Welcome to the Ronald Reagan Great Park
Only one table is left at the busy 85ºC Bakery Cafe in the bustling Diamond Jamboree shopping center at Jamboree and Alton in Irvine. I slide into the seat facing the door and plop my bag on the table. There are too many tables in too small a space here; I am so pressed in I can feel an indentation being made in the back of my head by a thumbtack holding a flier on the community bulletin board behind me.
Pain is a small price to pay for my direct view of the front entrance, through which, any second now, my Irvine City Hall "Deep Throat" will waltz. Indeed, his arrival comes shortly after that of my steaming-hot cup of cream with a splash of coffee.
I won't go into too much detail describing him because I'm unsure how many city employees match his description and level of access. I'm not here to get anyone fired. Suffice it to say he's a younger veteran—well past college but nowhere near retirement age.
We lock eyes moments before he ambles over and half-whispers under his breath, "You Matt?" Except for the fact his career could be on the line by meeting with me—communication with the media in Irvine is as tightly regulated as roof-tile colors—I don't get the Spy vs. Spy stuff.
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After nervous introductions, we get down to business. But something is missing.
"I thought when you called you said you'd have documents?" I ask.
"They're all right here," he says, tapping a finger to his temple. "I have a photographic memory. Won a contest once."
Cut to the chase.
"I'm about to blow your mind," he says like a stranger in a Phish concert parking lot. "Those bastards are actually going to name the Orange County Great Park after Ronald Reagan."
My informant spoke in his mile-a-minute cadence, pausing between thoughts to sometimes look right through me. Others times, he seemed to drift off, fixing his gaze for several moments over my head or shoulders. But one thing became crystal clear long before the barista called out his triple soy whatever-whatever order: He is no Reagan Republican.
"Look, I came to Irvine from the Peace Corps specifically to work for Larry Agran," he mentioned at one point.
If Irvine were Hazzard County, Agran would be Boss Hogg (for as long as Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren let him think he was, anyway). Agran was first elected to the Irvine City Council the same year The Deer Hunter came out, in 1978. His first time around as mayor was from 1983 to 1989, and then again from 2001 to 2005—with a failed bid for U.S. president in between (Clinton I, 1992). He's been a city councilman most years since, as Irvine's notion of term limits allows council members to return as candidates on ballots after sitting out short spells.
A number of Agran accomplishments would tickle the progressive bone of a true believer like my new friend across the table. The early Agran championed child care, recycling and affordable housing. Before global warming would become a term mocked by conservatives, Agran—way back in 1989—pushed for a model city ordinance to ban or severely restrict the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), synthetic chemicals that destroy ozone.
Throughout the Reagan presidency, the liberal Democrat blasted pretty much everything that was coming out of the White House. When the Gipper suggested more power should go to local city halls rather than the federal government, Agran sarcastically ran with it by leading his city to declare itself a nuclear-free zone and divest from South Africa—issues that were decidedly not Reaganesque.
Agran lobbied the U.S. Council of Mayors to blast Reagan for creating "a first-class military protecting a third-world economy and society" saddled "with rising levels of poverty, a declining industrial base, record levels of public and private debt, a deteriorating public-school system, a choked transportation system, and a hellish natural environment."
"He promised to cut taxes, double military spending and balance the budget," Agran said of Reagan in Sustainability magazine's January 1990 issue. "You can't do all three. While he was a candidate, he never mentioned which programs he would slash. He talked about getting rid of waste and corruption, and that sounded fine to almost everybody. What he ended up doing was destroying the federal programs upon which most cities rely to meet housing, transportation and emergency needs. He shifted the burden for several federal programs to cities and called that 'New Federalism.'"
Reagan may have been "The Great Communicator," but Agran saw himself as "The Great Populist," telling Sustainability it was him—not the president—who was with the majority of Americans who in the early 1980s opposed Reagan's misadventures in Nicaragua (60 percent) and favored a nuclear weapons freeze (70 percent to 80 percent) and granting more authority to the United Nations (70 percent).
That was then.
* * *
"Those bastards want to turn the Great Park into sort of a Reagan Disneyland," my informant said, just before I showered him in spit-take. "Along with the statue of Reagan being built in Newport Beach and the Reagan federal building in Santa Ana, the area in between the three spots will be known as 'The Teflon Triangle.'"
Who, I asked, are those bastards?
My scoop-maker had to back up. The greatest land-use achievement of Agran's career came when he marshaled the South County forces that would ultimately defeat establishment Orange County's desire to convert the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, mothballed in 1999, into a 24-hour, commercial, international airport.
It was Agran who came up with a viable alternative to the airport that ultimately enticed voters throughout all of vast Orange County: a multi-use park larger than Central Park in Manhattan and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. He had been so instrumental in foisting the Orange County Great Park on the public that everyone assumed it would someday be named after Agran, who until very recently was the only chairman the Orange County Great Park Corp. Board of Directors had ever known. But power corrupts, and like a Marine lieutenant colonel in a White House basement trading arms for hostages, a politician can always convince himself that the ends justify the means.
First, longtime supporters became sickened by Agran using the taxpayer-funded windfall that came with creating his signature park to line the pockets of those fueling his political machine. After nearly a decade and little park to show for it—save for some temporary grass and a balloon ride—public support began to wane. Damning grand-jury reports on the smoke-and-mirrors financing schemes followed. Complaints piled up with state regulators about Agran electioneering. Whispers of federal probes circulated.
Agran's popularity in Irvine sank so low that some polls had him losing in the final weeks leading to last November's council election. That obviously spooked Agran, who could see power on what's supposedly a nonpartisan city council shift from a Democratic to Republican majority—and with that, control over "the first great metropolitan park of the 21st century."
Something had to be done.
* * *
"Do you know R. Scott Moxley?" my informant asked.
Certainly. My Weekly colleague and I occupied the original furniture in the original Weekly building (Clinton I).
"Do you remember that last column Moxley wrote about Scott Baugh?" he asked.
Sure. The Moxley Confidential piece this past Jan. 7—headlined "The Manchurian Party Chairman?"—was about a curious decision by Baugh, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party Central Committee, regarding the Irvine City Council race. That panel has five members, including the mayor. Despite the city being predominantly Republican, a Democratic majority has ruled for years, including all the formative years of the Great Park. But with two open council seats in November's city elections and Republican Steven Choi's seat safe for another two years, the GOP had a real shot at taking control of the council.
And yet, Baugh endorsed only one Republican, Jeff Lalloway, in the council race, despite the presence of another strong GOP candidate on the ballot, Lynn Schott. This was a huge omission because so many voters choose candidates on party slate mailers. Agran and Lalloway wound up the top two vote-getters, Schott came in third, and, as Mox reported, many Republicans blamed Baugh for letting a golden opportunity slip through his stubby fingers.
"That's only half the story," my informant claimed. He says a deal was cut. In exchange for making it easier for Agran and his Democratic majority to retain power, Agran's precious Orange County Great Park would be named and themed after the GOP's precious Ronald Reagan.
My mind reeled. Talk about a quid pro quo.
"But this secret deal goes farther than that," my fact-feeder explained. Baugh would help rebuild public and financial support for the Great Park in Orange County and beyond. Having Ronald Reagan's name stamped over the park opens revenue streams that not only get the earthmovers humming (finally), but Baugh and Agran's respective political machines as well.
"It is," my informer complained, "a match made in hell."
* * *
Okay, now I was officially creeped out. I asked what makes Baugh and Agran think the people will go for this.
"They already floated a trial balloon," explained my 85ºC tablemate. One of Councilman Jeff Lalloway's first orders of business was declaring Feb. 6, 2011, "Ronald Reagan Day" in Irvine to honor the 40th president on what would have been his 100th birthday, had he not died in 2004.
At the Feb. 22 Irvine City Council meeting, Lalloway presented a proclamation to John Shaw and Al Frink of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation. The councilman tearfully credited "Dutch Reagan" with shaping his own conservatism. Ronnie Guyer, a Vietnam War veteran, recited a hymn that was sung at Reagan's funeral. And Agran just sat there with his usual serenely constipated expression.
"That told them Ronald Reagan Orange County Great Park was a go," said my insider. "You wouldn't believes how far along [master park designer] Ken Smith and his studio are already. They've got the sculptor for the statue at the park entrance."
He described it as being just like the Walt Disney statue at Disneyland, only it'll be Reagan instead of Uncle Walt holding Mickey Mouse's hand. That idea apparently came from the Baugh cabal, who see a natural tie-in with Orange County by having Ronnie and our greatest rodent icon holding hands.
"The Disney Co. is even behind this," Deep Throat added. "Disney likes the historical link: Reagan was one of the MCs for the international press preview of Disneyland that ABC televised live on July 17, 1955."
He really does have a photographic memory.
"Of course, Irvine has to scratch Disney's back, too," he added. "They got the city to buy all the crappy California Adventure attractions they are replacing. They'll be dumped all around the Great Park. Those morons even took the Maliboomer. The Maliboomer!"
* * *
After staring over my head for several seconds that seemed like hours, my informant let out a huge sigh and said, "You've got to hand it to those bastards: They have really thought of everything."
Not that it was hard, given how Reagan's life folds so nicely into existing park plans. He broadcast sports on the radio, first at Eureka College in Illinois, and then after graduation in Iowa. That makes the Ronald Reagan Athletic Complex a natural fit at the Great Park.
Reagan moved from broadcasting into movies and television. The Ronald Reagan Museum of Motion Pictures and Television trumps the old park's performing-arts venue. "Bedtime for Bonzo will play on an endless video loop in the lobby," said the insider.
El Toro's aviation history that was played up in the previous park plans will make way for attractions honoring Reagan's brave World War II service stateside with the Army Air Force's First Motion Picture Unit. "They plan to have Hellcats of the Navy playing on a continuous loop," informed the informant.
Meanwhile, the base control tower will remain erect and empty to honor President Reagan's mass firing of more than 11,000 air-traffic controllers. The Reaganomics of park planning are endless: the Laissez Fair amusement park; the warm-water End of the Cold War Lake; the Morning In America Café, whose breakfast menu includes "Grenada eggs" and a "supply side of ham," which you can wash down with a "Bloody Thursday Mary."
At Agran's Great Park, visitors would learn about farming, with crops being distributed to the needy. Now that it's named after Reagan, that section will be called "Botulism for the Poor" in honor of a remark the then-California governor made about feeding the state's hungry. After harvest, the bounty will be burned.
Reagan's trusted friends and advisers also get their due. Leading the pack is the Nancy Reagan "Just Say Hoe" Children's Interactive Garden. The 50,000 trees Southern California Edison has pledged to the Great Park will be chopped down for the James Watt Wilderness Corridor. The iconic Great Park balloon ride will get a makeover, with an image of Edwin Meese's face superimposed on the giant orange globe. "Something to do with hot air," the City Hall vet explained.
Around Halloween, the balloon will get its familiar jack-o'-lantern face, but the exact date will remain a mystery. "They're calling it the 'October Surprise,'" Deep Throat grumbled through gritted teeth.
Reagan-themed sponsorship opportunities will be as vast as the 1,300-acre park. "The botanical gardens will be named the Orange County Alzheimers Association Forgotten Memories Garden," he said. And the youth will be able to raise the roof at "Reagan Raves," brought to you by Goldenvoice.
While the notion of a Larry Agran Great Park is but a forgotten memory, the politician is not being totally cut out of his baby. "The Baugh boys threw Agran a bone by allowing all the Great Park restrooms to be named after him," said my helpful informer. "They'll all be nicknamed 'The Larries.'"
Some dare call it trickle-down economics.
* * *
My Deep Throat had spun quite a tale. But I had to know how this got so far so quickly. As I press him, he seems to stare over me yet again, no longer squinting but with eyes glazed over, as if he has run out of details to pluck from his blue-ribbon photographic memory.
Suddenly, he stands, board-stiff.
"Gotta go," he announces before whipping around and heading for the door.
"Wait!" I shout as I get up and walk halfway to the entrance after him. "How can I get hold of you? I must know your name."
He mutters half under his breath again. I hear "Seyser Koze," or something like that, as he limps out the door. Having sat for so long, his leg must've fallen asleep. He walks perfectly just before he disappears into a sea of SUVs in the Diamond Jamboree parking lot.
Seyser Koze. I pluck my handy list of Irvine city employees out of my bag. Nope, no one with a name anything like that appears. Dejected, I fetch my stuff off the table—and for the first time, I zero in on the items hanging on the bulletin board that was behind me during the interview.
An invitation to the city of Irvine's Ronald Reagan Day festivities. A Larry Agran Chess Tournament entry form. A Daily Pilot clipping about Newport Beach's planned Reagan statue. A yellowing copy of Moxley's Scott Baugh column. A Disneyland anniversary flier featuring a black-and-white photo of emcees Reagan, Art Linkletter and Robert Cummings. A want ad for interns at Ken Smith's Great Park design studio. A Maliboomer for-sale ad ("Dirt cheap!"). And, in the upper right corner, a Netflix coupon enticing new subscribers with such classic titles as Knute Rockne: All-American, Bedtime for Bonzo and Hellcats of the Pacific.
Must be one of those coincidences that would have prompted Ronald Reagan to say, "Facts are a stupid thing."
This article appeared in print as "The Great Communicator Park: EXCLUSIVE! Super-secret plans are afoot to name Orange County's largest public-works project after Ronald Reagan."
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