A Gold Medal For Ol' Blue Eyes?

Members of congress recently received a "Dear Colleague" letter from Jose E. Serrano, the liberal Democrat who represents New York's 16th district. The letter asked for cosponsors to introduce legislation in the House of Representatives to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Frank Sinatra on his 80th birthday.

Mr. Serrano, who belongs to the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses, seems a curious figure to be proposing such an accolade for the ring-a-ding-ding singer.

"I've never met Frank Sinatra," said Serrano in a telephone interview: "He's not a personal friend, nor a political contributor, but I owe him my life because he fills my soul with romance. The ideals of Martin Luther King inspire my politics and public service, but it's Sinatra who is the center of my existence.

"The man taught me to speak English," said the 51-year-old legislator, who was born in Puerto Rico. "As a little boy, I spoke only Spanish until my father returned from the war in 1945 with Frank Sinatra's records. Listening to them, I learned how to speak English. I'm now from the Bronx, right? But I don't say 'trout' for truth or 'toot-day' for Tuesday. I enunciate my words. That's because I learned diction from a master--The Voice, The Chairman of the Board. A Congressional Gold Medal is the least I can do for such a man."

Since 1776, Congress has struck fewer than 200 gold me dais to honor the public service, patriotism and heroism of extraordinary individuals. Fittingly, the first medal was awarded to George Washington for his "wise and spirited conduct" in routing the British from Boston during the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson, who made the presentation, referred to the medal as a "powerful instrument of nationality" to be reserved for only the highest achievements.

Congress concurred, and initially bestowed the medal on military leaders from the Revolutionary War like John Paul Jones, and other heroes from the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Civil War. By the 20th century, the scope was broadened to include excellence in the arts, diplomacy, exploration, aviation, politics, medicine, science and entertainment. Still, the Congressional Gold Medal remained an exclusive award. Whether presented personally or posthumously, it represented the highest honor a grateful nation could bestow.

Tellingly, perhaps, Congress has honored few of its own. In 1949, Vice President Alben W. Barkley became the first office, holder to receive the medal, and since then, Congress has recognized only what it described as the distinguished service of Democratic Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas, and Democratic senators Robert E Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey. Other than George Washington and Harry Truman, no U.S. president has been honored--not Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Eisenhower or Kennedy. Foreign recipients, also limited to a precious few, include notables like Winston Churchill, Simon Wiesenthal and, most recently, Anatoly and Avital Shcharansky, for their "total commitment to the cause of individual rights and freedom." The medal has not been bestowed on revered humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Dag Hammarskjold.

Predominantly an American tribute for American heroes, the Congressional Gold Medal has gone to people as diverse as aviation pioneer Wilbur and Orville Wright, Dr. Jonas Salk, the Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, the boxer Joe Louis and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. No one in the arts and entertainment was recognized until 1986, when Congress honored the composer George M. Cohan for his patriotic songs "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag."

Eighteen years later, in 1954, Irving Berlin was honored for composing "God Bless America." In the 1960s, the Gold Medal was also conferred on Bob Hope and Walt Disney for "extraordinary" public service, and in 1979, Congress showed its affection for John Wayne with the medal a month before he died.

Now the congressman from the South Bronx wants to honor a man whose name is synonymous with Las Vegas and whose signature song is "My Way."

"Why not?" said Serrano. "Who better?"

Perhaps a man who is not accused of association with organized crime?

"C'mon," said Serrano. "Only a party pooper would bring up that stuff about organized crime, which is an ethnic stereotype that I don't believe in. Besides, this won't cost taxpayers a penny; there's a nominal cost of $30,000 to strike the gold, but that'll get repaid to the Treasury by selling bronze duplicates of the Sinatra medal. So who could possibly object?"

Rep. John Ensign, the Republican veterinarian who represents Las Vegas, will not cosponsor the legislation, and his press secretary says he doesn't know whether Ensign will vote for it.

The former GOP mayor of Palm Springs, where Sinatra lives, is Sonny ("I Got You, Babe") Bono. His press secretary says Bono "will probably have to sign on as a cosponsor, but that's not gospel."

Bill Menendez, the Democrat who represents Sinatra's home, town, Hoboken, N.J., was on vacation and his staff said he could not be disturbed to discuss his district's most famous native son.

Serrano shrugs off the lack of enthusiasm. "You just wait," he said. "Everyone will want to sign on to this one. My worst fear is that some senior Republican will snatch this bill and run with it as his own."

Not likely. An aide to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who controls the legislative agenda, said his boss is not aware of the proposal and, according to one aide, does not intend to make it a top priority.

Since longevity is commendable and an 80th birthday deserves recognition, I suggest that on Dec. 12, Congress simply give Ol' Blue Eyes a round of applause befitting any great showman. But save the gold for the giants.