A Tale of Two Noses: Nixon Inaugural Medals

Richard Nixon’s prominent proboscis was discussed when it came time to design the 1969 medal for Nixon’s first inauguration, but the Inaugural Committee secured the president’s permission for a portrait with a three-quarter view. (Photo: Presidential Coin & Antiques)

By Gerald Tebben

Richard M. Nixon, the only president to resign from office, in disgrace, was many things to many people in the 1960s and 1970s. To caricaturists, he was a godsend; to serious artists, a plague.

Say what you will about the man’s policies and politics, but the beady eyes, the hunched shoulders, the five-o’clock shadow that famously cost him the television debate with John F. Kennedy and the nose—the nose, perhaps, above all else—made him instantly recognizable.

Tricky Dick’s schnoz wasn’t on par with Cyrano de Bergerac’s “dwarf pumpkin” or “prize turnip,” but it did give pause, and to the people entrusted with planning Nixon’s first inauguration—especially to Melvin Payne, chair of the medal committee—it was an item of no small importance.

In his 1977 book “The President’s Medal 1789-1977,” Neil MacNeil detailed the issue:

“It was our view that a three-quarter view would be desirable. This was a matter of delicacy, not to be mentioned in any public way, but those responsible for making the Nixon medal believed that a three-quarter-view portrait of Nixon would allow the sculptor to de-emphasize his nose. Until now, every presidential inaugural medal had been a portrait in full profile, but a full profile of Nixon was not what the committee wanted. In due course, the sculptor selected was so informed and tried to modify his portrait accordingly.”

Nixon’s nose apparently wasn’t a problem for the second-term inaugural medal in 1973. (Photo: Presidential Coin & Antiques)

Nixon agreed to the three-quarter view and approved the final design of his 1969 inaugural medal.

While Nixon was known for his coldness and remoteness as a human being, the 1969 medals bears a simple, humble and decidedly human notation, “to R.N.—J.N.,” on the reverse. Richard Nixon—“R.N.”—picked a crewelwork version of the presidential seal that daughter Julie Nixon—“J.N.”—had made for him.

In 1973, curiously, there was no discussion of the nose. Nixon wanted his second inaugural medal to show his profile and that of his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew.

The medal, designed by former chief Mint engraver Gilroy Roberts, shows realistic profiles of both men. Roberts, best known for the obverse of the Kennedy half dollar, pulled no punches about the dimension and degree of decline of the president’s ski-jump proboscis on Nixon’s second inaugural medal.

The 1973 medal, intensively promoted by the Franklin Mint, was extraordinarily successful. More than 125,000 gold, silver and bronze medals were sold.

Both 1969 and 1973 medals are common. Medal dealers sell uncirculated bronze examples for $30 to $40. The medals were sold largely to non-collectors almost 40 years ago. Over the decades many have found their way to flea markets and the like, going for as little as $5.

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