Editing a Paper in Your Hometown
Photo by Davis BarberAPHORISMS
There's an aphorism for almost everything—including one that says, "An aphorism is never exactly truthful; it is either a half-truth or a truth and a half." So there's got to be an aphorism that covers the job of editing a newspaper in the town where you live, something like the admonition that it's unwise to shit where you eat, but more particular to newspapering, though it might suit cops who patrol their own neighborhoods too, a truth and a half that would describe the mix of sadness and rage they might feel when they're dispatched to a disturbance and find, like, maybe the local minister drinking whiskey from a bottle and randomly firing a pistol into a school playground of absolutely freaked-out children, their tiny hands swatting hopelessly at the air.
I'm thinking here about news stories we've run revealing that Larry Agran—often, since the late 1970s, Irvine's mayor, now one of its council members—is not the man we thought he was.
Or—and this is more nuanced—that he is that man, and more.
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For the past year or so, the Weekly's R. Scott Moxley has uncovered evidence that puts Agran at the center of backroom deals that would enrich his friends. Agran has said little that clarifies these arrangements, but his surrogates have, in one way or another, asked me, "How could you stab Larry in the back?"
The question correctly implies a number of things: that the Weekly is a lefty paper, and Agran is supposed to be a lefty—maybe the county's most famous, longest-lived lefty—and if there's honor among the thieves in the White House, there ought to be something like it among progressives.
Most importantly, it occasionally recognizes that Agran was my friend.
I say "was" because the relationship evaporated in 2004 when Moxley uncovered Agran's role in a Great Park scandal worthy of Orange County's largest public-works project ever. In one case, documents show and sources say Agran directed a lucrative, no-bid contract to a utility firm with unpublicized ties to his longtime friend and adviser, a retired Orange Coast College English professor named Ed Dornan. Moxley also discovered that several Agran supporters, including Dornan, have created a number of companies whose goal seems to be to capitalize on Agran's position on the powerful board that will build the Great Park. Documents and sources indicate that in yet another case the Great Park Conservancy, the nonprofit, non-governmental group Agran established to organize popular support for the Great Park, padded by $20,000 its bid to inventory trees on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. More recently, Moxley has shown that Agran has persuaded his allies on the Great Park board to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for the services of political consultants tied to the county's nearly omnipotent Republican establishment.
A BRIEF HISTORY
For more than a decade Larry Agran was my friend, mentor and role model. A man of great intellect, good humor and honesty, Agran brought me out of graduate school at UC Irvine and into local politics. He paid me to do good work—in affordable housing, recycling, land preservation, civil rights and even foreign affairs. He introduced me to many of the people who would become my best friends.
Another aphorism has it that familiarity breeds contempt, but the closer I got to Agran, the more I admired him. In the late 1980s, I traveled with him all over the country, heard him speak about good government to crowds in Portland, Seattle, Santa Barbara, Chicago and the Twin Cities. In New York City, we stayed in a hotel called the Aberdeen that seemed to house German tourists, the homeless and us—all above what smelled and sounded like a kosher slaughterhouse. His only vice at the time—he didn't drink or smoke; in restaurants, he feigned nausea whenever seated too close to smokers—was his love of the television show Law & Order. When our hotel television didn't work, the Aberdeen staff rolled in a second and placed it atop the corpse of its predecessor. That night at the Aberdeen, when a roach moved like a bumper car across the TV screen, I screamed like a girl-child. Agran joked about similarities between lawyers and roaches. The next day, he spoke at a peace conference at the city's famed Riverside Church, and when he described his vision for a foreign policy designed around what he called "Main Street," 800 of them stood and cheered. Someone there—it might have been Noam Chomsky—called him America's Mayor.
It's well-known that Agran is smart; he graduated from Berkeley and Harvard Law, of course, but there's more to it than that: he has amazing political smarts, the kind I've seen in people like Bob Dornan and right-wing radio's Hugh Hewitt. Agran's like that, capable of generating intimacy with strangers on the basis of a brief handshake. You don't find many Democrats getting elected in Republican strongholds, but by the time I met him in 1986, Agran had been elected three times to the Irvine City Council. His secret: he effortlessly translated the politics of environmentalism into the politics of Republican homeownership. Where lefties heard "clean water" and "open space," conservatives heard "rising home equity"; they were both right. In his many years at City Hall, he established one of the nation's first curbside recycling programs; drafted and passed a measure that banned the production and use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in the city—and became the model for a global ban; implemented an ambitious and wildly successful public housing program; created city-funded child care; and bargained so aggressively with the Irvine Co. that Irvine now includes an abundance of permanently preserved open space.
It's less well-known that Agran is funny. He and I briefly considered writing a film script about a conspiracy theorist who believes that a horse killed Jack Kennedy—and is proved right. Agran had a mutual friend laughing so hard once that the friend—a well-groomed man in a suit—farted.
But what made him huge was his critique of Reagan- and Bush-era politics. When the Berlin Wall came down, Agran called for a peace dividend—immediate cuts in foreign-based troops and big-ticket weapons systems, a multibillion-dollar tax refund, and a boost in social spending. He was dedicated enough to such change that he'd speak anywhere, to anyone. One summer morning, we drove north on the 405 through traffic as hot and dense as the inside of a rock, headed for a speaking engagement at a benighted IHOP in a nondescript LA suburb—Torrance, maybe. We arrived late. Agran apologized, and then told the group of mostly conservative local officials that Republican spending priorities—big on the Pentagon, penurious at home—were upside down. "What does it mean," he ad-libbed, "that our country can launch a nuclear missile from beneath the Rocky Mountains and guarantee that it'll land inside the Kremlin within 15 minutes, but we can't with any certainty get a commuter from Orange County to LA in under an hour?" The audience mumbled—whether in agreement or because of the chocolate chip pancakes, I couldn't say—and then Agran dropped the punch line: "One guy breaks a fan belt, and half a million people are late for work." And then they loved him.
That was Agran's gig in the '80s—pointing out that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were bankrupting the nation's cities while spending billions in a global war against a communist threat that hadn't existed for years. If you were the mayor of any reasonably sized U.S. city, it was mourning in America. Funding for local programs that had helped reduce child poverty, illiteracy and mortality was slashed; in a weird meeting of the far left's fascination with mental illness as performance art and the right wing's hatred of social services because they defied the logic of the marketplace, the homeless were released in the thousands onto potholed streets. The culture war that now seems like weather—a force of nature beyond our control, a brutalizing context—erupted with attacks on gays, the left, liberals, non-Christians, working women, single women, women. The deficit yawned wide.
And Agran—a diminutive, bespectacled intellectual—rode the rising tide of liberal anger. The ride came to an end when he proposed a city ordinance to extend civil rights protections to gays and lesbians. Irvine's far-right activists lost what little was left of their minds and promised to run him out of office.
The evangelical threat was serious. We may have missed the warning signs then, but Sept. 11 has since taught us that a even a small number of people can kill you—figuratively or literally—when they believe they not only talk to God but that God is talking back. And so we gathered at Agran's home to consider: to continue with the gay civil-rights ordinance or to bail. When I counseled caution, Agran turned on me. He stood, his face reddening, and told me blankly, "We got elected to use our power to do the right thing." Then he smiled and did a little boxer's shuffle. He swung his fists at shadowy conservatives, delivered a little jab—and knocked us out. Here was a liberal unashamed of his power. We would have followed him anywhere.
Anywhere turned out to be defeat. The decision to go ahead with the equal-rights amendment was Agran's Vietnam.
Agran had made his rep fighting the Irvine Co., cultivating outraged voters wherever the company cranked up its bulldozers. And while the company spent lavishly to defeat Agran, it didn't have the people. With a few hours' notice, Agran could mobilize a hundred supporters to walk precincts; while the company focus-grouped, surveyed opinion and sought the counsel of high-powered consultants, Agran was in the streets.
But in 1990, with the gay-rights ordinance on the ballot, the company suddenly had Christian foot soldiers. They won, if only narrowly. Agran packed up his office at City Hall and left, defeated in a local race for the first time in 12 years.
You get to know a man well when you spend a few nights with him at the Aberdeen, when your kids are raised around his election campaigns, when your friends are his friends, when you ride with him to what seems like political death (I was also a marginal player in his idealistic 1992 run for the White House) and then into resurrection (I watched hopefully from the sidelines when he ran and won a seat on the Irvine City Council in 1998—Larry Phase II).
I knew—know—Larry Agran.
But Agran's more recent bullshit at City Hall—the deals he's made with Republican consultants, the contracts that benefit friends—suggests that sometime between his valiant run for the White House and his re-election in 1998, Agran decided that power was more important than principle. He began by accepting money from Irvine Co. executives and quickly followed by declaring an end to the land-development wars of the 1980s. Company executives held fund-raisers for the man they'd vilified for years; he appeared in a company-produced video honoring company chairman Donald Bren, a video the company delivered to every home in the city.
"I think Bren really does think of himself as an artist painting this vast mural that is the Irvine Ranch," Agran told OC Metro. "He is a very good planner and sets very high standards. He has a good eye; just look around Irvine at the built environment."
The real Larry Agran would have gagged on the words. It struck me then that Agran had been body snatched.
Agran's transformation brought him into the cross hairs of one of Orange County's most intrepid reporters—the aforementioned R. Scott Moxley. Moxley works for me.
The first thing you feel when your best investigative reporter draws a bead on a target is a sense of inevitability. It's like that moment in a nature film when the people of the Yagua tribe aim their blowguns at the forest canopy: you know that what follows is a dinner of manioc and monkey meat. I've felt that sense of inevitability before, and I can tell you that it does nothing to make me feel good when Moxley—or Nick Schou or Gustavo Arellano or any of the other skilled journalists I've worked with—finds yet more evidence of man's fallenness. There is no thrill of the chase, no sense that we're reliving All the President's Men, just a kind of glum recognition that politicians, even little ones, are often as jacked-up as the rest of us. Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle once told me that among his most painful insights while serving in the California State Assembly was the recognition that the bell curve is as consistent in its rise and fall from stupid to average to brilliant in Sacramento as it is in the bleachers of your local high school football game. And so it is with ethics at city hall.
So I've been editing the Weekly long enough to know that when our reporters go after someone, it's because they smell blood. And I've been at it long enough to know what follows: the howl of protest from the subject of the investigation that we're wrong, followed quickly by a savage counterattack about our laziness, sensationalism, immorality, stupidity, our use of the f-word, our ads for penis enlargements and breast enhancements, our free distribution, the troubling fact that ink from our pages gets on one's fingers, our ostensible politics, our religion or lack of it, our race, gender and ethnicity—about everything but the charges.
I heard the protests when Moxley uncovered the real military and domestic-violence records of bitter, defeated ex-Congressman Bob Dornan and helped drive the SOB from office in 1996; Dornan said we were "Satan's instrument" and accused us of "spreading infected bodily fluids" around the county. I think he meant it metaphorically. And I heard it when Moxley dug into the dark background of Newport Beach swindler Eddie Allen to discover that, for years, Eddie had embezzled more than a million dollars from close friends and friends of friends, leveraging their belief in God, America and his wife's affiliation with the Orange County Republican Party to steal what was often their life's savings ("Neither truth nor accuracy are of concern to the Weekly," his wife wrote).
I could go on, but you get the picture—revelation, outrage, counterattack. It's like Simba's Great Circle of Life, but more circular and less great. It's so terrifying to the guilty and invariable to the rest of us that my colleague Steve Lowery recently advised politicians thusly in his column, Diary of a Mad County: "I sincerely suggest you not mess with our news dudes—Arellano, Moxley and Schou. Bob Dornan did, and now he's doing kids' birthday parties and first communions. Larry Agran is getting a little something-something right now . . . I would sincerely consider sending these boys a muffin basket, you know, and hope the Angel of Death passes you over . . ."
Revelation, outrage, counterattack; as natural as apples falling at Newton's feet. But I was still surprised when I heard the same line of defense from Agran and those who remain loyal to the man no matter what. Just a few years ago he called our reporting "the best, most incisive and uncompromising" in the county. He told Orange Coast (in that magazine's 1997 profile of me), "Will's not afraid of a fight. He's great to have around."
But now that the uncompromising and incisive reporting was aimed at him, the paper was a joke. Speaking at a Sept. 13, 2004, City Council meeting sparked by Moxley's investigation into the spreading Great Park scandal, Agran said you can't take the Weekly seriously because our stories appear "in between penis- and breast-enlargement ads."
My mentor Larry Agran went to war with the Weekly, and all I got was this flaccid dick joke?
IT'S A WEIRD DAY IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD
With Agran's few remaining allies—and his new, wealthier friends in the GOP—firing off penis and teat jokes, things have been a little weird around the neighborhood. I still live in Irvine, so it's common to run into people who feel strongly about Moxley's revelations. Most people sadly acknowledge that Larry isn't the man they thought he was, but a few think it's the Weekly that's changed. At the grocery store, one old friend told me I'd lost my mind—and then called me "a sick, sad fuck." My 5-year-old was with me and turned to ask, right there among the shoppers checking out broccoli and grapefruit, "'Fuck' is a bad word, right, Dad? We don't say 'fuck.' Because 'fuck' is a bad word. Maybe the most baddest. So that's why we don't say 'fuck.'" Another longtime friend called me at home one night to ask how much I'd been paid. "Paid?" I asked. "Paid to attack Larry," he said. Similarly, another Agran supporter told me it was clear we were investigating the man in order "to sell papers." A man who was once among my best friends warned me that all of my sources on the Agran investigation were drunks or crazy people, that all incriminating documents are open to interpretation, and that my refusal to see this was part of the Weekly's slow slide into "the worst kind of yellow journalism."
I ran into Larry one evening last year. It was the first time we'd seen each other since Moxley had launched the investigation. Walking out of a shopping center near UC Irvine, we converged awkwardly in the parking lot. He asked about my family, I asked about his, and then I asked, "So how's everything else?" And he let me have it—my stupidity, my desire to tear him down for reasons that clearly required "a therapist," my hope to build a reputation on the destruction of his good name—everything but the possibility that he'd made some bad decisions, that he'd been taking advice from people who knew how to win elections, stay in office, and keep your hands on the levers of power, but knew little of press relations, to say nothing of ethics.
He was so pissed off out there—standing in the slanting early evening sun, our shadows pointed, swear to God, like a compass needle right toward the place we'd first met back in 1986 or so—so pissed off that he said he no longer reads the Weekly. I didn't bother to ask how it was he knew what we were writing.
So I react badly when my friends—some of whom I will allow the license they have already taken to call themselves "former" friends—fall into the familiar pattern of raging at the Weekly. (A few weeks back it was the aging Agran supporter who said our critique of Larry could be motivated only by anti-Semitism.) I wish they'd examine the evidence. I wish they'd focus, not on the soy content in our ink, the breast-enhancement ads, the etc., etc., etc. I wish they'd take seriously the principles of good government that Agran taught us.
I regret that I sometimes react badly when they don't.
Mostly I regret that Agran, whom I still honor for every great thing he created—I can see now that I failed to mention his leading role in killing the county's plan to build an airport at El Toro—that that man has put us, his friends, this little band of brothers and sisters fighting the good fight in Orange County, in the position of agreeing to walk past one another in shopping centers, at city parks and political fund-raisers, averting our eyes and closing our lips to avoid saying anything, rather than saying the one thing that might disturb the beige housing tracts we disappear into every night: that Larry Agran turned out to be mortal.
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