WASHINGTON – For more than half a century, a committee of cultural heavyweights has met behind closed doors, its deliberations kept secret, weighing the faces and images of Americana worthy of gracing U.S. postage stamps. While its rulings have been advisory, they long carried the weight of writ.
Now comes a youngster from across the seas. He isn’t what these leading lights from the fields of arts and letters, athletics and philately had in mind. For one, he seems kind of crass to some. And worse, he isn’t even American.
Today, the U.S. Postal Service is scheduled to release 20 postage stamps honoring Harry Potter, and officials at the cash-strapped agency hope the images, drawn straight from the Warner Brothers movies, will be the biggest blockbuster since the Elvis Presley stamp 20 years ago.
But the selection of the British boy wizard is creating a stir in the cloistered world of postage-stamp policy. The Postal Service has bypassed the panel charged with researching and recommending subjects for new stamps, and the members are rankled, not least of all because Potter is a foreigner, several members said.
The dispute caps more than a year of friction between the Postal Service and the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, named by the postmaster general to help make sure that the American experience is properly portrayed. The committee has grown increasingly disaffected over how the agency’s marketing staff has pushed pop culture at the expense of images that could prove more enduring.
Set up as a filter between the postmaster general and the public, which petitions the Postal Service for about 40,000 stamp subjects and designs each year, the committee includes such eminent Americans as historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., former American Film Institute president Jean Picker Firstenberg and Olympic swimmer and sportscaster Donna de Varona. A former postmaster general, top Smithsonian Museum official, graphic designers and philatelists also belong.
Its mission is to ensure that stamp subjects “have stood the test of time, are consistent with public opinion and have broad national interest.”
For one of the only times in its 56-year-history, the committee was not consulted in the decision to put Potter and his friends and foes on the run of 100 million “forever” stamps.