Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Legislature – build that statue to Reagan

Former Gov. Ronald Reagan should be honored in the Capitol, as should his lessons of compromise.
Former Gov. Ronald Reagan should be honored in the Capitol, as should his lessons of compromise. Associated Press file, 1992

There's a move afoot to place a statue inside the Capitol honoring Ronald Reagan, the most consequential politician ever to come from this state and the only California governor to become president. It's a great idea, so long as it teaches a lesson about the vanishing art of compromise.

Sacramento public affairs consultant Doug Elmets, who worked in the Reagan White House, proposed putting the monument in the building where Reagan's political career began. Elmets laments the hardened stands of politicians, particularly in his Republican Party. An honest look at Reagan might help Republicans and Democrats tear down those walls.

"Where has the civility gone?" Elmets asked. "Regardless of your political views, you cannot deny that Ronald Reagan was one of the most politically transformative – and collaborative – figures in recent history."

Reagan campaigned against "welfare bums." But as governor, he sat down with one of the most influential Democrats of the time, Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti, and overhauled welfare.

He ran to the right, but signed legislation allowing no-fault divorce and "therapeutic abortions." He denounced the size of government, but pushed for the largest tax increase ever enacted in this state up to that point.

In March 1967, Gov. Reagan pondered whether he would sign a bill authorizing income tax withholding from workers' paychecks. "I suppose if I were held with a hot iron to my feet and bound hand and foot," he told reporters. "Every man has his breaking point."

The following day, this headline appeared in The Bee: "Governor seeks $946 million more in tax increases." Taxes on income, corporate profits, booze and cigarettes all went up. Reagan called it a "regrettable necessity."

Former Gov. George Deukmejian was the freshman Republican state senator who carried tax legislation that Reagan signed in 1967.

"He was very pragmatic, very pragmatic," Deukmejian told me this week. "He set a tone that spelled out what he felt would be the best type of government. But he was willing to listen to all the arguments and try to work things out. Solutions sometimes involve compromise."

Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, is carrying Assembly Bill 2358 to authorize the statue. In keeping with the views of the politician who complained about government spending, the statue would be privately funded. The Assembly approved the bill 61-0, and it cleared its first Senate committee on a 12-0 vote.

Gov. Jerry Brown was stepping into a Capitol elevator when I asked him about the concept of a statue of the man who unseated his father.

"I want to see what other governors are similarly respected. What about Hiram Johnson? Is he in the park?" Brown asked, noncommittal, knowing there is no such tribute to the Progressive-era governor. Nor is there a statue of Earl Warren, the governor who became U.S. chief justice.

As governor, Reagan made some terrible decisions, like emptying state hospitals without making sure counties had money to pay for mentally ill people who had no place to live but on the streets. In the process, he made deals.

John Quimby, an assemblyman from San Bernardino when Reagan was governor, recalled the night he and few other legislators had drinks with "Ronnie" in the basement of his Sacramento home, and started shooting pool.

Quimby, intent on saving Patton State Hospital in his district, made a wager on the outcome of the pool game, and won. Patton remains open; Mendocino State Hospital was shut long ago. I suppose there are worse ways to make decisions.

"He was a great one to socialize with," Quimby said.

Republicans who were children when Reagan was president buy into the myth that he was a rock-solid conservative, and politicians who are old enough to know better perpetuate the myth.

No less a figure than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently poked at some so-called conservatives by musing that Reagan, like his father, George H.W. Bush, would have a hard time navigating Republican politics today, given that they had a history of compromise.

"Some of the things he did when he first became governor would make it difficult for him to be elected today," said John Herrington, who was among Gov. Reagan's political aides and became energy secretary during his presidency.

As governor, Reagan famously declared he was so opposed to withholding income taxes from workers' paychecks that his feet were in concrete. When he compromised with Democrats not long afterward, he quipped that the concrete was cracking.

Of course, Californians should construct a great statue in Gov. Reagan's honor. But the legend should be leavened with facts. Perhaps the sculptor could place Reagan's feet in cracked concrete.