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Why NOT a U.S. Stamp Right Now for Paul Newman?

By John M. Hotchner

[VSC Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Mekeel's & Stamps.]

I suspect Mekeel’s & Stamps publisher John Dunn was consciously pulling my chain in advocating in the November [2008] issue that the USPS should immediately issue a stamp in honor of Paul Newman, who passed away very recently. As he complained, to do so would violate the USPS rule that a person, other than a U.S. president, may not be honored on a U.S postage stamp until they have been deceased for at least five years.

Until last year, that figure used to be ten years. But given the speed of information dissemination, and the penchant of the media for digging out negatives about people of fame, the Postmaster General's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), of which I am a member, recommended to the PMG that the ten year rule should become a five year rule. He agreed.

Publisher Dunn contends that Paul Newman is such a well known humanitarian as well as being a Hollywood legend, that negatives within five (or any other number of) years are highly unlikely, and that he should be honored while his memory is fresh.

I disagree; not because I think Newman is unworthy, but because there are many people who could be worthy if simple "wonderfulness" is the criteria — more than the stamp program could possibly accommodate. Each of us looking at a list of Americans of accomplishment who have passed away over the past twelve months could undoubtedly come up with at least two names of individuals who we feel stand out, according to how we define significant accomplishment. For some it would be their humanitarian activities; for others it would be professional achievement.

And for others the selection would be made on a combination of perhaps presumed level of talent, iconic stature, ethnic role modeling or representation, causes fought for, or a dozen other possible elements that have special meaning to each of us. There might be general agreement on some who have gotten major positive publicity — especially sports heroes and media stars — but the final list would be long and diverse. And it would be a constant struggle to remember that fame does not necessarily equal merit.

While CSAC might agree that one or another person is deserving of being on a stamp, we also recognize that just after a person dies is not a good time to be making those picks. We may feel that a given person will be a shoe-in five years down the pike, and we may be right, but it is best to allow some time to put emotion aside and eventually consider the persons nominated when their meaning to the American experience can be assessed dispassionately.

Nothing is impossible for the person who does not have to grapple with the realities of stamp subject selection. In furtherance of his arguments on behalf of Newman, Dunn suggests that there ought to be some objective way of identifying those who should not be subject to the waiting period. Good so far.

He then suggests that a person being a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom might make an initial cut. But then he notes two problems: First, that Paul Newman was not such a recipient, and second, that there are multiple winners each year — six in 2008. In other words, it's a great idea, but it doesn't work.

The night before I began my first day in my chosen career, my sainted father sat me down and gave me the benefit of his 28 years as a supervisor and manager: Don't take a problem to your boss unless you have thought out the range of solutions, and can make a recommendation that you are sure will work. It was good advice, and it works here.

Nearly all the great ideas, including making the U.S. stamp program as relevant as possible by issuing stamps that connect to as many people as possible, have been thought about. The problem is that for all the wishing associated with that laudable concept, nearly every solution proposed to date (save changing the 10 year rule to a five year rule) would cause more problems than it would solve, or just plain fails on grounds of practicality.

It does not make me happy to shoot down other people's ideas. But professionally and in the hobby I have often found myself in the position of having responsibility for operations or processes that were controversial. Many is the well-meaning person who would write, visit, or call, and say, "Well, here's how you can do it better ... Why didn't someone think of this before?" Usually someone HAD thought of it before, but after proper analysis, what seemed like an elegantly simple solution to a need was found to be unworkable.

Maybe 5% of the time, the brilliant suggestion got as far as beta testing, and 2% of the time, it survived.

What I am saying is that I give Dunn credit for identifying a problem. But I wish he and others would not rush to print with answers that don't work, thus dumping it at the feet of those responsible and demanding an answer. If we had an answer, it would be in place.

I have no doubt that Paul Newman will eventually get a stamp. His film career alone makes that a virtual certainty. His food empire, created with a distant cousin, author A.E. Hotchner, from which all profits have gone to charity for 25 years, plowed new ground in several respects. That also is worthy of honor. But a five year — or even a ten year wait — will not injure the memory of a true giant. And a reasonable wait makes the selection process manageable and more subject to clear-headed analysis.

(Fantasy stamps by Cuv Evanson)

Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at jmhstamp@verizon.net

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