Arizona’s governor vs. the press

I don’t recall the specifics, but Burr Snider is the type of journalist that I would ordinarily accommodate by arranging an interview with Governor Mecham. It was an extraordinarily busy week and there probably was simply not a time slot available. Snider says he did not even get a glimpse of Mecham during his week in Arizona. My hunch is that Snider did not try very hard because Mecham was often seen in public, although not always available for questions.

The issue about Mecham telling a reporter not to ask for “a true statement” is largely misunderstood. Of course, the governor should not have said that, especially with the TV cameras rolling. In that heated context, what Mecham was telling Sam Stanton was not to challenge his honesty and integrity. Mecham often said the wrong thing, but he never lied.

Mecham’s honor was challenged and if there had been no one else in the room, Stanton might have got a punch in the nose.

As for quoting me about Mecham putting his foot in his mouth, that was in response to Snider’s question to me about the governor asking whether the Pope spoke English. A foolish but innocent question by Mecham, but with no malicious intent.

Stanton’s comments about the press feeding frenzy tell a large part of the story about Mecham’s downfall.

– Ken Smith

November 22, 1987

By Burr Snider
San Francisco Examiner

Recently, Gov. Evan Mecham invited members of the out-of-state media to come to Arizona and talk to him and see for themselves what the furor that surrounds him is all about. Last week I took Mecham up on his offer and flew to Phoenix.

“What are my chances of getting an interview with the governor?” I asked his new press secretary, Ken Smith, who came to Arizona from Sacramento where he was press spokesman for the California county supervisors.

foot180“Slim to none,” said Smith. Much of his job, Smith blithely went on to say, consisted of keeping Mecham away from reporters, “The governor.” Smith told me, “has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth.”

He was true to his word. Despite repeated requests for an interview. I never laid eyes on Mecham while I was in Phoenix. The reason why is no mystery.

“He loathes the press,” says John Kolbe, a writer for the Phoenix Gazette. and Kolbe ought to know. After he broke an embarrassing story about Mecham. Kolbe was declared a “nonperson” and barred from Mecham’s press conferences.

“I don’t cover him directly now since I‘m writing a column,” says Kolbe. “but it’s impossible to get away from him. What’s absolutely unique about this guy is that everybody, not just politicians. is talking about him. The people in the barber shops and beauty parlors and bowling alleys are concerned about it.

It’s a story so ripe that you know it’s going to be a new adventure every day and you’re going to get 25 good inches of copy out of him.”

Ken Smith says that much of Mecham’s difficulty comes from the bad press handling he received early on. “The whole Martin Luther King thing was a PR error, not a legal error,” says Smith. “l just think the governor has been far too accessible, far too accommodating. l’m working on reversing this notion of him as a racist bigot. He’s become a national caricature.”

The reporters who probably bear the brunt of Mecham’s anti-press ire are Sam Stanton, of the Arizona Republic, and his Phoenix Gazette counterpart, Michael Murphy. These two young journalists have been on the Mecham beat since the campaign, and the governor makes no secret he feels that they are out to get him.

“Ron Bellus, his former press guy, used to say that Mike and l conspired together to get stuff on Mecham,” laughs Stanton. “But I’d walk all over Mike to get a story and he’d do the same to me. They basically believe that my publisher, Pat Murphy, gives me orders to get Ev Mecham. I hardly ever talk to Pat Murphy. Tliiey are so paranoid you cant believe it.“

Earlier this month Stanton had what is probably the most famous face-off with Mecharn since the governor took office. A mean-spirited letter had gone out under the governor’s signature attacking the recall lobby, and when it became public Mecham’s office panicked and issued several different versions regarding the governor’s knowledge of its contents.

“Mecham called us into his office, and started explaining something about how his signature machine had been used on the letter, and I yelled out a question asking what the true version of the story was,” says Stanton. “He spun around and raced across the room at me and started shaking his finger in my face, and screamed. ‘Sam, don’t you EVER ask me for a true statement again!’ Then he turned around and made for the door, but when he got there he spun around again and said. “Don’t you EVER!’ and wheeled out of the room. The  cameras were rolling and it played on TV for days. People thought he had completely lost it.”

The capitol press corps is consumed with Mecham, Stanton concedes, and a strange symbiotic relationship exists between the journalists and the governor: “There are a lot of reporters who dread Ev Mecham not being governor. Even if you took away most of the outrageous stuff he does, it’d still be fun. People know how to push his buttons to get him to pop off. I’d leave Phoenix if not for him, but I can’t let go of this story. I’ve been on it day and night. almost seven days a week for nearly a year, and I can’t let go. All our personal lives have fallen apart following Mecham. He’s all we ever talk about.”

They may have him to talk about for a long time to come. As Stanton says, Mecham is a tough guy, no quitter, and if he can beat the indictments and possible impeachment that face him, he can run a very good race in a recall election.

“He will cast himself as the under-dog again, and he runs great as an underdog,” says Stanton. “In fact he’s a great campaigner and I’ve said so. But he’s made it clear that I will never be invited over to his house for dinner.”