New face on $20 boring, cranky

Tuesday, November 10, 1998

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

We may not be able to agree on very much right now in this country, but one thing we all know. We hate the new $20 bill.

We could ignore the bloated Ben Franklin, his lips pursed as though he needs a big dose of Mylanta. And nobody complained much about a more noticeably shaggy Grant or that the ''50'' in the left-hand corner on his flip side looks like Monopoly money.

In fact, all the new money looks counterfeit, the very problem it was supposed to correct. For instance, they've added a polymer security thread to the far left of the portrait, which glows green when exposed to ultraviolet light. Since I always forget to transfer my ultraviolet light when I change purses, I don't expect this will help me very much.

Most of us not only don't carry an ultraviolet light, but we don't carry around a lot of $100 bills or even $50 bills. We see more of Andrew Jackson than we do of Ben Franklin. And now we are seeing more of him than we actually think is attractive.

In September, the Federal Reserve began shipping 2 billion of the new $20s upon which Mr. Jackson has been tarted up to look like a game show host. Old Hickory, hair styled and moussed, looks pained. Has he just had to ask Don Pardo to tell the contestant about lovely parting gifts? Or is his sour expression because he has bad news about what's behind curtain No. 3?

And we could have had so much fun with our new money.

We might have added some color, a hologram, some pizazz. We might have put new faces in the picture gallery, maybe a subtle gesture of welcome. Booker T. Washington or Clara Barton. We might have honored somebody from the arts or science. We might have added a Braille symbol.

We could have decorated every inch of that bland white space on the back of the new bills and made them, according to one of the foremost experts in the world, ''next to impossible to counterfeit.''

New money, old ideas

The foremost expert lives right here in town. Editor for 15 years of Paper Money, the journal of the Society of Paper Money Collectors, Gene Hessler is generally regarded as the top authority on U.S. currency in the world. When the Treasury Department's archivist has a question, she calls Gene.

Retired now, he lectures regularly at schools around the area, where the kids often ask him why U.S. money is so boring.

He wonders this himself. ''How about Sojourner Truth on a bill?'' he says. ''Or Georgia O'Keeffe. Would that be beautiful? Her picture and some of her art?''

Well, yes it would. So I ask him how he'd re-do the $20 bill.

First of all, he'd retire Andrew Jackson. He says that particular president never did anything good for our currency. In fact, if it had been up to Old Hickory, every state would have had its own money. Imagine how much you'd like to negotiate the rate of exchange every time you decided to have dinner across the river.

Gene would put Thomas Edison on the $20 bill. And load up the front and back with the history of all his inventions. In color. He'd probably do everything but make the light bulb glow.

''Kids pay a lot of attention to those pieces of paper that we see every day, so why not use it as a history lesson? Or a geography lesson?''

What I wonder is whether these kids are going to carry around money at all. Maybe Andrew Jackson has noticed that plastic cards - colorful and full of holograms and other bells and whistles - are getting more of a workout than paper money. It would explain why he looks so cranky.

Maybe he's worried about his job.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com, call 768-8393, or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7) and as a commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Her new book, I Beg to Differ, a collection of her most popular columns and commentaries, is available at (800) 852-9332.

PULFER ARCHIVE