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Choice of subjects for postage stamps under fire

| Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, 8:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A former postmaster general and prominent stamp collector is accusing the Postal Service of “prostituting” its stamp program, sacrificing cultural icons for pop culture in a wrongheaded search for “illusory profits.”

Benjamin Bailar made those comments to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe in a recent letter of resignation from the secretive committee of eminent Americans that decides the faces and images that should go on postage stamps.

Bailar's resignation has re-exposed a rift within the stamp community over whether the cash-poor Postal Service should pursue commercial subjects to chase new collectors and revenue at the expense of traditional cultural images.

The friction came to a head last fall, when the Citizens' Advisory Stamp Committee, disaffected over how the agency's marketing staff was pushing pop culture over more enduring images, complained to Donahoe that they were being brushed aside in decisions on stamp images.

The committee — which includes historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., a top Smithsonian official, a former Olympian and other prominent Americans who meet quarterly — has chosen stamp subjects for more than a half-century.

Members wrote Donahoe a letter of protest. And some of them spoke out against a series of stamps honoring Harry Potter that were released in November. The committee had not been consulted on the choice.

“The stamp program should celebrate the things that are great about the United States and serve as a medium to communicate those things to a world-wide audience,” Bailar wrote in his letter to Donahoe on July 23. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the document.

“To prostitute that goal in the pursuit of possibly illusory profits does not make sense to me.”

Bailar, 80, ran the Postal Service from 1975 to 1978 and was then a dean at Rice University in Texas. He is a well-respected stamp collector.

The committee, he complained to Donahoe, has become too “heavily weighted” toward artists and designers.

“While they may support a drive to ‘sell the product' with abundance of pretty and popular culture subjects, the result is a program that lacks gravitas,” Bailar wrote. He suggested that the stamp panel be abolished, “given the apparent desire of the ⅛Postal Service⅜ to commercialize the stamp program.”

“Certainly the USPS does not need an expensive committee to know what will sell.”

USPS spokeswoman Toni DeLancey said in a statement that the Postal Service has relied on Bailar's “extensive postal knowledge and prior experience as Postmaster General, which was invaluable.”

Postal officials will discuss his concerns with the stamp committee and its chairwoman, Janet Klug, she said.

Klug, in an interview, called Bailar “a great guy” and “outstanding ⅛stamp⅜ collector” who is “really going to be missed.”

But she noted that he had not attended a quarterly meeting of the stamp committee in two years and had missed a critical “restructure” in recent months. The panel is getting along much better with postal officials, who are collaborating more with members, Klug said.

“Ben likes history and I like history,” Klug, 64, said. “The Postal Service is asking us to do more in the way of pop culture. We're trying to get a lot of young people interested in stamps. We have to go where they live.”

Bailar, in an interview, acknowledged his absence from several meetings but said he has kept up with the proceedings. He now lives in Illinois and has been caring for his sick wife.

“I've read the minutes,” he said. “I'm aware of what they're doing.”

Bailar's resignation was first reported by Linn's Stamp News.

Cary Brick, a long-time Capitol Hill staffer who worked several postal reform bills and served on the stamp committee until his 12-year term ended in January, has similar criticisms. He said the panel “has been hijacked by the Postal Service's marketing geniuses who believe that stamp subjects should be selected and designed with what they hope their potential sales revenues will bring into the coffers.”

Brick said the agency's marketers “seem to equate postage stamps with super-sized soft drinks and fast-food burgers.”

On Friday, the Postal Service has scheduled a first-day-of issue ceremony in San Francisco to commemorate a stamp featuring the 1960s pop icon Janis Joplin.

The Forever stamp features the singer with wild hair and wrists in bangle bracelets. The Forever denomination and “USA” appear in “psychedelic-style script reminiscent of the 1960s, in shades of gold, orange, and pink,” according to a Postal Service press release.

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