One journalist recalls why he liked Mecham

Monday, October 25, 2004

By Joseph Garcia
Tucson Citizen 

Joseph Garcia

The news made me sad. It was just a brief article tucked away in a corner of a back page: Former Gov. Evan Mecham, 80, was being treated for symptoms of dementia.

I know, cruel jokes could follow by those who remember the impeached governor, whose political career was defined by controversy and verbal gaffes.

Remember his defense of a textbook’s use of the word “pickaninny,” him saying Japanese visitors “got round eyes when talking about golf” in Arizona and telling Jews they lived in “a great Christian nation”?

Nobody would ever accuse Mecham of being a master at the game of politics. Still, the perennial candidate of conservatism whose loose tongue often got him in trouble won a three-way race for governor in November 1986.

I returned to Tucson five months later, and our paths would cross. As a Citizen political reporter, I got to know the man and the myth well — and the two didn’t always match.

Mecham was intelligent, not the wacko portrayed in the news media.

Yes, he was stubborn, but he also had the ability to listen.

He believed in a certain set of values when it came to morals, no doubt from his Mormon background. But he was not the mean, hateful and bigoted person painted by Arizona and national journalists.

“You always give me a fair shake,” Mecham told me more than once as the press and politicians circled in for the kill. “That’s all I ask.”

And that’s all I ever did.

He never asked me about my politics. He never asked me not to print something. He never asked anything of me but good journalism, which meant including his side of the story — something he felt he wasn’t getting elsewhere, and something I happened to agree with him about.

He did ask me once, however, to travel with him to the White Mountains, where he was meeting with supporters after he was impeached by the House.

At the time, Mecham wasn’t talking with any reporters, so I gladly accepted the offer. It was just the governor, his top adviser, a bodyguard, the pilot and me on the small plane, jumping from small town to small town.

I wrote about the whirlwind trip in a news story, but I’m not sure I captured how much the “good people” loved him and how much they believed in him.

Mecham, then 63, obviously was tired and worn down, dozing occasionally on the plane. But he was energized when he met with supportive crowds, warning against “corrupt politicians” in the Legislature trying to kick him out of office.

In April 1988, Mecham was convicted by the Senate of obstructing justice and misusing $80,000 in state funds. I should point out, since few do, that ownership of the “protocol” funds — leftover money from the governor’s inauguration ball — was in dispute at the time. The “misuse” was a loan to his car dealership.

Mecham, who was acquitted of all related criminal charges, became the first U.S. governor to be impeached and removed from office in 59 years.

I phoned him in 1993, after he had lost his GOP bid to reclaim the governor’s office in 1990 and, as an independent, failed to unseat Republican John McCain in the 1992 U.S. Senate race.

It was good to talk with him.

“Some people who don’t know me think I’m a complicated individual and really don’t understand what makes me tick,” Mecham told me for my column. “The reason is, they’ve seen these caricatures of me – and that isn’t me at all. … You know that I’m not very hard to figure out. I’m a pretty plain and ordinary individual.”

Plain, maybe. Ordinary, hardly. Mecham climbed to the state’s top office despite four previous losses. He never quit.

Oh, and those “corrupt politicians” Mecham referred to?

AzScam proved him right, with several politicians who voted to oust him soon getting kicked out of office themselves, convicted of accepting bribes from undercover FBI agents.

When I last talked with Mecham, he said, “We need to get back to what made America great in the first place. To go forward, we have to go back.”

To go forward, we have to go back. Classic Mecham.

Although they were turbulent times, I look back at Mecham with a fondness and respect that transcends politics and the press. I wish him and his family well.