The Self-destruction of a Governor

May 13, 1990

Review by Ronald Brownstein
National political correspondent for The Los Angeles Times

HIGH CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS
The Term and Trials of Former Governor Evan Mecham

By Ronald J. Watkins.
395 pp. New York:
William Morrow & Company. $19.95.

American politics has produced few figures as bizarre as Evan Mecham, the conservative car dealer and perennial Republican candidate who was improbably elected Governor of Arizona in 1986. Mr. Mecham spent over three decades trying to win a high political office in Arizona; when he finally won the governorship on his fifth try — largely because an independent candidate split the moderate vote with a weak Democratic nominee — Mr. Mecham held onto the office for just 15 months.

By then, as Ronald J. Watkins notes, the state’s residents were so anxious to get rid of their Governor that ”every lawful means to oust Evan Mecham was in place. … The only steps not taken were armed insurrection and assassination.” Already under criminal indictment for failing to disclose a large loan to his campaign, and facing a rare recall election, Mr. Mecham was finally impeached by the Republican-controlled Legislature in April 1988 on charges of misusing state funds and attempting to conceal a threat made by one of his appointees against a witness in the criminal investigation.

”High Crimes and Misdemeanors” chronicles Mr. Mecham’s rise and fall – but mostly his fall. Mr. Watkins, an Arizona civil servant whose first book this is, gives only a perfunctory account of Mr. Mecham’s boyhood in Utah, his move to Arizona as a young man and his obsessive pursuit of political offices ranging from the State Senate to the United States Senate to the governorship. Instead the author focuses on Mr. Mecham’s collapse into disgrace, which began as soon as he took office and fulfilled his campaign promise to rescind a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. That decision exposed the state and Mr. Mecham to widespread condemnation and charges of racism — charges that were redoubled when the new Governor defended the use of the word ”pickaninny” to refer to blacks.

Mr. Mecham never recovered from those initial missteps. In protest over the elimination of the King holiday, some national organizations refused to hold conventions in Arizona; worried businessmen immediately complained to Republican leaders about their eccentric new Governor. Those complaints found a receptive audience. Mr. Mecham’s belligerent, mercurial and sometimes simply inexplicable behavior (at one point the Governor claimed lasers were being used to eavesdrop on his conversations) rapidly alienated him from virtually all other officeholders in the state. As much as anything else, Mr. Watkins writes, ”the truth was that embarrassment over Mecham was the leading reason so many opposed him.”

Mr. Mecham’s career can be seen as a parable on the changing political face of conservatism in the United States. In large measure, the Governor failed because he was an anachronism: he represented an earlier, nativist brand of conservatism, one that drew its power from suspicion of immigrants and minorities, hostility toward the press and vigilance against shadowy leftist conspiracies. Today, all that is anathema to the growing corps of sophisticated young conservatives who skillfully use the news media to preach a politics of inclusion.

In his dogged and misguided attempt to recount every twist of Mr. Mecham’s demise (even down to the effects covering the Governor had on the romantic lives of reporters for the two Phoenix newspapers), Mr. Watkins unfortunately fails to explore these larger issues, or even to provide a clear sense of why so many Arizona voters were initially attracted to Mr. Mecham. In fact, because the author undermines his thorough reporting with tangled writing and chaotic organization, it is difficult to come away from the book with a clear sense of any aspect of the Evan Mecham story.

And the last chapter of that story has not yet been written. Cleared of the criminal charges against him, Mr. Mecham is again seeking the Arizona governorship this year. To the distress of national Republican leaders, he is attracting considerable support with his familiar themes. There is a revealing tale in the stubborn appeal of that arid and exclusionary vision, but Mr. Watkins has lost it in meaningless minutiae.