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The mild-mannered publisher David C. Copley, who died unexpectedly Tuesday, exemplified the San Diego of old: Republican but not extreme. Sunny but not cerebral. Refined and generous but not transparent.
Sure, be prosperous, do good and look nice in the social pages. But don’t make waves. That’s the ocean’s job. And whatever is really going on behind closed doors, well, that’s private. At least until a scandal erupts that’s too obvious to ignore.
This was San Diego’s trademark genteel nature, inherited from the Midwesterners — including the Copleys — and the Southerners who migrated here over the decades. Less refined and intellectual than San Francisco, but not a bull in the china shop like L.A., we became a kind of Des Moines by the sea, “a city without charisma,” as local Pulitzer-prize winning poet Rae Armantrout, who grew up here, jibed earlier this year.
The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, which the billionaire globe-trotting playboy Copley inherited from his mother, certainly didn’t spice things up. Run by editors who were cozy with the powers that be (or were), the paper was rarely a thorn in the side of the establishment. Nor, for that matter, was one its predecessors, The San Diego Union.
The Union’s scrappier afternoon counterpart, the Evening Tribune, was a newspaper of a somewhat different sort, run by a drawling North Carolina native named Neil Morgan. About a decade ago, Morgan got the heave-ho from the U-T after becoming a stern critic of the city’s leaders. (The man who once described our city as “a stumblebum with character” would go on to help create Voice of San Diego.)
Over at City Hall, moderate Republicans — with the exception of the Maureen O’Connor interregnum — controlled the mayor’s office through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and the first few years of the ’10s. With names like Wilson, Golding and Sanders, they each had close ties to the rich and powerful, including publishing matriarch Helen Copley. (O’Connor, the sole Democrat in the mix, did too.)
Then the scandals came: a pension giveaway disaster and a tawdry corruption scandal called Strippergate. The recession erupted. The newspaper industry crashed.
David Copley, ensconced in a glittery world of private jets, yachts and a La Jolla estate that once used more water than any private property in the city, waited longer than many other newspapers publishers to lower the ax. But he eventually did, cutting staff and ultimately selling off his family’s newspapers until nothing remained but the U-T and a weekly paper in his getaway town of Borrego Springs. Then they too were sold and gone.
Copley, never a presence in the public eye outside of his many philanthropic pursuits, withdrew to his friends, his galas and as much privacy as a much-gossiped-about onetime billionaire could manage.
Now, at City Hall and at the U-T offices in Mission Valley, the brash and bold — the bare-knuckle brawlers — are ascendant.
The U-T, founded as the San Diego Union in 1868 by a man who promised “a wise and masterly silence” on political matters, has landed in the hands of Doug Manchester, a man who signs his checks (and likes to be called) “Papa Doug.” Brazen and brassy, he’s a kind of anti-Copley.
He changed the paper’s name and added a restaurant, garish furnishings and a vintage car museum (never mind the city red tape) to the U-T building. He created a local cable TV news station with a Fox News-style format of middle-aged male anchors paired with attractive young women. He bought the only other daily in the county and looked to expand to Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside and even beyond.
As for politics, the Copleys were Republican to the core — they formed close connections with the likes of Nixon and Reagan and endorsed an endless string of Republicans for president (even the one who lost to FDR with only 37 percent of the vote). But they could be on the moderate side when it came to social issues, and their style was never rude. Gentility was in their blood, and it wasn’t Copley-esque to print anything that would rattle anyone’s morning teacups and saucers.
The new U-T declared Obama to be the worst president ever and ranked both Bushes among the six best. On the local front, it referred to opponents of a plan to remake Balboa Park as “idiotic” and published front-page editorials pushing overt agendas. Several “vicious” editorials have been “true hysteria laced with negativity,” our Scott Lewis wrote.
City Hall, too, is due for an abrupt personality shift in the form of Mayor-elect Bob Filner, who is loud, abrasive and about as liberal as you can get without running an LGBT studies department.
He’s both the consummate insider — he’s been involved in politics just about forever — and perhaps the most outsider mayor we’ve had in more than a century. He’s not buddy-buddy with the media nor business establishments, nor does he hob-nob with the wealthy or rack up triple-figure dinner checks.
He is prickly instead of smooth, old instead of young and the ultimate street-fighting politician. In a city known for its supposed secrets, he promises to hire a director of openness — one almost-mayor named Donna Frye, the city’s consummate outsider watchdog.
Not surprisingly, Filner’s not from here; our politicians rarely are. Manchester is from here — Coronado to be exact — but he doesn’t act like it. Copley was raised here, and he did act like it: respectable and never one to make a scene.
He represented the homegrown values of our city, a little town in the boonies of California that turned itself from backwater to metropolis. The Copley family pushed for growth but avoided outright appearances of arrogance or agenda-setting. The Copley way — not the Hearst nor the Chandler way nor the Manchester way — was more subtle.
Now, the power centers in our fair city are suddenly in the hands of men who don’t play by the usual rules or abide by the usual decorum. In this old Western town that used to be home to saloons, brothels and hangings, they’re not afraid of scaring the horses.
For better or worse, and probably a lot of both, we’ve finally found that missing charisma.