Lobdell: Statue doesn't belong in Castaways

President Ronald Reagan won another landslide victory this week.

The Newport Beach City Council voted 5 to 2 to plop down a privately-funded Reagan statue in Castaways Park.

The council ignored its own — and apparently inconvenient — policy and allowed the statue's private donors to have a say in selecting the artist. It also relegated the Arts Commission to such a minor role that Councilman Steve Rosansky, who voted against the statue along with Nancy Gardner, wondered if the ignored advisory body should be done away with altogether.

Sitting in the packed Council Chambers on Tuesday evening, I got the feeling that Councilman Keith Curry, the force behind the Reagan statue, already had the needed votes in his pocket, and public testimony that a sculpture of the 40th president of the United States on public property was inappropriately partisan wasn't going to change or sway anyone on the dais.

Aside from Councilman Rush Hill who had worked closely with Reagan, the others supporting the statue — council members Leslie Daigle and Ed Selich, and Mayor Michael Henn — gave the impression that they were voting "yes" largely to put the controversy behind them.

As Daigle put it, the vote was an "effort at quieting this down."

Henn called it an "imperfect solution" but pushed the statue proposal forward.

Though the council railroaded through the Reagan artwork, opponents did manage two important victories. They blocked the statue from being installed at the new Civic Center. And they got the council to seek other sculptors for the commission, likely putting an end to the chances that Curry's handpicked artist — the self-taught Stan Watts of Utah, whose pieces don't exactly conjure up images of Michelangelo's "David" — would be commissioned.

I do hope someone launches a movement to stop the statue's placement at Castaways Park. That bluff-top property, which Newport residents voted to save from development decades ago, was designed to be a natural park with sweeping views of the Back Bay and harbor.

It's a setting that oozes serenity and peace and provides an escape from the daily grind of life. Any statue, or even playground equipment, would wreck the aesthetic.

I know what you're thinking: What about the Marine Corps monument there? It's also horribly out of place, the result of the city again bypassing advice from the Arts Commission. As one letter writer to the Daily Pilot, and son of a Marine, put it, it's "like placing a Howitzer atop El Capitan" in Yosemite.

Let's not compound the error by erecting a Reagan statue there. Curry said he wanted the Reagan statue to help educate the children of our community. The Castaways attracts a lot of runners, dog walkers and couples holding hands, but it isn't big with the kids. Another park or public space would make much more sense — and get more visitors than the hard-to-access Castaways.

I'll admit to coming away from the council meeting this week a little depressed. The whole controversy encapsulated what's wrong with American political discourse.

The pro-Reagan crowd couldn't imagine how anyone with a patriotic bone in their body wouldn't want a statue of the Gipper in their town, and it didn't matter to them that a sizable number of residents including some of Newport's leading citizens found it downright offensive.

The anti-Reagan group wasn't any better, painting the 40th president as a monstrous leader with no redeeming legacy from his years of public service.

On one side, you had Fox News. On the other, MSNBC. They were talking different languages in a city where the lingua franca should be pothole repairs, Back Bay dredging, balanced budgets, community services and the like, not partisan bickering that only cements the views on each pole and gives headaches to those of us in the middle.

Curry and others kept making the point, with a straight face, that commissioning a Reagan statue for the city was done for historic, not partisan reasons — and the same consideration would be given to other U.S. presidents.

It would be so much fun to test this out. What if local Democratic leaders proposed a privately funded President Bill Clinton statue for Newport Beach, perhaps to be completed in 2013 on the 20th anniversary of his presidential inauguration.

Can you imagine the sight of larger-than-life bronzes of both presidents standing sentry together on the Castaways bluff?

If Newport Beach — with its Republican majority — could get so stirred up over a Reagan statue, a proposed sculpture of Clinton would generate a citizen revolt. And what kind of verbal gymnastics would the council members have to perform to reject a Clinton statue when they approved a Reagan piece?

OK, enough daydreaming. The reality is that Newport Beach will have a quality statue of Reagan on public property, most likely in Castaways Park.

Curry has won one for the Gipper.

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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