Naming the Orange County Great Park After Ronald Reagan Gets Scholarly Stamps of Approval

A 25-year-old law has presented a snag in getting a statue of

Ronald Reagan

erected in a Newport Beach park. But who needs a statue when you can have an entire park named in your honor?

And not just any park, but the Orange County Great Park, which has been billed as the first great municipal park of the 21st century, up there with Central Park in New York and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

In honor of today's cover story, the Weekly asked a couple of scholars who have examined Reagan's presidency what they think of naming Irvine's massive public-works project after "Dutch."

Matthew Beckman, an associate professor of political science at UC Irvine's School of Social Science--where he studies Washington politics, particularly those involving the White House--was succinct.

"In terms of relevance and originality," he wrote in an email, "how could we not?"

Douglas Brinkley, the noted historian and Rice University professor, essentially said the same thing--only in more detail. The author of The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion (2005) and editor of The New York Times best-seller The Reagan Diaries (2007) first mentioned that his mother and father lived in Laguna Niguel, so he was quite familiar with the El Toro Marines Corps Air Station land that has given way for the Great Park.

Historian Douglas Brinkley is bully on naming the Orange County Great Park after Ronald Reagan.

"I return to that area quite often," he said. "I have always been very saddened that so much of the best of Orange County was bulldozed and cemented over and replaced with so many tract houses. It's one of the most beautiful parts of California. I prefer that wilderness land be left alone."

Make no mistake: Brinkley likes parks, and he does not find it unusual that Orange County's greatest one would be named after someone as popular as Reagan, "one of the true Californians who claimed the presidency."

Sure, Richard Nixon, who was born in Yorba Linda, might be a more fitting choice. But, as Brinkley put it, "I don't think anyone is rallying to name Nixon Park." He obviously has not met Nixon protégé and former Orange County Republican Party chairman Tom Fuentes.

"It sort of makes sense to name it after Reagan," Brinkley said. "But so much is named after Ronald Reagan already that a park would be just another trophy. It's understandable from Orange County. It's a very conservative county, and Reagan's stock is very high. He is ranked among the top 100 Americans in polls."

Here's something you might not have known: "As governor, he was very pro-conservation, which is not played up," the historian said of Reagan.

In 1969, then-Governor Reagan negotiated with his Nevada counterpart, Paul Laxalt, an interstate compact to jointly regulate Tahoe Basin land use and conserve the Lake Tahoe region's natural resources. Three years later, Reagan led a horse pack trip into the Sierra backcountry to announce opposition to a proposed trans-Sierra highway that would have split the John Muir Trail. He also secured Nixon Administration opposition, and the highway project was eventually killed.

This, Brinkley noted, was a different time, when movements for clean air and water were making inroads in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and those seeking to keep wild lands wild were actually being listened to . . . by Republicans even. Remember, it was Nixon who created the EPA.

"By today's standards," Brinkley said, Reagan in the 1970s "was a pro- and moderate-conservation governor."

But, he quickly adds, "That did not extend to his presidency." At no time was this more apparent than when Reagan appointed utilities stooge

James Watt

to be his Secretary of the Interior. Brinkley called that "one of the worst cabinet picks--I think one of the worst secretaries of Interior in U.S. history."

Thinking back to those days obviously made Brinkley give more thought to the idea of naming the 21st century's first large municipal park after Reagan. "I always wished these big parks were named after conservation heroes and environmentalists," he said wistfully, "so it would get people to learn more about them."

But Brinkley then concluded by saying the Ronald Reagan Great Park "makes perfect sense" in the Orange County he knows so well. Heck, he seemed tickled a park named after anyone was being constructed. "It's really great, too, because communities are not having ribbon cuttings on things," he said. "That there would be a great 21st century park is cause for celebration."


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