is now the time for such a departure? Perhaps so. But if this stamp is issued as currently designed we should make the case for it. I stand second to none in my admiration for the noble gesture of Dan McWilliams, George Johnson, and Billy Eisengrein. But I am uncomfortable with the notion that they are more deserving of this historically unique honor than were the men of “the greatest generation” who did nothing less than save Western civilization, or the first men to journey to our moon.