Lobdell: Will it be a 'only in Newport' statue?

Editor's note: This corrects the color in "Metalphor."

Councilman Keith Curry seems a bit bewildered by the controversy generated by his efforts to get a privately funded bronze statue of President Ronald Reagan placed in Newport Beach's new Civic Center.

Over breakfast Monday at Coco's in Fashion Island, he told me he doesn't think Newport Beach should remain a history-free zone, with only a few historical plaques and memorials throughout the city and no tributes to national figures.

He finds it "curious" that on the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth, Central Square in Kraków, Poland, has been renamed Ronald Reagan Square, and a 10-foot-high bronze statue of Reagan will soon be unveiled outside the U.S. Embassy in London, but in Newport Beach — where the president received 77% of the vote during his re-election bid in 1984 — opposition has formed against the statue.

"We as citizens need to recognize and embrace our history," Curry said, adding that the legacy left by a president such as Reagan transcended partisanship.

He divides the opposition — and, by the way, he says he's received only about 10 e-mails protesting the statue — into three categories: hardcore Reagan haters, old-timers who don't want change, and people who don't want to rock the boat.

Curry, who worked in the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s, said he would love other presidential statues to have a home in the new Civic Center, including those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, two Democratic lions.

"If a group organized in town [to commission one of those statues], I'd be first in line to write a check," Curry said.

I asked him if he'd be willing to write a check for a Jimmy Carter statue and he laughed and said no, adding that he also wouldn't contribute money to a Gerald Ford memorial.

"The marketplace recognizes who is important," he said.

Meanwhile, it appears Newport Beach residents are fighting to get in line to fund the $50,000 Reagan statue recently approved by the City Council. In the first two weeks of fundraising, Curry said $40,000 in donations and pledges has flooded in.

And the sketches of the statue by sculptor Stan Watts of Salt Lake City are getting close to a final design. The latest drawing shows Reagan wearing a business suit and a large smile, resting his left elbow casually on a rib-high Roman column.

So Newport Beach will indeed be getting a slightly larger-than-life Reagan statue, probably by the summer. The question remains: Where will it go?

Does Newport want to create its own version of Mt. Rushmore at the Civic Center, commissioning sculptures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK and Reagan?

I understand and appreciate Curry's passion for Reagan and for bringing a sense of national history to Newport Beach. A presidential Walk of Fame at the new Civic Center is an interesting idea — and I'm sure it would be a big hit with schoolchildren.

But for me, it would be like the Daily Pilot publishing news stories today about the protests in Egypt. Some subscribers might love it, but the coverage would seem out of place for most readers. International news is not what the Pilot's about.

I'm not for a history-free zone in Newport Beach, but I'd personally like the town's memorials to reflect local history. Yes, that's parochial. And yes, reasonable minds can differ on this.

So if city leaders and residents want to create a pantheon of great presidents at the Civic Center, the tribe will have spoken.

The backers of putting the Reagan statue in the Civic Center might have a challenge if the city decides it doesn't want more presidential statues — making the bronze of Reagan the only sculpture of a president to occupy one of the 12 pads at the Civic Center reserved for public art. That would send the message to City Hall visitors that Reagan was the only president who Newport Beach residents found worth honoring in that manner.

Or would the Reagan sculpture be exiled to another part of Newport, much like the bright blue  piece of, ah, abstract art called "Metalphor" by Bret Price. The twisting metal sculpture was given to the city in 1986 amid great fanfare and was initially placed outside City Hall. But more than a few people decided it looked an awful lot like someone squatting down to relieve him- or herself.

Two years later, the 1,500-pound artwork was banished to the old Central Library property in Newport Beach, before finding its latest resting spot on the east side of the intersection of Superior Avenue and West Coast Highway.

If city officials could have gotten away with it, I think they'd prefer to dump "Metalphor" in Huntington Beach late one evening.

I don't see the Reagan statue having a similar fate. Our 40th president remains hugely popular in Newport Beach, and Curry has the political capital and will to get the statue placed in the Civic Center.

In his view, the sculpture is the perfect way to honor one of the nation's greatest presidents during Reagan's 100th birthday celebration while bringing a needed dose of history to Newport Beach.

I don't think he sees that many people who are in the middle and on the left politically consider the statue to be a divisive distraction that's inappropriate for a nonpartisan city hall.

In the end, I imagine supporters and opponents of the Reagan statue will say the same thing once the sculpture is unveiled in the Civic Center: "Only in Newport."

WILLIAM LOBDELL — a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist — is a Costa Mesa resident who runs a boutique public relations firm. His column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is bill@cat5communications.com.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World