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New coin is 'change' we can believe in

Jay MacDonald Are you as excited as I am about the debut of a new president?

Just when America desperately needs a hero, along comes the most beloved and highly regarded former congressman and U.S. senator of his generation, a man of the people destined to captain our financially fraught ship of state out of the Sargasso Sea of stagflation.

If you thought his ascendancy to the nation's highest office was audacious, just imagine the odds that he would one day grace a U.S. coin.

I'm referring, of course, to William Henry Harrison.

William Henry Harrison
Source: United States Mint image.

The appearance of Old Tippecanoe next month on the U.S. Mint's $1 coin signals a new era of hope for all those long-overlooked commanders in chief who have been unsuccessful thus far in breaking the Lincoln-Jefferson-Eisenhower-Washington hegemony on American pocket change.

Presidential snoozefest

Granted, the Mint's $1 presidential series coin -- its latest attempt to wean us from greenbacks -- didn't exactly light up the phone lines when Congress approved it in 2005.

Modeled after the successful state quarters program, the presidential series adds four presidents per year to the dollar menu in the sequence in which they served. New coins will appear through at least 2016. (Living presidents are ineligible to serve, which is probably just as well.)

Naturally, the initial offering in 2007 was a snooze. After all, the original George W., as in Washington, is already all over our quarters and the dollar bill. Meanwhile, candidate No. 3 -- Thomas Jefferson, or "T-Jay" in collector lingo -- has long anchored the nickel.

Adams and Madison were equally uninspiring, in part because that unforgettable rhythmic mnemonic has firmly cemented them into supporting roles: WASHINGTON (adams) JEFFERSON (madison). Oh, the ignominy of succession!

But prepare yourself for a numismatic meltdown, America: The William Henry Harrison dollar coin is about to bring real change to, well, change.

What's so special about this Harrison coin, you ask?

In a word: hope.

Harrison, a former senator from Ohio and general in the War of 1812, was the first president to receive more than 1 million popular votes when he was sworn in as our ninth president on March 4, 1841.

He inherited from his predecessor, Martin Van Buren, an economic depression following the Panic of 1837, a turbulent period marked by bank failures, record unemployment and a severe credit crisis.

Harrison is remembered, if at all, for the nation's longest inaugural speech (a whopping two-hour ear beating) and the shortest stay in office, 32 days. (I've kept leftovers longer than that.) Tragically, Harrison died shortly after inauguration day following a bout of pneumonia and pleurisy.

Of far lesser note, he is one of only two presidents to have double letters in his first and last name.

The nascent numismatist in me figures that if Harrison can grace our coinage, the whole coin image universe just expanded exponentially. And not just for James Garfield, whose chance at coin immortality was cut tragically short by assassination after just four months in office.

“What's so special about this Harrison coin, you ask? In a word: hope.”

Unlike the state quarters program, we can even look forward to some coin controversy in the presidential series. Without the program's inclusiveness, it's hard to imagine a groundswell of support for the likes of Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan or Warren Harding, all perennial doormats in the "best presidents" league.

I'm not sure what my reaction will be when I one day hold a Richard Nixon dollar in my hand. Ronald Reagan, however, had a profile made for minting.

Golden age for coins

At a time when the thought of money in most of its modern incarnations only seems to boost antacid sales, the coin world has never been more exciting.

This year, for the first time, you will be able to hold and spend a penny marking the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. The coin features four different obverse (or "tails") images of our 16th president's legendary life.

The U.S. Mint will also issue quarters bearing the likeness of composer Duke Ellington (representing Washington, D.C.), hibiscus blossoms (Puerto Rico) and palm trees (American Samoa).

For you "Desperate Housewives" fans, there will be five more $10 gold coins in the First Spouse series, including Letitia Tyler and Julia Tyler, the two wives of John Tyler (William Harrison's vice president and the nation's first successor president).

The biggest bang of 2009 in coin land? It will doubtless be the Ultra High Relief Double Eagle, a $20 gold piece originally designed in 1907 by renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens for Theodore Roosevelt and often called the most beautiful coin ever minted.

Only recent technology has enabled the Mint to issue the coin in the deep relief of the artist's original design.

Take a break from the financial meltdown and rediscover the childlike magic of coins at http://www.usmint.gov/.

It's change we all can believe in.

Veteran Bankrate contributing editor Jay MacDonald lives in Austin, Texas. If you have a comment or suggestion about this column, write to Bank Shots.

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