By Ed Reiter
“I Like Ike!”
It was one of the simplest – and shortest – campaign slogans in the history of U.S. presidential politics. It was one of the most effective, as well.
Of course, its effectiveness derived in large measure from the vast popularity of the man who ran for president on that slogan.
There was much to like about Dwight David Eisenhower. He was a friendly, gregarious man with a broad, infectious grin who had served his country well in a series of increasingly responsible military roles during World War II.
He had gained enduring fame as commander of the pivotal D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, and would have enjoyed a prominent place in American history books for that achievement alone, even had he never sought political office thereafter.
He did seek office, though, in 1952 – and won a resounding victory as the nation's 34th president, defeating Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson in an electoral landslide. Four years later, the two men hooked up in a rematch, and once again Americans liked “Ike.”
Eisenhower’s stewardship seemed uninspired to some at the time; one observer commented that “his two terms in office were devoid of notable achievement either at home or abroad.” But 50 years of hindsight have burnished his reputation as a political leader; many now believe that his understated manner helped defuse potential crises at a time when a rash misstep could have been disastrous. And even those who questioned his presidential prowess continued to find him likable on a personal level.
Thus, it was not surprising that in 1969, when Eisenhower died at the age of 78, calls arose for tributes in his memory – and one of those proposals involved a new coin with Ike’s image.
There was really no place for another ex-president – even one as popular as Eisenhower had been – in the U.S. coinage lineup at that time.
John F. Kennedy had just joined the lineup in 1964, so he was clearly untouchable. Franklin D. Roosevelt hadn’t yet had his statutory minimum of 25 years on the dime – and his adherents would have howled at his removal anyway. And it would have been very difficult to justify replacement of any of the others, for all three of those – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson – were giants in the presidential pantheon.
President Richard Nixon clearly wished to bestow coinage recognition on Eisenhower, though. After all, he had served eight years as Ike’s vice president. Indeed, his own career got its single greatest boost when Eisenhower chose him for the No. 2 spot on the Republican ticket in 1952.
Some saw a more political motive: The last two coinage spots had gone to partisan Democrats – FDR and JFK – and even Thomas Jefferson is looked upon by Democrats as one of their party’s founders. That left Abe Lincoln as the only Republican president on the nation’s regular coinage, so adding Ike to the mix would help restore balance – at least in the eyes of those who view coinage through a political prism.
Whatever the motivation, the Nixon Administration found a place for Eisenhower not by replacing one of the existing presidential portraits, but rather by resurrecting a dormant denomination: the dollar coin.
Silver dollars hadn’t been issued since 1935, when the Peace dollar’s 14-year history came to an end. (Small quantities of Peace dollars were struck at the Denver Mint in 1965, with a 1964 date, but those controversial coins were recalled and never officially issued.)
Silver dollars wouldn’t be issued this time, either – at least not for general circulation. The regular-issue Eisenhower dollar would have the same diameter as its predecessors, but it would be a copper-nickel “sandwich-type” coin like the post-1964 dime and quarter.
Some suggest that the coin really had been conceived as a tribute to the Apollo XI Moon landing in July 1969 – for that is the event depicted allegorically on its reverse. If we accept this theory, Eisenhower’s portrayal on the obverse of the coin might be viewed as a bit of an afterthought.
The opposite seems more likely.
For one thing, Eisenhower’s death on March 28, 1969, predated Apollo’s landing by more than three months, and tributes in his honor – including a new coin – were being discussed widely, and openly, well before Neil Armstrong alit on the lunar surface.
Furthermore, the Mint had a second design prepared for the coin’s reverse – this time portraying a more traditional eagle – in case the Apollo theme encountered resistance in Congress. This is strong evidence that the coin was meant primarily as a tribute to Ike, not Apollo.
In a way, the pairing of these two themes makes for an odd coupling, since Eisenhower’s White House years are remembered not so much for successes in space as for a great embarrassment: the fact that the Soviet Union drew first blood in the space race. The Soviets’ Sputnik I, launched on Oct. 4, 1957, was the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth.
Eisenhower was blamed at the time for failing to develop a space program. He responded with characteristic determination, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in July 1958 and pressing hard to close the gap in the heavens. But it was John Kennedy who made the Moon landing a national priority – and he, not Ike, is associated most closely with the achievement.
The task of designing the Eisenhower coin fell to Frank Gasparro, the Mint’s chief sculptor-engraver. It was an assignment he eagerly embraced.
“The happiest and most rewarding experience in my Mint career,” he later wrote, “was the day I was commissioned to design the Eisenhower dollar.”
He had, it turned out, been preparing for that day as if by premonition for 35 years. The preparations started in 1945, when he went to New York City as a young Mint engraver to see the World War II victory parade down Broadway – a parade in which General Eisenhower was one of the main attractions.
“Amidst all the rousing enthusiasm, I stepped back from the crowd and made a quick pencil profile sketch of our hero,” he wrote.
Later, in off hours from his work at the Mint, Gasparro made a wax model of Eisenhower, then cast a life-size portrait in plaster, based on his sketch and his memory.
These works came in handy when he got the coin assignment in November 1970. The new dollar had to be ready for production in just six weeks – on Jan. 2, 1971 – and Gasparro was up to the challenge.
The Eisenhower portrait is a left-facing profile bust which shows the former president with a dignified, almost stern visage. It has a stark appearance, due partly to Eisenhower’s broad, open features, partly to poor striking which fails to bring out Ike’s hair and partly to the coin’s large surface area, which makes the obverse seem overly bare.
The reverse shows an eagle alighting on the Moon and is patterned after the official Apollo XI insignia. The eagle holds only olive branches – the absence of arrows underscoring the mission’s peaceful nature.
More than 116 million “Ike dollars” were struck for circulation in 1971, the coin’s first year of issue, with production taking place at both Philadelphia and Denver. The output rose to 168 million in 1972 as Uncle Sam strove mightily to get the American public to use the coin.
But after two years of resistance from consumers, the government took time out in 1973. Business-strike silverless Ikes were minted that year only for inclusion in uncirculated sets – better known as “mint sets.” Even then, the sets didn’t sell out; the Mint produced enough Ikes for 2 million mint sets, but sold just 1,769,258 and melted the rest of the coins.
From 1971 through 1974, the Mint struck 40-percent-silver Ike dollars annually in both proof and uncirculated versions for sale as collector’s items. These were offered individually in special packaging which caused them to be dubbed as “Brown Ikes” and “Blue Ikes,” respectively.
The Brown Ikes, or proofs, came under fire almost immediately for their $10 issue price. This seemed excessive not only to collectors but also to President Nixon’s Treasury secretary, former Texas governor John B. Connally, who declared the government's profit from these coins to be “unconscionable.”
The Blue Ikes, or uncirculated silver issues, carried a more reasonable $3 price tag and thus escaped the brunt of collectors’ wrath.
Orders for these silver versions plummeted after the first year of issue. The Mint sold more than 4.2 million Brown Ikes in 1971, but barely 1 million in 1973, the lowest ebb. Likewise, it sold more than 6.8 million Blue Ikes in 1971 but fewer than 1.9 million in 1973.
Hobbyists’ unhappiness with the cost of silver proof Ikes gained intensity in 1974 when Congress diverted profits from these coins to Eisenhower College, a private institution in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The contribution totaled $9 million. Adding insult to injury, the school lost most of its students and shut its doors in 1982.
A silverless Ike dollar was added to the annual proof and mint sets in 1973 and remained there for the duration of the series.
The dollar was chosen as one of three coins – along with the half dollar and quarter – to carry special designs in 1975 and 1976 honoring the nation’s Bicentennial. All three designs were obtained through an open competition.
The entry selected for the Bicentennial dollar was the work of Dennis R. Williams, a 22-year-old art student from Columbus, Ohio, who thus became the youngest person ever to design a regular-issue U.S. coin.
The design retains a space theme, thereby providing a measure of continuity with Gasparro’s original. It shows the Liberty Bell superimposed on the Moon – a portrait that combines elements from both 1776 and 1976. As on the other Bicentennial coins, those dual dates appear on the obverse of all Ike dollars issued in both 1975 and 1976.
The Bicentennial coins were offered in 40-percent silver in both proof and business-strike versions. These were produced up to the maximum figure of 45 million coins, or 15 million sets, and remained available directly from the Mint for nearly a decade after their introduction.
There are two major die varieties of the silverless Bicentennial dollar. Coins of Variety I have low relief and bold lettering on the reverse; Variety II coins have sharper relief and more delicate lettering. Neither is significantly scarcer.
In 1977, the Mint restored the dollar’s original reverse, and the coin remained in production for two more years. It had long since been apparent, though, that most people deemed this coin too large and inconvenient for regular use.
The Treasury and the Mint felt the problem could be resolved – and the government could reap a huge financial windfall – by introducing a new, smaller dollar. The “pot of gold” at the end of that rainbow turned out to be the Susan B. Anthony dollar, which made its disastrous debut in 1979 and now has been consigned to history’s dust bin.
In 2000, another $1 coin was introduced – this time portraying Sacagawea, a young Indian woman who served as a guide and translator on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It, too, failed as a circulating coin and was dropped from regular production after just two years. But a new round was ordered by Congress at the time it authorized the presidential dollar series.
The presidential dollars debuted in 2007, the second-generation Sacagawea dollars in 2009 – but so far, neither has made much headway in circulation, despite cosmetic changes including a new “golden” color and partial redesign on a regular basis.
Like its successors, the Eisenhower dollar failed badly as a circulating coin. But whereas the Anthony dollar is looked upon by many with disdain, the Eisenhower dollar is viewed by most Americans as more a curiosity than a catastrophe.
People never bonded with this large, rather awkward coin. But while they seldom used it, they never scorned it.
It’s hard to dislike Ike.