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The D.C. Quarter: A Brief For The Duke

My vote for Frederick Douglass as the least offensive of the three weak finalists to be on the D.C. quarter may be in line with the plurality of Post readers' opinions, but there are strong voices in favor of another candidate, Duke Ellington, and Palisades resident Michael Dolan has penned a strong brief in favor of the Duke. Dolan, the author of "The American Porch," an eloquent tribute to a great and important American institution, makes his case like this:

Marc --

All due respect to Messrs. Banneker and Douglass, you are WAAAAY wrong to pick either of them for the backside of the capital quarter.

Each man in his way embodies the (you should excuse the deliberate transmogrification of meaning) carpet-bagging impulse that both excites and enervates city, as ambitious individuals like Banneker arrive here to make their reputations and renowned champions like Douglass descend from the empyrean to make a D.C. address the capstone to an illustrious career.

Banneker, whose genius could not be contained by a plantation, saw his chance and took it, like a talented poli-sci graduate burning up the corridors of power en route to such fame and glory as attend there.

Douglass, as you admit, came to the capital a certified hero at the distant end of his career, radiant with glamour (his Michael Jordan turns if you will, sans seaminess and transitoriness) but a glamour rooted in history, not Washington.

While both men made places for themselves here, and deserve all props for all their achievements, neither was from here or of here, unlike Duke Ellington, a native son of native sons.

It may be because my father and grandfather were bookbinders who spent their working lives at the Government Printing Office, while Ellington's dad was, among other things, a blueprinter at the Navy Yard, or it may be because in my younger days I hustled around town promoting a band, or it may be the happy residue of the day I spent with the late Felix Grant tracking down every place the Ellington family lived in D.C. (bonus find: a white piano in a house on 13th Street that Duke once played on!) for a piece that I wrote for Washingtonian, but among the trio proposed for what passes for numismatic immortality, Duke Ellington for me alone illustrates the experience of the true Washingtonian, right down to your refusal to grant him the status he so richly deserves, and should be the fellow on the back of the two-bit piece.

Like so many of us who were born here, Duke forged his skills and learned his trade and pulled back on the slingshot of ability and ambition that would carry him so far far below the radar of a Washington establishment historically composed of preening self-important outlanders (for a City Paper piece I wrote a thousand years ago, I coined the phrase "arriviste pudwackers" to describe them, and that is still what they are).

As any Washingtonian worth his or her salt learns early, Duke knew he had to hustle, and hustle hard (as a sign-maker, he did the artwork for his band and many others, and as a bandleader he apprehended that since no one knew what the leader of the Duke Ellington Orchestra looked like, he could send half a dozen Duke Ellington Orchestras out there of an evening and reap the benefits of anonymity as well as talent).

He toddled our streets as a youth (I count it among my blessings to work on Ward Court copy-editing Communications Daily, which means that every day I get to walk past the spot where DUKE ELLINGTON WAS BORN), swaggered them as a stripling, and finally could not help but propel himself from them into the world, like so many other D.C. talents in all fields.

We inhabit a small town, and it is the fate of small towns to send their offspring away. That doesn't mean we shouldn't honor those people for having risen up in this place and used it as a springboard to greatness.

I urge you as a responsible tribune of the people to change your superdelegate vote.

Do the right thing.

Do the thing right.

-- Michael Dolan

I'm not ready to change my vote, but here's what I wrote back to Dolan:

Michael--you are eloquent in your defense of the Duke, and it pained me to make any other choice. Some of my most cherished reporting time in this town has come in following the same shadows you describe chasing--for pieces I've written on Ellington's Washington and Ellington's legacy, I've tracked down those same townhouses and salons and lost clubs, and felt those same echos of the Duke's early jazz days. But I can't quite bring myself to pretend that the Duke's great achievements are a symbol of Washington, not when New York claimed both his heart and his pen. So, again: All three of the candidates lack the basic qualifications for representing D.C. on the quarter, but at least Douglass lived here during a substantial part of his productive and creative years, something that cannot be said of the other two.

Is anyone arguing for Benjamin Banneker?

By Marc Fisher |  May 6, 2008; 12:26 PM ET
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For the DC quarter design: my choice is Boss Shepard. He was a native Washingtonian. He got the streets paved, put in a water and sewer system, and built bridges that connected the city. And the avenues of trees which make the otherwise wretched sump livable, these were also his inspiration.
He transformed "mudville" into a modern city.

I lived in DC for 22 years and served 10 years on the DC Public Service Commission.

Posted by: Wesley Long | May 6, 2008 3:51 PM

We can only choose a black person for the quarter? I agree w/ Mr. Long: Boss Shepherd did more to turn DC into a world-class city than any other person. Sure, he bankrupted the city, stole money, and lost us the ability to self-govern for many decades... Still, what a man!

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