Will We Ever Escape The Ethical Pygmy?

April 18, 1990

By Tom Fitzpatrick
Phoenix New Times

I’d forgotten the sheer madhouse excitement of it all. At the time, it was both energizing and frightful. Governor Evan Mecham electrified the entire state as he took us on a wild, memorable ride through a firestorm of his own creation.

During Mecham’s brief period on the stage, which ended two years ago this month — on April 4, 1988 — with his conviction by the state Senate, his name and activities were constantly on everyone’s lips.

He was feisty, outrageous, bumptious and infuriating, all at once. And single-handedly this pushy, self-assured little man who constantly attacked the press, the Democrats, the liberals, the Jews, the blacks, the drug pushers and the communists, made it necessary for people to read their daily newspapers.

In High Crimes and Misdemeanors, to be published this week, writer Ronald J. Watkins has brought those turbulent Mecham years back to life in a well-documented book.

Who can forget Mecham’s many public gaffes? Watkins remembers every one of them.

“As a boy growing up, blacks themselves referred to their children as pickaninnies,” Mecham said.

Not long after, Mecham was attacked by Democrat Art Hamilton, the conscience of the House of Representatives. He termed Mecham’s remarks “an offense to every citizen of the state.” Mecham shot back: “Art Hamilton has made a fool of himself.” The National Basketball Association called off a meeting in Arizona because of Mecham’s cancellation of the Martin Luther King Day.

Speaking in Utah, Mecham said:
“Well, the NBA, I guess they forget how many white people they get coming to watch them play.” When Mecham appeared in Sun Devil Stadium to toss the coin before an exhibition football game, he was resoundingly jeered with shouts of “Recall! Recall!” His bodyguards were pelted with ice and trash.

Mecham was unabashed. He said he heard nothing. One of his aides said: “It sounded like 50,000 Zulu warriors out there.” Another time Mecham spoke out again about his problems with blacks:

“First it was to call them coloreds, and then they wanted to be called Negroes, and now they want to be called blacks, and I’ll call them whatever they want to be called.” One day Mecham attended a celebration of Mexican Independence Day in central Phoenix. The crowd jeered him.

While being driven home by a Hispanic officer, Mecham talked about the teachings of the Mormon church and how the dark-skinned people are regarded in the Book of Mormon. He discussed the conflict between the dark-and white-skinned peoples and cited what had just happened to him as an example.

Mecham went to a Jewish men’s club breakfast. He was asked about his statement that America was a “Christian nation.” “Yes, I said it and will probably say it again  . . . .  If that is a problem for anyone, then it is their problem.” Earlier he had said that some of his best friends were blacks. Now he said that some of his best friends were Jews.

The vignettes in the book are better than the book’s construction, which sputters and doesn’t drive through with a strong-enough narrative touch.

Watkins, however, succeeds brilliantly at times in certain areas. Reading these portions again is like reliving them. The excitement  . . .  the surprise   . . . the sense of outrage  . . .  come back. You relive the feelings you experienced at the time.

Do you remember:
A short time after being elected, Mecham met with black voters at the Valley Christian Center. Someone asked him if he was going to cancel the King holiday.

“Well, I’ll tell you what. It wouldn’t be the first thing I’d do as governor. I’ll do it later in the day.” Mecham went on to tell his audience that some of his best friends were black. Not realizing that he had already insulted everyone in the room, Mecham added:

“You folks don’t need another holiday. What you folks need are jobs.” There was Stan Turley’s vigorous defense of his old friend Burton Barr, who had been skewered by Mecham in the Republican primary campaign.

Turley said in a press release: “Ev has become an ethical pygmy.” Watkins tells us that Turley’s secretary wanted to change the phrase to read “unethical pygmy.” Turley changed it back again, explaining, “This is an attack on Mecham’s character, not his size.” We learn of the meeting held in the Oaxaca restaurant by judge Frank Gordon and lawyers Paul Eckstein, Fred Craft, and Jerris Leonard immediately after the impeachment verdict.

Gordon told the gathering: “If they make a movie, I want to play Milstead.” Milstead was Ralph Milstead, the macho, womanizing then-head of the Department of Public Safety.

Mecham’s lawyers brought in as a witness at the impeachment trial Christina Johnson, a woman with whom Milstead had a stormy affair.

“Have you had a personal relationship with Milstead?” she was asked.

“Personal and intimate,” the woman replied as the senators tittered.

The day following her testimony, Milstead appeared on the cover of New Times in his jogging shorts, kissing his new girlfriend during an outing at Squaw Peak. He admits to author Watkins that “posing for that picture was one of the dumbest things I ever did.” Ken Smith, Mecham’s second press secretary, reveals a little-known incident about Jim Colter, Mecham’s chief of staff. Some Mecham staffers believed Colter was even then in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Smith needed direction on a pressing matter and found Colter in the men’s room. Colter was standing in front of a mirror, sweating, folding and unfolding paper towels. Smith asked Colter if he was ill. Colter shook his head, indicating he wasn’t. Smith left the men’s room and never again asked Colter a difficult question.

Then there was the time during the impeachment hearing before the House committee when Mecham attacked Representative Jim Skelly:

Mecham accused Skelly of being involved in a shady horse deal and having the investigation quashed by the Attorney General’s Office.

“Governor,” Skelly replied, “you’re a superb character assassin, but you don’t have your facts right.” Watkins estimates that the attack on the popular Skelly cost Mecham at least ten votes in the all-important process.

There was Ed Buck, who led the recall movement that energized the entire state.

Buck was pounced upon by Republican state chairman Burton Kruglick, who said: “Buck and his group of homosexual agitators are lying and deceiving the public.” The night before Buck was to deliver his petitions to the capitol, he received a phone call from a stranger: “Look, you son-of-a-bitch,” he was told, “you aren’t going to live to cross the street tomorrow.” There was the bizarre death threat concerning Donna Carlson’s life that precipitated the early actions against Mecham by the Attorney General’s Office.

Lee Watkins, one of the loose cannons Mecham surrounded himself with, said one day to Carlson’s best friend, Peggy Griffith:

“Donna has a big mouth, and there are some friends of the governor who are very angry. If she does not keep her mouth shut, she will take a long boat ride and never come back.” Griffith and Watkins were sitting together in a conference room. Griffith told him he must do something to stop the plan.

“There is nothing that can stop it,” Watkins said. He grabbed her arm and warned, “This conversation never happened.” Watkins’ account reminds us once again why the so-called “Dracula Clause” was never invoked.

“Some Democrats who wanted Mecham to continue to be the scourge of the Republican party voted no,” Watkins writes. “Some Republicans wanted to extend an olive branch to the impeached governor.” The politicians backed off. And that’s why Mecham is back in the race for the Republican nomination. Once more, the genie is out of the bottle.