WASHINGTON -- The former treasurer of Marion County, Ohio, struggles to produce a clear signature at National Airport in Washington, D.C.
She tries to steady her hand while sitting. Then she tries to use the little shelf under a public phone. People keep bumping her -- the terminal is crowded because bad weather forced the cancellation of all flights.
Finally, she retreats into a private airline club where she finds the needed space. After 20 tries, she produces a signature that suits her. She circles it and hands the paper to an aide.
It's impossible to say if this is the most important signature of Mary Ellen Withrow's. life. But it very likely will be the most famous. As the 40th treasurer of the United States, Withrow will see her signature from the airport appear on all new U.S. paper money due to hit the streets any day now.
Withrow was nominated by President Clinton last November, confirmed by the Senate in February, and sworn in by Vice President Al Gore in March.
"It was a great day," Withrow said. "We don't know for sure, but we think between 400 and 500 people were there." The ceremony took place in the opulent Cash Room in the main Treasury building where Ulysses S. Grant held his inaugural reception in 1869.
Withrow, 63, spent most of her long public life in Ohio: three terms as state treasurer, two terms as a county treasurer, and a stint as the first woman elected to her local school board in 1969. She also holds the distinction of being the only treasurer of the United States who was either a state or local treasurer first.
During a recent interview, sitting in her Treasury office overlooking the north lawn of the White House. It was difficult to picture a person seemingly more comfortable in a new high-profile position.
I'm representing this government, and it's really a thrill to be able to do that," said Withrow, an elegant woman who wore a black dress and a gold pin on her left lapel.
"I thought there was a whole new world out there for women in politics back in 1969, and this is kind of the reward for all I've gone through," she said. 'qt's a new experience for me at a different level of government, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it."
From a financial market perspective, Withrow's post is more ceremonial than anything else. She has nothing official to say about fiscal policy, interest rates or foreign exchanges rates, nor is she expected to.
For example, one of her primary functions is traveling around the country promoting the sale of U.S. savings bonds.
During her second week in office, Withrow flew to Cleveland to attend a savings bond rally. Soon after that, she flew to New York City with Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen to attend the main national rally. Then she flew to San Francisco where she served as a judge in the national savings bond poster contest for kids.
"It's a natural for me," Withrow said. "As Ohio treasurer, I sold college savings bonds." While in office, she sold about $100 million of tax exempt infrastructure bonds issued by Ohio that were tailor-made for people saving to send their children to college.
However, her job entails much more than peddling savings bonds. With a combined staff of about 5,300, the treasurer oversees: the U.S. Mint, which makes coins and medals; the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which prints currency and stamps; and the U.S. Savings Bond Division, which has sold well over $4 billion in savings bonds so far this year.
"I don't like to say this job is purely ceremonial, because there is substance to it," Withrow said. It's too soon to tell how much of her time she will be devoting to her various responsibilities, she said.
The treasurer is also involved in the department's efforts to prevent counterfeiting. Withrow recently attended an international counterfeiting conference in the Netherlands to learn more about how other countries fight the problem. From there she flew to London to meet with her British counterpart and see the new 50 pound note that is designed to foil crooks.
"I've been on the road an awful lot since I've been in office," she said. "It's tiring, but I don't mind it. I was on the road a lot as state treasurer."
Withrow is also dealing with an issue that probably won't mean much to Wall Street but could have folks on Main Street talking. She is studying the possibility of reinstituting a $1 coin.
The infamous Susan B. Anthony $1 coin made the campaign for the metric system look like a runaway victory. People wouldn't accept it.
But there is talk around the Treasury of giving the idea another try. Printing paper dollars is very expensive because they last only about 18 months in circulation, whereas a dollar coin would last about 30 years, Withrow said.
"There is a heavy movement by some to go to the $1 coin," Withrow said. "I'm totally neutral. I'm listening to all sides. There's been a lot of meetings on the subject."
Treasury officials believe that a $1 coin will be accepted only if its paper counterpart is phased out of circulation, according to Withrow. "Everything depends upon public acceptance," she said. "We get a lot of mail -- people have very strong feelings about it."
The trick is that the new $1 coin must be easily distinguishable from the quarter, which the Anthony dollar was not. Vendors also want it to fit existing vending machines, Withrow said. Another problem is there's well over five billion of dollar bills in circulation. And the initial cost of making enough coins would be astronomical.
In her new role in a very big organization, Withrow strives to put her own personal touch on the job, which includes giving a little recognition to the individuals who make the bureaucracy work.
"When I leave this office my thumbprint will be here," she said. "That's the way I've operated in every job I've ever had. And this isn't going to be any different."
For example, Withrow took the Treasury's head engraver with her to Cleveland for an unveiling ceremony of the new bills with her name on it. He engraved her signature on the printing plates. No treasurer had ever invited him before, he told Withrow.
And one morning, Withrow visited the workers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which is a 24-hour operation. She returned at 4 p.m. to meet the second shift, then again at 11 p.m. for the third shift. Another first, they told her.
Conceivably, Withrow could serve as treasurer until the year 2000. But that depends on several things down the road: what she wants, what the administration wants, and whether Bill Clinton is re-elected in 1996.
"I stay as long as I can help the administration. You never know-about those things. But I hope I can stay as long as the president stays," she said. She and her husband bought a house in Bethesda, Md., a Washington suburb.
Is this the final chapter of Withrow's political career? She wouldn't say.
"I never try to predict the future," she said. "I let my life evolve in a way that I think is best at the time."
As for the present, Withrow seems to be enjoying her new national role.
"It was the most wonderful feeling in the world. I can't explain how great it was to see money being printed with my name on it," she said. "It was unreal."
This isn't Withrow's first trip to the nation's capital.
Her parents brought her to Washington when she was five. They watched money being printed at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Withrow remembers being fascinated by that. The next time she was at the bureau, 58 years later, she walked in as the new boss.
In her office in the main Treasury building, a portrait of Michael Hillegas, the first U.S. treasurer, hangs on the wall.
The Office of the Treasurer actually predates most of the U.S. governmerit and has evolved considerably since its inception. Hillegas was named treasurer in 1777 by the Continental Congress. Twelve years later, George Washington became the first president in 1789.
Hillegas was responsible for raising money to fight the British. "Thank God, I don't have to do that," Withrow said with a smile.