The Imperial Mayor
This story appeared in the August 1988 issue of Columbus Monthly.
On the surface, why not? Nobody in Columbus was crazy about “Brushstrokes in Flight,” anyway. True, it has been used as the city symbol; but in the world of marketing, such things come and go all the time, right? So why not, as a magnanimous gesture, ship the thing to an Italian city that once had given Columbus a statue?
But wait! This is Buck Rinehart we’re talking about. And Buck Rinehart is no ordinary politician. He is a man who can turn ideas the size of molehills into political mountains too tall to climb. A man who can make boners bigger than he can roll out from under. The Master of Disaster himself!
Yes, indeed. Singlehandedly—singlemouthedly, one might say—the mayor took a period of peace and quiet between his appointment of Jeb Stuart Magruder as ethics adviser and his ban on lawn sprinkling and turned it into a time to remember, the era of Brushstrokes.
With the flash of a brainstorm, he made a goodwill trip to Italy into a political embarrassment at home.
With the sound of brass, he crashed through the limits of his mayoral powers.
With, the crackle of a buck being passed, he attempted to unload his predicament onto City Council.
And finally, with a barely visible clenching of teeth, he announced, “The issue’s closed,” turned on his heel and tried to ignore the roars of indignation.
In short, it’s classic Rinehart. It captures, like a butterfly in clear plastic, some of the elusive elements that make up Dana “Buck” Rinehart’s personal and political style. It demonstrates precisely what county commissioner Roger Tracy means when he politely describes the mayor as “rambunctious.” And it lays out so clearly some of the self-made obstacles that will litter Rinehart’s path to the governor’s office, if he should run in 1990.
It came from nowhere, like the first rocket of the Fourth of July. For a moment, there was a gasp from the population. Then came the explosion. While the mayor was still on his travels to Genoa, Italy, and other stops in Europe, the Dispatch announced that he had given Roy Lichtenstein’s sculpture, “Brushstrokes in Flight,” to the people of Genoa.
Uh . . . what? He did what? Mouths all over town fell open as people read their morning papers or listened to the news on the way to work.
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” he said later. Boy, was it ever. Even his interpreter in Genoa, OSU romance languages professor Luciano Farina, was taken by surprise. “He said he was going to give them a representation,” Farina recalls of the mayor’s speech in Genoa. “But as he talked on, it became clear he was talking about the real statue.”
It was a very nice surprise to the Genovese. Farina talked later to the president of the university of Genoa and says, “I never saw such a sparkle in his eye. He practically had the site selected.”
But the surprise in Columbus was far different. When senior City Council member Maury Portman heard the news from Genoa, he responded, “He what?”
An eminent member of the Columbus arts community says that his first reaction was “disbelief.”
Trying to make sense of this seemingly random lighting bolt, he says, “I thought he’d had a little too much Chianti.” Then he wondered, can the mayor really do this?
Others wondered the same thing. And the answer was, no. The mayor had blithely overstepped his authority. Coming out of nowhere and unannounced, Buck Rinehart had given away something that didn’t belong to him. The magnitude of the act came home to City Council members first, because it’s their prerogative to dispose of public property. (As the mayor himself says frequently, “The mayor proposes; council disposes.”)
Council member Tom Kaplin responded to the news with, “Next thing you know he’ll be out giving away my desk.” Ben Espy called the mayor’s act “somewhat presumptuous.”
Set aside for a moment the opinions of Columbus citizens and the arts community, what the mayor needed at the very least was a consensus of City Council members so they would validate his gift. But as he lamely admitted later, he had told only City Council president Jerry Hammond, who says that he himself didn’t care one way or another, but he couldn’t speak for other members of council on the issue.
“You just don’t do things that way,” groans Maury Portman.
Well, the mayor had done it, all right. And while the town was reacting with a mixture of hoots and hollers to the news, he returned to Columbus and tried to defend himself, but he succeeded only in getting angry that his will was being questioned. “The issue’s closed,” he said. “I don’t see any problem with it. End of discussion.”
Council members clearly weren’t happy to be made into the heavies in this affair if they nixed the gift. But that’s exactly how Rinehart wanted them to feel. Daring City Council to thwart him, he said that if it did not rubber-stamp his gift, “[It] would be a terrible affront and embarrassing to the city of Columbus.” Hammond was inclined to agree.
Tom Kaplin, still sounding a bit stunned, said, “I couldn’t believe he actually did it.” He added that before he made up his mind to approve the gift he wanted to hear “the mayor’s fairy tale” on how the offer came about.
But in the meantime, the weight of public opinion, which on the whole had been indifferent toward Brushstrokes since it was installed at Port Columbus in 1984, and then made into the logo for the marketing campaign of the Central Ohio Marketing Council in 1985, now began to shift.
Maybe it was just Rinehart’s sheer gall that inspired support for the sculpture. Whatever it was that caused the reaction, Lisa Griffin, the public relations coordinator for City Council, said that the Brushstrokes controversy had caused a bigger sensation on her side of City Hall than even the $5 hike in the auto tag fee. Council was being “bombarded” with calls, she reported, none of them favorable to the mayor’s proposal.
The arts community, left out in the cold in whatever deliberations actually had taken place, began to mobilize, but not, at first, through the major arts institutions. Whatever they thought or expressed privately, it was two months before leaders of the arts establishment stood up publicly to be counted. “We exist on city funding,” says Loann Crane, president of the Greater Columbus Arts Council. As Crane puts it, “No sense adding fuel to the fire.” But individual artists took action right away. They wrote letters and made phone calls.
And more than a dozen of them attended City Council in protest. Their representatives complained that the mayor was giving away a major work of American sculpture without consulting the arts community. Jean Fryer-Kohles, who had sat on the committee that originally had chosen the sculpture from Lichtenstein, predicted angrily that if the city gave Brushstrokes away, “Columbus would be hard pressed to live down the tag of ‘cowtown.’ ” Later she said of Rinehart, “He’s a spoiled brat, and you can quote me.”
Once again, Rinehart met criticism with hostility. When reporters surrounded him outside City Council chambers for his reaction to the artists’ speeches, he said repeatedly, with a tight smile on his face, “The issue’s closed.” Then he turned and marched away while artists angrily shouted after him.
As if things weren’t dismal enough for the mayor’s side, the timing of his gesture looked even worse when Roy Lichtenstein himself arrived in town to accept an honorary degree from his alma mater at the OSU spring commencement. Reporters mobbed him for his response to the controversy. One of the first problems that had come up after the mayor made his gift—and another little wrinkle that presumably had not been ironed out beforehand—was that Lichtenstein had the right to refuse to allow his sculpture to be moved. It was right there in the purchase contract. Well, now Lichtenstein would get the opportunity to feel what it’s like to play the heavy, too.
During his visit to Columbus, the artist had avoided holding a news conference and had for the most part refused comment, but when Joe Dirck from Channel 4 news cornered him, Lichtenstein was at pains to be diplomatic.
“I felt I was doing the sculpture for Columbus,” he admitted with an awkward laugh. He went on, “I’m not sure where I stand on this. I would also like it to be wherever people want it to be—wherever it’s most appreciated.” But he added a word of criticism: “I think it belongs to Columbus. I don’t know that it belongs to the mayor.”
Not only was the issue not closed as Rinehart would have liked it to be, Rinehart still hadn’t even opened it formally by presenting an ordinance to City Council for a vote. Frustrated at every turn, despite a supportive editorial in the Dispatch, he let the matter lie there in the public forum. It seemed clear at this point that he didn’t have the votes on council to make his gift. Privately, rumor had it that alternatives were being proposed here, there and everywhere to try to get the mayor off the hook without actually parting with the sculpture Columbus now could not do without. Crane of GCAC acknowledged that their board had been asked by City Council to search for a solution.
By this time, of course, mock proposals of all sorts also were being made as the controversy became the summer’s cause célèbre. Channel 4 announced a contest for the best alternative gift-to-Genoa idea. Ron Kaplan of Kaplan Graphics, designers of T-shirts with the Brushstrokes logo, suggested that the mayor make a substitute gift of Kaplan Brushstrokes T-shirts for every man, woman and child in Genoa. Some wags suggested making a present of the mayor himself.
Artist Pat Marion, who works as an admissions counselor at the Columbus College of Art and Design, said that he might want to give the sculpture to the town of Genoa, Ohio. “I have as much authority to do this as Buck did,” he joked.
The satirical Doo-Dah Fourth of July parade featured a number of Brushstrokes gags and japes. Perhaps a truer measure of the popularity of Brushstrokes as a subject for local wit, however, was that even the no-nonsense, traditional Upper Arlington parade included a float titled “Buckstrokes in Float.”
When asked if he was surprised that he got the reaction he did to his gift-making, the mayor replied, “Delighted. Simply delighted. What if we made a gift like this, and no one cared? We could not have spent a million dollars and gotten as much visibility for the city of Columbus.”
And truly the hilarity, the anger and the controversy have focused attention on Lichtenstein’s sculpture as nothing before ever had. Pat Marion was not the only one who complained that as a logo the sculpture has been marketed all over the world, but, “It has never been marketed to the people of Columbus.” Many appreciators of the Sculpture have complained over the years that its charms were being squandered at the airport, where only transient visitors saw it and Columbus residents never had a chance to get acquainted with it.
For Brushstrokes, fate may be kind. Its reputation may stand even higher than the mayor’s when all is said and done. But the mayor, by doing what he does worst, did himself damage in the process. He demonstrated all too clearly why he sometimes is called, behind his back, “The Little Napoleon.” Some Buck-watchers were surprised only by the bizarre forms of his blunder over Brushstrokes, not the fact that he had tripped over his own imperial ego.
Rinehart says giving Brushstrokes to Genoa wasn’t his idea. He even says it was an idea that had been in the air for three years, which raises some questions about how he could not find the time to talk to more people about it; but then he also says in regard to Brushstrokes that, “You have to make decisions very quickly in this job.” Whichever is on the mark, the mayor turned the idea into action. Never a man of calm deliberation, he picked up the Brushstrokes idea and ran off with it apparently before he had a chance to think carefully about all the pitfalls. As someone pointed out, there are no votes in Genoa.
When everything started to backfire, the mayor had another opportunity to retrieve the situation. A politician who specializes in grace under pressure might have risen to this occasion. You can imagine the rueful look in front of the camera and the self-deprecating way this imaginary mayor would explain that he merely tried to do a good thing, that he was sorry it hadn’t worked out as planned but that he would be working with the City Council and the arts community to come up with a solution, etc., etc.
Our real mayor does not specialize in grace under pressure. True to form, Rinehart took the line of most resistance. By implication he hung the responsibility for council’s mandate on Jerry Hammond when he said he had consulted him. Hammond counters, “He did not ask me to get a consensus from council.” Instead of trying to play on the good will of council, Rinehart publicly put council members on the spot.
In fact, he looked for friendly support nowhere that he didn’t already have it. He didn’t improve the atmosphere with the arts constituency when he was quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer as saying, “Isn’t art wonderful? It gives you something to talk about that’s absolutely not substantive at all.”
Clearly, the mayor was on the defensive, and he doesn’t play defense well. He showed, once again, that he cannot tolerate being thwarted or criticized.
Opposition does not bring out the best in him. Just this past March, for instance, he threw a fit when the Ohio Ethics Commission announced that it might not be legal to have attorney Bob Howarth serve as his executive assistant while Howarth’s salary was paid by his law firm, Baker and Hostetler.
“This is some stupid ruling by some commission that has no idea about the day-to-day operations of government,” he fumed even before the decision had been made. He predicted that a ruling against him “would gut this government.” Then he seemed to thumb his nose at the whole process by announcing his own city ethics commission with, improbably, former Watergate felon Jeb Stuart Magruder as the head and Howarth as a member. Insiders say the commission had been under discussion for some time, but the timing made it look like a response to the Howarth incident.
Then this spring, he got crossed—sort of—on another issue. When developer Harlan Ruben bought some land south of the Columbus Zoo that the city had coveted for zoo expansion, Rinehart immediately took a threatening posture.
“They can build on it if they want,” he was quoted in the Dispatch. “If we need that land, we will get it. They will be building at risk.” You would never suspect from his words that the mayor does not personally exercise eminent domain any more than he gives away public property; only City Council can make these decisions.
Pity the poor press corps, whose job it is occasionally to ask the mayor the tough questions—and to lean on him a bit. Indeed, Rinehart’s skirmishes with reporters have been fairly frequent and sometimes acrimonious. His “wake-up calls,” as one reporter refers to the mayor’s early morning complaints to reporters at home, have become legendary. Sometimes his exchanges during a press conference run to short, sharp jabs. When he came back from Genoa, Jim Breiner, editor of Business First, asked him a question about Brushstrokes. According to other reporters at the meeting, the mayor asked if Breiner were a resident of Columbus. When Breiner said no, Rinehart told him he had no business asking the question. After a stunned pause, another reporter who does live within the city limits volunteered to pose the question, whereupon everyone laughed and the mayor responded.
At their worst, Rinehart’s run-ins with reporters get nasty. When Channel 6 news reporter Mary Ann Herman did a story about the cocaine scandal that rocked City Hall last year, Rinehart told her, “I’m going to do my best to keep you from reporting another word in this town.” He is so much on the outs with Joe Dirck and his wife, Plain Dealer bureau chief Mary Ann Sharkey, that he refused to be interviewed by Dirck for a profile in Governing magazine, a Washington, D.C., journal about state and local government. According to Governing editor Eileen Shanahan, press aide Mark Anthony told her the mayor was still upset by a Sharkey piece during the cocaine scandal and that he also had “personal and professional objections” to Dirck.
Sharkey says that months after she did a story about problems at the city garage during the mayor’s first term, she ran into him at the governor’s office. “He threw himself against the wall and made this exaggerated gesture like he was pulling a knife out of his back,” she says. “It wasn’t a forgiving gesture. He wasn’t laughing when he did it.”
WOSU City Hall reporter Bill Menner, who says he knows many of the stories about reporters’ troubles with Rinehart, says that he has never had a problem with the mayor himself, but he has received “subtle threats” from “people in the administration” that imply, he puts it, “You’re risking your access to the mayor.”
Local reporters say they believe that if Rinehart runs for governor, the statewide press will give him much harsher scrutiny than he gets in Columbus, where the Dispatch has jumped to his support editorially on nearly every major issue. Can he take it? More to the point, perhaps, can he take it without tantrums?
Franklin County Republican party chairman Terry Casey, one of the mayor’s close advisers, argues that the colorfulness of Rinehart’s personality is more of a plus than a minus to the public. For every voter who sees a petty despot behind all Rinehart’s brass and rhetoric and tough-guy behavior there’s another, or maybe more, who sees a populist and a no-nonsense straight talker, Casey would argue. For voters who like the tough talk, Rinehart’s angry reaction to criticism, especially from the meddlesome press, may enhance his image.
Casey admits that the mayor’s tendency to fly off after every idea that comes to him in the shower will have to be reined in. He’ll also have to become less sensitive to everything negative that appears in the news, but Casey thinks that Rinehart can manage all the behavior modification he needs by campaign time.
The clean-up work may begin right in Buck’s City Hall office. Some critics say that the mayor is ill-served by administrative staff who play to his worst instincts. Press conferences, it is said, are marred by staff who snigger and make faces at questions they dislike. Jerry Hammond is by no means the only one who thinks that Bob Howarth deserves “a phenomenal amount of credit” for keeping Buck in check during the brief time Howarth served as executive assistant before the Ohio Ethics Commission decision returned him to his law practice. Since Howarth has left, it may be that no one close to the mayor has the stature to stand up to him or tell him unpleasant truths. Casey admits this may be a problem, but he insists that Rinehart had dumped other staffers who he thought were failing him in the past, and he’s capable, says Casey, of saying “bye-bye” to members of his official household who will not serve him well as he looks toward a statewide race.
Harking back to the Dana Rinehart he knew in 1983, Hammond says, “Everybody thought he’d erupt during his first mayoral race, but he didn’t.” Also recalling the 1983 campaign, Casey adds, “We advised him he was the only guy who could lose the race. He couldn’t pop off and say dumb things.”
While the mayor wouldn’t in a million years admit publicly that he had popped off and said dumb things during the Brushstrokes fiasco, he and his administration are scrambling behind the scenes to find a satisfactory solution to the problem he created. Some quiet inquiries have been made to see if—and for what price—Lichtenstein would make another Brushstrokes to give to Genoa. And don’t be surprised if the idea doesn’t emerge to place our Brushstrokes at Central High School—now destined for city ownership.
Meanwhile, the mayor hangs tough, bristles at questions and wants desperately to move on to more cheerful topics. He needs to put Brushstrokes behind him. After all, who wants to vote for a governor who might try to give away Toledo?
Emily Foster is a staff writer for Columbus Monthly.
The Earle Bruce Effect
Take one unloved football coach and try to fire him without warning. Suddenly, the too-fat, too-surly, too-losing coach that everybody has maligned is the hero of the hour.
The Earle Bruce Effect is exactly what we saw again six months later when Mayor Rinehart announced he was going to give to Genoa, Italy, the city’s Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, “Brushstrokes in Flight.” Until the mayor made the fateful trip to Italy, Brushstrokes mostly was neglected—when it wasn’t being abused. Sure, sure, the Central Ohio Marketing Council made it their marketing logo for Columbus, but that didn’t stop the snide remarks. They began the minute the 26-foot sculpture was erected in an obscure courtyard at Port Columbus in 1984.
Columbus Citizen-Journal editor Dick Campbell called the public’s attention to the arrival of Brushstrokes and two other sculptures to the airport by saying, “The good news is that they are hard to find.” While he nevertheless insisted that he liked Brushstrokes, he described it as “a colorful aluminum doodad.”
That was mild stuff. One outraged letter to the editor called it “absurd,” “skinny,” “small, inspired, pretentious and banal,” and an “abomination” in the space of four short paragraphs. Others said it looked like “a young boy urinating” and “the broken fence posts and twisted fence wire that we dumped in the . . . Ohio Erie Canal 70 years ago.” Harrumph.
Making it the city symbol and moving it to the airport parking lot in 1985 didn’t help much. The small sculpture probably couldn’t bear the heavy burden of being Columbus’s Eiffel Tower, and the public, which rarely went out to the airport and seldom actually saw it, never had a chance to get comfortable with it. Not even the art lovers could agree that Lichtenstein made a great sculpture.
But Buck Rinehart changed all that. Just by trying to get rid of it, he did a phenomenal public relations job on behalf of Brushstrokes. For one thing, his attempt to give it away drew attention to the fact that the $150,000 sculpture Columbus bought in 1984 had become a half-million-dollar-plus sculpture in 1988.
And then, too, the people who liked Brushstrokes and had never had a reason to speak up before now got mad and said some of the nice things about the poor beleaguered sculpture that somebody should have been saying all along. You know, like how it’s a major work by a major living artist and how it’s the prototype of a series of Brushstrokes pieces Lichtenstein has done. And they also pointed out how it’s one of the very few pieces of public art owned by the city.
And ironically, Rinehart’s own words made Columbus want it. When he praised Brushstrokes after it was suggested that he was just getting rid of something no one wanted, his praise only added to the reasons to keep it. Poor Buck. He should have had a little chat with Ed Jennings.
The Houdini Maneuver
It hasn’t been easy to get to the bottom of the Brushstrokes business, particularly with Mayor Rinehart announcing periodically that the issue is closed. At one point, he wrote a letter, published in the Dispatch, that he says explains everything.
The mayor has said, “The mayor proposes, council disposes.” So the question one summer afternoon about 3:05 in the mayor’s office was when—if ever—the mayor actually would ask City Council to vote the resolution that would validate his gift of Brushstrokes to Genoa? This is what the reporter wanted to know, and this is the way the questioning went.
Mayor: It’s at council’s doorstep, not at mine. There’s nothing more for me to add.
Interviewer: But you haven’t asked council to do anything yet.
A: No, I haven’t. And council hasn’t decided to do anything yet.
Q: Is council now going to have to take the initiative?
A: Council will have to make the decision. When council does it will be up to council.
Q: But if you don’t do anything, council’s not going to pick up the issue.
A: I don’t vote, and I don’t tell them what to do. I propose; they dispose.
Q: But you haven’t proposed.
A: Yes I did. I proposed to give it and I’ve discussed it with each member of council, and I’ve now discussed it with you. You should have been at the news conference. You could have asked all these questions then.
Q: You haven’t made the kind of proposal to City Council that City Council votes on.
A: I’ve made a proposal to City Council. When and where and how they act and vote and all that will be a decision they make.
Q: So you have made a formal proposal to City Council?
A: There is no formal proposal as such. If it’s done, it will be done by an act of resolution by council, and it can be done orally or in writing, and it can be done on the motion of any one of the seven members of council anytime they wish to do it.
Q: Well, it sounds like this issue will just die.
A: I don’t know if it will or not.
Q: Do you know that someone on City Council is going to bring it up?
Mark Anthony (the mayor’s press secretary): Can I recommend something?
Mayor: I can recommend I’ve got a 3 o’clock meeting.