Arizona Impeaches an Embarrassment

April 29, 1990

Los Angeles Times

Review by Charles Bowden
Bowden’s most recent book is “Red Line.”

The Terms and Trials of Former Governor Evan Mecham

by Ronald J. Watkins
(William Morrow: $19.95; 384 pp.; 0-688-09051-6)

He ran and lost so often for governor of Arizona that he became the state’s Harold Stassen. And then in 1986, he survived the Republican primary and in a three-way general election won with less than half the vote. By 1988, he was indicted by a state grand jury, impeached and convicted by the Arizona legislature, and the focus of a successful recall petition drive. Evan Mecham belongs to a rare political group. There had been 2,096 governors in the history of the country before him, but only 15 endured impeachment, and only seven of that number were actually convicted and booted out of office. Mecham became the first such person in 59 years.

Now Ronald J. Watkins has produced a diligent history of this odd incident in one of the nation’s most unpopulated states. The book is chronological, almost day-by-day, and provides an orderly accounting of the public record of a public man. Mecham was reared poor and Mormon in Utah, became a fighter pilot in World War II (shot down over Germany and briefly a prisoner of war in the closing days of the conflict), and wound up as a successful Pontiac dealer in Arizona. Active in right-wing Republican politics, he became a thorn in the side of his party, the maverick given to bombast and weird ideas. As governor, he struck down a state holiday for Martin Luther King, defended the use of the word \o7 pickaninny, \f7 and kept a radio playing at all times to protect himself from laser beams he believed were aimed at him by all those enemies out there. He appointed to high state office one man who was a felon and another man being investigated for murder. Actually, in Arizona, such behavior would not have attracted much notice (we once had a legislator put forth a bill asking death for rape if the assailant were black and the victim white), if Mecham had been more politically savvy, better educated and more one of the boys. Or as Barry Goldwater put it: “We’ve had some damn good (governors); we’ve had some mediocre ones, but it took us a long time to get a really bad one.”

Arizona’s chief political characteristic is that there are no Arizonans. In the 1980s, 200,000 people moved to the state each year, and 150,000 immediately moved on. At the turn of the century, the state (then a territory) had about 90,000 people and by the ’80s had soared to 3.5 million. About 3% are black, 15% Hispanic, and the rest footloose. Public apathy is not an issue here, but a bedrock reality. This is the place people come to because they want to invent new lives and escape the burden of civic responsibility. By and large, they achieve these goals. A friend of mine once did a survey in Tucson, the state’s second largest city, and found no local politician had a 50% name recognition score.

So how did Mecham go wrong? First, he offended the ruling elites. Second, he was uneducated and embarrassed the citizens of the state with his poor grammar and his off-the-cuff comments on blacks, homosexuals, women, God and other matters. Third, he was incompetent as a governor and stalled what feeble efforts pass for government in the state. Finally, he was dishonest, and this, bundled with his other flaws, provided the grounds for his impeachment and conviction by his fellow politicos. Technically, he was convicted for obstructing justice when one of his staff members was threatened by another staff member, and for dipping into a Protocol Fund for his personal use. It is still uncertain how real the threat was, and as for the fund, the money was returned. In the long history of local chicanery, both incidents were small potatoes, but given Mecham’s other bad marks, they were enough to destroy him. After his conviction, he was acquitted of the charges in court and is currently running again in the Republican primary. Local politicos still feel that he can draw 20-to-30% of the vote.

Watkins’ recounting of the man and the era is sound, exhaustive and exhausting. Based on more than 175 interviews, and a gluttonous appetite for the printed record, it leaves few official stones unturned. At times, it strains for more than is there (“The eyes of the nation were on Arizona”) but for anyone interested in this legal and political oddity, a full-blown impeachment process, it will become the book. What it reveals is that a sizeable element in American life, the 20-or-30% of the voters who used to call themselves the Moral Majority, has not grown rich during the booms, not grown hip during the new adventures in morality, and not grown mellow during the various New-Age fads. They won’t go away, Evan Mecham won’t go away, and impeachment and the study of impeachment cannot explain them to us. They tend to wear polyester, eat red meat, live in trailers, count their pennies, and vote. And they’ll be back until they are answered.