Dan Morain

Artist honored to do Capitol sculpture of his friend Ronald Reagan

Local artist Doug Van Howd works in his studio in Auburn on Thursday. His statue of Ronald Reagan will soon replace that of Christopher Columbus in the state Capitol’s lower rotunda. Van Howd was a close friend of Reagan’s and was the official White House artist during the Reagan presidential administration.
Local artist Doug Van Howd works in his studio in Auburn on Thursday. His statue of Ronald Reagan will soon replace that of Christopher Columbus in the state Capitol’s lower rotunda. Van Howd was a close friend of Reagan’s and was the official White House artist during the Reagan presidential administration. rbenton@sacbee.com

Step back in time with sculptor Doug Van Howd. Some of his work depicts prehistoric giants. Some is of recent vintage.

There’s a full-sized bronze triceratops in his cavernous studio in Auburn. A twin of the 6,500-pound beast battles with a Van Howd-sculpted Tyrannosaurus rex at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

“Watch your head on these horns,” Van Howd said.

There is a replica of World War II ace Bud Anderson’s P-51 Mustang, nick-named Old Crow. It will go on display at the Auburn airport when it’s complete.

In the workshop at the rear of the studio, a new statue takes shape. It will be the one for which he will be best known. It is of Van Howd’s friend, the 33rd governor of California, the one who defeated the father of today’s governor.

Gov. Ronald Reagan is smiling, leaning slightly forward. His hair is perfectly in place, his suit impeccably tailored, his shoes stylishly pointed. The tie and tie pin are bronzed look-alikes from photos supplied by his widow, Nancy Reagan.

In roughly two months, when Van Howd and his helpers finish welding, sanding and polishing to perfection, the man lionized by Republicans will stand in the Capitol dominated by Democrats. It is fitting. Reagan occupies a unique place in California history and deserves a place in the Capitol he roamed from 1967 to 1975, no matter your view of him.

Van Howd, who will turn 80 next month, says he doesn’t have a “political bone in his body.” But he has no doubt about the project’s wisdom: “I’m so honored to do this. I thought he was a great man.”

Reagan will stand in the Capitol basement, though the word, basement, makes Doug Elmets wince. Elmets was 20-something when he worked in President Reagan’s press shop. Now a Sacramento PR consultant, he came up with the notion of commemorating the only California governor who became president with a Capitol statue.

At Elmets’ urging, Republican legislators carried the bill in 2012 authorizing the statue. It’s being funded by private donations, $250,000 of which has come from A. Jerold Perenchio, an 84-year-old Los Angeles billionaire.

The Legislature approved the bill without a no vote, though several Democrats somehow missed casting votes. Gov. Jerry Brown, a man with a sense of history, signed the bill into law, citing his predecessor’s “courage and unique leadership ability.”

Earlier this month, on the 104th anniversary of Reagan’s birth, Brown issued a proclamation: “We remember not only his most celebrated achievements – his successful diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev and the economic recovery that occurred under his presidency. ... Above all, we remember the man: his irresistible optimism, faith and good humor.”

Back to the statue’s location. Elmets implores Capitol docents to lose the word “basement.” It’s the “lower rotunda.” Reagan’s handlers always had a knack for messaging.

Whatever it’s called, the location isn’t so bad. Reagan will unseat a statue of young Christopher Columbus and be surrounded by valuable murals depicting early California by artist Arthur F. Mathews.

The basement has a history. In January 1891, Attorney General William H.H. Hart decreed that the basement restaurant, the Well, could no longer sell liquor. The battle with regulators flared anew not long ago when health inspectors discovered an active infestation of cockroaches and layers of grease, prompting Griselda’s World Cafe to close.

Van Howd’s relationship with Reagan began in 1972 when Reagan received a gift of one of Van Howd’s statues, a lion, and one of Reagan’s aides invited him to drive down from Auburn to meet the governor. The friendship lasted until the 40th president faded into dementia.

The lion was one of Van Howd’s first sculptures. Now, his pieces sell for thousands, tens of thousands and more. He favors Western scenes and characters and wildlife. He is working on an elephant, 13 feet at the shoulder, for the government of Tanzania. Reagan will stand 7.5 feet.

In 1981, at the start of President Reagan’s administration, the president asked Van Howd to become the White House artist. His first task was to sculpt a gift to be presented to the Netherlands.

As he set about working on the idea, an American Indian and an eagle, atop a piece of petrified wood from Arizona, Reagan’s counsel, Herbert Ellingwood, delivered the terrible news that Doug and Nancy Van Howd’s son, Lane, had died in a car accident in California. He was 16.

“My mind wouldn’t accept it. Why is the top man in the White House telling me this. No, no, no, that isn’t my kid.” But it was. He couldn’t complete the sculpture until 1984. Instead of being given to the Dutch, the sculpture was displayed in the Roosevelt Room.

During Van Howd’s White House visits, schedulers learned to have the president meet him at the end of the day. That way, when they talked too long as they often did, Reagan wouldn’t be late for other meetings.

“I was like a breath of fresh air for him. We would talk horses. We had great conversations. He loved art. He told me a lot of things probably people didn’t know,” like about getting bucked from a horse while riding with Mexican President José López Portillo and hitting his head. “I don’t know that that was ever publicized.”

Walk through Van Howd’s Auburn gallery and you’ll see mementos of his time with the governor who became president. There’s a photo of him giving a ram sculpted of gold with silver horns to Oliver North, and a bronze eagle to Reagan’s interior secretary, Donald Hodel. He painted the portrait of Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush that was on the inaugural plates.

Partisan Democrats might be upset that Reagan will stand anywhere in the Capitol, even the “lower rotunda.” Civics lessons are important, however. Reagan is important in the history of California, the nation and world. His story is worth telling and retelling, unvarnished.

We ought to teach more history. Find space for Capitol statues of Earl Warren, the only California governor who became U.S. chief justice, and Hiram Johnson, the progressive responsible for the initiative process.

The state also should reopen the joint in the basement, without four- and eight-legged vermin. Call it the Well. Maybe even serve a little whiskey or wine. Reagan would have approved. Back when he was governor, I’m told, he’d enjoy an occasional sip.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.

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