Lobdell: Reagan statue belongs on private property

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"

— President Ronald Reagan

I imagine Ronald Reagan would have had a chuckle over the government fumbling in Newport Beach over erecting a statue of him, the 40th president of the United States.

Here's hoping the City Council puts the controversy out of its misery Tuesday night by suggesting that any Reagan tribute — which has proven to be wildly divisive even more than two decades after he left office — should be a function of the private sector, including its placement on private property.

This would stop the blundering that began in January when the council ignored its own guidelines, which mandated the matter be put before the Arts Commission, and quietly voted to privately commission a statue of Reagan for placement in a city park as a way to celebrate the president's 100th birthday.

Councilman Keith Curry lobbied to put the larger-than-life bronze at the new Civic Center in Newport Center.

By blowing past the commission, Curry was able to pick his own artist, Stan Watts. It turns out that Watts, a Utah resident, has little to no formal training, a résumé of mediocre works and controversy in his past, according to online reports.

For instance, his truly awful "To Lift a Nation" monument in Emmitsburg, Md., which depicts the Sept. 11 firefighters who were at Ground Zero, was funded by an alleged con artist who — according to federal authorities — was operating a Ponzi scheme and needed a tax write-off for part of his ill-gotten gain estimated at $30 million. According to published reports, Watts received $300,000 from the alleged con man, but denied knowing that the money was tainted.

If the council had followed its own rules, the request for a Reagan statue would have gone to the Arts Commission, which would have solicited proposals from artists across the country. But the commissioners wouldn't have had to go far to find a more talented sculptor than Watts.

Miriam Baker is one. She lives on Balboa Island, and her bust of Elie Wiesel sits on the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian. She also has four sculptures in the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood, and 20 at Chapman University in Orange, including one of a smiling Reagan wearing his Stetson.

The arts commissioners would have also worked with the selected artist to find the best setting to place the Reagan sculpture. I've heard recently that Castaways Park is now under consideration as a home for the Reagan statue.

I personally can't think of a worse setting (even the Castaways' Marine memorial, though beautiful, looks like it's been randomly plopped there).

Instead, the commissioners were belatedly asked this month to give their opinion on the Reagan statue, which was like getting advice from an interior designer after you already redecorated your house. Rightly confused, the commission plopped the whole Reagan matter back in the lap of the City Council.

So, the council will consider what to do with the Reagan statue. It has several options. It can follow procedure and allow the Arts Commission to recommend an artist (and it wouldn't be Watts) and a place for the Reagan artwork.

It could consider the Watts' sculpture, once completed, a gift to the city. Then the Arts Commission would make a recommendation to the council whether to accept the gift (for instance, the art "should be of the highest quality and level of artistic excellence") and, if so, where to place it. But this is risky, because I'm pretty sure the commission would recommend rejecting a Watts piece.

Or the council could do what so many people in town, Democrat and Republican, want: get out of the Reagan statue business.

The needed $50,000 has already been privately raised for the statue; let those donors find a spot on private property for it. I vote for the Balboa Bay Club, where Reagan actually visited a number of times.

When Newport residents got their first real chance to speak on the issue, more than 100 angry people showed up at the Arts Commission meeting. Many were hardcore Democrats who found it offensive to memorialize a president they found so lacking.

Others — and their group was sizeable — simply thought that a Reagan statue would give the appearance of partisanship if placed at the new Civic Center or at any other piece of public property.

It's hard to argue otherwise. Reagan has become the iconic brand these days for conservative Republican politics.

Not enough time has passed for him to be seen primarily as a historic figure. I remember as a kid, my grandfather would go off just at the mention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, few people would have the same reaction. The years have cooled the partisan rage.

A vote against the Reagan statue isn't a vote against Reagan. It's a vote for unity, empathy for all residents and good local government.

The Gipper would be proud.

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 williamlobdell@gmail.com.

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