Our Hero, the Buffoon

Our hero the buffoon: contradictory and concurrent Burkean
framing of Arizona Governor Evan Mecham

Western Journal of Communication
March 22, 2003

By Clark D. Olson

Analyses applying Kenneth Burke’s poetic frames connote that the categories operate in isolation of one another. This paper pushes further the use of Burkean framing devices by considering the simultaneous operation of opposing poetic categories. Analysis of letters to the editor in Arizona newspapers demonstrates the polar responses to former Arizona Governor Evan Mecham during the (successful) drive for a recall election. The study explains the use of the oft neglected epic category to frame Mecham as a hero of an intolerant breed of social conservatism while he was concurrently depicted as a buffoon in the burlesque frame to more traditional Republicans.

In Attitudes Toward History Kenneth Burke details the ways in which history may be socially constructed through poetic frames that accept or reject a given social order. The decision to depict the players in history as heroes, villains, clowns, or buffoons represents the choice to accept or reject the status quo in part or sum. The Burkean tradition in communication has been disposed to recognize Burke’s poetic frames as existing in isolation of one another. Examples of well-esteemed scholarship taking such an approach can be seen in Denise Bostdorffs familiar analysis of political cartoons, using the burlesque lens, to reject the policies of Secretary James Watt. Cheree Carlson demonstrated Mohandas Gandhi’s use of the comic perspective as part of nonviolent resistance (“Gandhi”). Edward Appel discussed William F. Buckley, Jr.’s use of burlesque in ridiculing his opponents (“Burlesque”) and Adrienne Christiansen and Jeremy Hanson presented ACT UP’s use of the comic frame as a call for change in the midst of great tragedy. Most recently, Bryan Hubbard used the burlesque frame for a revisionist approach to President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb. These analyses is highly respectable pieces of research, yet they each demonstrate the reaction to a conflict as patterned after a single frame.

Other critics using Burke’s definition of the poetic categories have considered texts, or their interpretation, as operating in two or more frames sequentially. Most notable is Carlson’s examination of feminist humorists of the nineteenth century. Carlson showed that the feminist writers shifted from a comic to satiric perspective when the former proved less useful in evoking social change and evolved once more to the burlesque frame when satire proved insufficient to properly move its audience (“Limitations”). Similarly, Appel noted the change in Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric from a comic perspective, which emphasized a sense of compassion toward a foolish opponent, to the excess of tragedy that required drastic and immediate change when the gentle correction of comedy was deemed ineffective (“Rhetoric”). In a case of switching from acceptance to rejection, Mark Moore found that the public view of Vice-President Dan Quayle shifted from a comic perspective that allowed for the possibility of correction to the strong rejection of burlesque as his social gaffes were deemed increasingly intolerable. All three of these Burkean approaches are prime examples of research focusing on the shift and movement through frames rather than the mutual existence of two poetic categories creating opposing realities.

In an analysis of media responses to John DeLorean’s arrest, Barry Brummett found that treatments of DeLorean originated from both the tragic and comic perspectives. Brummett’s study is significant because it demonstrates the mutual existence of two frames in reaction to the same event, emphasizing that an audience’s reactions are not as homogeneous as sometimes inferred. However, the poetic categories Brummett finds in his analysis are compatible as both comedy and tragedy frames of acceptance, ultimately seeking an affirmation of the status quo. This analysis uses the theory and criticism of Burke’s poetic frames in examining the concurrent operation of two contradictory perspectives in response to the same social situation. An extension of Brummett’s analysis would consider two frames that occur concurrently, but where one audience rejects the rhetor while the other accepts him or her. The antithetical public reactions to former Arizona Governor Evan Mecham are an ideal instance to contemplate how two competing frames can reach distinct audiences and ultimately work to synthesize to create a new political identity.

In a relatively short-lived gubernatorial career, Evan Mecham allowed traditionally conservative Republicans to recreate themselves as more electable moderates through a dialectic of the epic and burlesque. In essence, the comical nature of his governorship caused great battle between socially conservative followers, especially those opposed to homosexuality, and more moderate Republicans. Their synthesis created a new kind of conservatism for traditionally Republican Arizona, one which would ultimately tilt the state toward President Clinton in 1996.

Just two months into his term as governor of Arizona, Evan Mecham captured the sentiment of all Arizonans, “The image that I think we have is that Arizona is a place where people can speak their minds, and they have a governor who does that” (qtd. in Siegel 12). Such are the actions of a Western frontier politician. Words and deeds that were considered by many to be anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist, sexist, and pompous to a fault marked Mecham’s brief career as governor of Arizona. In stark contrast, others deemed Mecham to be straightforward, honest, and gallant for being able to boldly proclaim their socially conservative doctrine. The polar responses of Arizonans toward Mecham during his 16 months (of a four-year term) as governor are in many ways more interesting (and entertaining) than the fact that Mecham was impeached and removed from office while both under indictment for six felony charges and facing a recall election. To many conservatives, Mecham was a hero defending the faith against liberalism. For others, Mecham was a buffoon who represented the ignorance of bigotry and a new form of intolerance branded as conservatism.

The rhetoric surrounding Mecham provides an opportunity to explore and consider the simultaneous operation of contradictory frames in interpreting and responding to the same texts. To emphasize the interpretive nature of the frames for viewing history, divergent public responses to Mecham during his first year as governor will be demonstrated as operating in the acceptance frame of epic and the rejection frame of burlesque, respectively. The contrasting public responses to Mecham presents a prime example of how the poetic frames may be used in opposition to one another. The public responses that celebrated Mecham as a hero are also an opportunity to discuss the epic frame, which has received little attention in both primary and secondary Burkean texts.

Burkean Frames and Attitudes

Burke has been credited as offering in Attitudes Toward History a “language-centered study of reality” (Hardt 126). It is in Attitudes Toward History that Burke defines the poetic frames, which are fundamental attitudes through which individuals can accept or reject the current social order, “Each of the great poetic forms stresses its own peculiar way of building the material equipment (meanings, attitudes, character) by which one handles the significant factors of his [sic] time” (Burke, Attitudes 34). Burke outlines poetic frames into categories of either acceptance or rejection that serve as responses to disruption in the social order. Acceptance frames (epic, comedy, tragedy) validate and purify the dominating authority. The acceptance frames conclude in establishing that the current order is as it should be and any derangement in society can be corrected for by punishing a guilty party for the disorder. In turn, rejection frames (burlesque, satire, elegy/ plaint) are methods of responding to a disruption in the social order as evidence of the system’s fallibility and subsequently renouncing that particular order of authority and power. Each of the rejection frames justifies turning from the current social order because it is faulty beyond correction.

As an acceptance frame, the epic accepts the defects of a particular system by focusing upon a hero who embodies ideal values of the social order, “It ‘accepts’ the rigors of war … by magnifying the role of the warlike hero” (Burke, Attitudes 35). A hero may be a person who has at one time committed heroic acts, has the potential to perform heroic feats, or embodies the attitudes and virtues that are placed central to the hierarchical existence (Burke Grammar, 42). As heroes, they must be magnified and rise to the occasion should an ominous challenge loom so as to display “a character as great as the situation” (Burke, Attitudes 43). A characteristic of all acceptance frames is the opportunity to “cash in” on societal values. Heros are, to a large degree, able to capitalize on the values of their community. By embodying communal ideals, heroes find success in becoming an emblem of their fellowship’s virtues. Many heroes will not live to reflect upon their fame in their dotage but will achieve a more eternal glory through becoming a martyr. Heroes may meet their end either in the exploitation of their Achilles heel or a divine predestination such as Christ to the cross (Burke, Attitudes 36). The public remembrance of the death of President Kennedy in conjunction with the mourning of the death of John Kennedy Jr. demonstrates this principle. The commonly heard verse to understand the tragedy of their respective deaths was the line from “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” by Yeats: “What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?” Because the Kennedys were cultural heroes, we should have expected death to capture them in their prime.

Most useful to audiences admiring a hero are the profits of identification with the model citizen: transcendence, fulfillment, and gratification. Through identification with the hero a member of society becomes “vicariously heroic” and transcends his/her own humility to share in the victor’s spoils of righteousness (Burke, Attitudes 36). Needs of fulfillment are met by the axiom: “We can only get from life what we put into it” (Burke, Attitudes 36). By identifying with a person or legend whom the audience members value, the audience is able to share in the very praise and glory that they attribute to the hero. As Burke notes, discrediting a national legend becomes personally upsetting to those who desperately believe in the hero as an ideal because it also detracts from their own personal worth, which has become caught up and defined in their hero’s personae. (1) Those who identify with the hero may also find gratification in the form of consolation and further points of identification with their champion. The death or other persecution of a hero serves as a warning to admirers of the possibility of their own impending harm and “incidentally dignifies any sense of persecution that may possess the individual” (Burke, Attitudes 37). In sum, the epic is an acceptance frame that celebrates the ideals of the dominating order through the admiration of a hero who embodies the ideal attitudes and goals of the community.

Radically different from the epic is the burlesque, a rejection frame that focuses upon ridiculing and denouncing an idiotic character. Burlesque identifies buffoons as those who are to blame for the lack of order and denies them the possibility of logical reason for their actions, thereby dismissing the system of authority they represent and creating a “reduction to absurdity” (Burke, Attitudes 54). As an external treatment of action, burlesque emphasizes actions without concern for logical motivations or justifiable cause. To consider the internal processes that produced the external would risk empathy and force the burlesque rhetor to identify with his/her idiotic victim, which is antithetical to the burlesque mission of rejection (Burke, Attitudes 53-4). It is through relegating the burlesque buffoon to the realm of the inconceivable that an arm’s length is kept between the idiot and rational society. Only by keeping a distance between society and the imbecile, does burlesque avoid becoming an entirely cruel frame. It does not demand the annihilation of the buffoon, but merely insists that he/she be separated from the clan to make clear what values are acceptable and what must be cut out from the group to keep it pure.

The burlesque frame has received considerable attention in recent years, leading to a more full description of this poetic perspective. Bostdorff discussed the use of the burlesque attitude in political cartoons to explain the use of surreal caricatures as mode of “rejection which is based upon contextual inversion; whatever would appear well, the rhetor inverts to appear badly” (46). In stressing the use of burlesque as a tool of rejection Carlson emphasizes that, unlike acceptance frames, “There is no sense of identification with the clownish figure here, for that would be to admit we have a share in the folly” (“Limitations” 317). Moore described the public reaction to Dan Quayle as having been a burlesque response that rejected a figure through “nonidentification.” The process of nonidentification illustrates the nature of all rejection frames: rejection of X through the acceptance of non-X, “They identified with traits and characteristics that Quayle did not appear to possess” (Moore 120). Furthering the discussion of the burlesque mode of rejection, Appel focused upon the way in which burlesque is a form of “circumscribed rejection” that accepts the very persons it rejects by allowing them to exist, so long as it is outside the group. Appel also explicated burlesque into four varying forms that are combinations of “diminishing” or “elevating” and “particular” or “general.” As a breed of diminishing burlesque that focuses upon the specific, travesty chooses a single person who would typically deserve some degree of respect and strips them of their dignity (Appel, “Burlesque” 270-1). This is the ideal response to an elected official because it targets a member of society who is considered to command respect. The indignity to the individual and push for rejection of the member is accomplished through replacing honor with humiliation and respect with ridicule.

The need to consider the responses of Arizonans to Mecham is put best by Burke, “For the things that happen to us do not acquire their identity from themselves alone, but also reflect the character of the way in which we confront them” (Religion 169). Analysis of the public reactions to Mecham reveal both how Arizonans made sense of the turmoil of Mecham’s term in office and the drive for a recall election as well as the personal gain enjoyed by both perspectives, respectively. Following a review of Mecham’s tumultuous time in office, a study of letters in support of Mecham demonstrates that the use of the epic frame dignified those who felt left behind by a changing political climate that included the rise of political correctness at the expense of being able to speak one’s mind without concern for its social repercussions. Conversely, investigation of public responses against Mecham shows that the many Republicans supporting Mecham’s removal from office took the move for a recall election as an opportunity to reformulate being an Arizona Republican as something other than an intolerant breed of social conservatism. To understand the socio-political rupture created by Mecham’s governorship, a brief review of his short-lived tenure is necessary.

Mecham’s Term as Governor

Mecham won the 1986 gubernatorial election, on his fourth try for that office, and fifth statewide campaign, with 40% of the vote in a three-way race (Lindsay “Mecham the Politician”). (2) In fact, in its first article about Mecham, Time magazine claimed that he had earned the nickname the “Harold Stassen of Arizona” because he had run for statewide office so often without success (“No Rebates”). Perhaps one indicator of Mecham’s popularity, or lack thereof, was the fact that the recall movement actually started prior to Mecham’s inauguration. On Friday, December 19, 1986, Ed Buck, who described himself as a young, conservative Republican, retired businessman, and homosexual, registered his Mecham Watchdog Committee as a political action committee with the Secretary of State and handed out 500 “Recall Ev” bumper stickers at the State Capitol. Buck was quoted as stating “The effect that a governor can have can be very, very detrimental…. If nothing else, maybe we can send a message to Ev that says ‘Ev, straighten up'” (Stanton, “Recall Bid” B6). Perhaps the reason that eventually persuaded many Arizonans to reject Mecham was caught by another paper, which quoted Buck as stating: “He hasn’t broken any laws–he’s just proven to be a bozo…. What I’m doing is planting the seed. If it grows, I will nurture it” (Murphy “Watchdog,” Al). While The Phoenix Gazette referred to the effort as “tongue-in-cheek,” Buck indicated that he was serious (Buck). The distribution of “Recall Ev” buttons (sic) even led to a short article in the Washington Post (“Governor Starting”). Despite the initial publicity, the Observer (London, UK) later quoted a local newspaper reporter as stating: “My paper thought he (Buck) was just another wacko. Then he started getting hundreds of supporters” (Hoggart 17). Thus, a reasonable person might have concluded that the “recall movement” was simply a stunt that would quickly fade from the public consciousness.

Within two months, the newsmagazines and another prestigious paper began to confirm, nationally, that Arizona had selected a governor who did not seem particularly savvy. In February, Newsweek referred to Mecham’s approach as “Marx-Brothers-in-government.” It cited Mecham’s recession of the Martin Luther King Holiday and his “unusual” appointments, including a man under investigation for a 1954 murder as the head of the state liquor control department, a man who had been court-martialed for theft as a state investigator, and the consideration of a man who had had his insurance license revoked for misappropriation of funds for a state money-management post (O’Connor with Wright). Time added the appointment of a state education adviser who proclaimed that teachers did not have the right to contradict students whose parents teach them the earth is flat (“No Rebates”). The New York Times contributed the fact that Mecham had declared a local columnist to be a “nonperson” (Lindsay).

While organized groups of people openly defended Mecham as early as February (Flannery and Murphy; Stanton “Mecham Supporters”), support for the governor plummeted early and headed in a downward spiral thereafter. In February, the Phoenix Gazette reported that more Arizonans were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied than were satisfied or very satisfied with Mecham’s performance in office (Lavelle “Mecham:”). In April, the Recall Committee simultaneously announced that the rock group U2 had made a sizable donation to the movement and that Buck would be replaced as chairperson by Naomi Harward, a Grey Panther (“Irish Rockers”). Both moves were intended to remove the focus from Buck because he had a controversial private life. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Buck had stepped aside, he continued to be the focus of media attention because he was articulate (Blair). By early May, the Arizona Republic reported that a majority of Arizonans were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with Mecham (Stanton “Mecham Dissatisfies”). The percentage of Arizonans who favored the recall grew from approximately a 35% minority in March to a 47% plurality in late September (Stanton “State Favors”).

The leaders of the recall movement set July 6, exactly six months from the day Mecham took office, and, by law, the first day on which recall petitions could be issued, to begin the drive to oust Mecham. Democratic leaders, who opposed the recall at that time, predicted that the recall would fail because it was too hot in Arizona during the summer and that the Recall Committee was too disorganized (Stanton “Mecham-recall”).

The recall supporters began their drive to collect 216,746 signatures, or 25% of the number of voters in the gubernatorial election (“Arizona’s Governor”). The announced goal, however, was to collect 350,000 signatures in the four months allotted for the endeavor (Stanton “Mecham-recall”). On July 22, Buck announced that 46,000 signatures had been collected in the first ten days. Both Democratic and Republican leaders were surprised (Harris “Mecham-recall”). In mid-August, Buck announced that over 100,000 signatures had been collected, but Mecham claimed that the movement was “in a world of hurt” and speculated that many of the signatures “are not going to be real” (Stanton “103,379”). On September 11, the recall leaders claimed to have 182,000 signatures, or halfway toward their goal of 350,000 signatures, and only 35,000 short of the required 217,000. The movement had more than half the allotted time for the process to collect the remaining signatures (Flynn “Recall Drive”). This announcement led State Senator Greg Lunn (R-Tucson) to speculate: “I think to most political activists it’s a foregone conclusion they’re going to get the signatures” (Murphy, “Recall Petition” B7). One week later, all the State Senate Democrats signed recall petitions at a press conference. Mecham supporters claimed that this action demonstrated that the Democrats had been behind the recall, but the Senators, who claimed they were acting as individuals, denied this averration (Case “Senate Democrats”). By the end of the month, recall organizers claimed to have more than 225,000 signatures and the Chairperson, Naomi Harward wrote Mecham a letter suggesting that he resign (Flatten “Mecham Still”).

On September 30, Buck released a copy of a letter that had been mailed, over Mecham’s signature, to conservatives across the nation. The text of the letter began:

As Governor of the great state of Arizona, I want to extend to you an unprecedented invitation.

I would like you to pick up and move to Arizona.

That’s right, I want you to sell your house, pack your belongings, quit your job and come to the most beautiful state in the Union. (“Text of” A4) (3)

Toward the end of the letter, Mecham warned “Without your contribution I will risk being crushed by the millions of dollars the militant liberals and the homosexual lobby plan to spend against me” (“Text of” A4).

Conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie expressed concern for Mecham, but stated: “… [T]his letter sounds like a bad joke … It’s going to add more fuel to the fire” (Murphy “Mecham Trying” A4). On the other hand, John Kolbe, a political columnist for the Phoenix Gazette, argued that the letter was “by the standards of the trade, a fairly routine plea for help” (Kolbe, “Once Again” A2). Whether the letter itself added fuel to the fire quickly became irrelevant because Mecham’s handling of the controversy proved to be clearly problematic. The Arizona Republic reported: “Initially, Mecham spokesman Ken Smith said Mecham told him that he had signed the letter. Later, Smith told reporters that Mecham had not signed it, but had approved having his signature machine used on the letter. Still later, Mecham said in a telephone interview with reporters that he was trying to find out who had authorized the use of his signature” (Stanton, “25,000” A1-2). (4) Later that day, at a press conference Mecham had arranged to explain the conflicting stories, Mecham reacted to a reporter’s question by snapping: “Don’t you ever ask me for a true statement again” (Harris “Republic Reporter’s” A2). This exchange helped spur national interest in the Mecham recall and led to the broadcast of the exchange on 60 Minutes. (5) When Mecham was asked about the controversy the following day, he responded with “Your one day is over. Your one day is over. It’s not an event. You’ve made it an event. Your day is over. Your one-day event is over.” Later that day, Mecham stated “We’ll always answer questions, but we’ll choose the questions.” Buck opined that the event was a “further example of the Mecham paranoia that is developing and becoming more psychotic” (Murphy, “Mecham on Letter” B1).

A poll conducted on October 1 showed that, for the first time, a plurality of Arizona voters (47%) favored the recall and that a majority of those polled thought that the letter had made them less supportive of Mecham (Stanton “State Favors”). One week later, venerable Senator Barry Goldwater suggested that if Mecham were smart, he would resign (Fehr “Goldwater Says”). On October 14, real estate developer J. Fife Symington, a Republican, [who was elected Governor in 1991 and re-elected in 1994] signed a recall petition and donated $2000 to the recall campaign (Stanton “Developer Symington”). On October 20, Attorney General Bob Corbin announced that he had been investigating a $350,000 campaign loan to Mecham from a Tempe attorney who was facing a civil fraud and racketeering lawsuit for taking bond money to build low-income housing units but failing to do so. Not only did the money come from a questionable source, but Corbin also confirmed that the loan had not been included in Mecham’s campaign finance disclosure forms (Murphy “Loan Investigated”). At that time, state lawmakers, both Republican and Democratic, called for a special investigation committee and some even mentioned impeachment (Lavelle “Lawmakers Seek”).

In early November, the recall committee marched to the Capitol with copies of the nearly 390,000 signatures that they had collected (Stanton “Recall Fete”). At that time, the Maricopa County Recorder, who was responsible for verifying the signatures, indicated that, with normal invalidation rates, the movement had collected more than enough signatures to force an election (Leonard “Recall Likely”). In February, the Arizona House of Representatives impeached Mecham on three articles: borrowing money for his car dealership from the governor’s protocol fund; lumping a $350,000 campaign loan from a controversial developer with other campaign loans; and, obstructing justice by telling the Department of Public Safety director to not cooperate with a death-threat investigation (McCloy and Murphy A4). The Senate dismissed the campaign loan count because Mecham had been indicted on that count, but convicted him on the loan from the protocol fund and obstruction of justice articles (“The Trial”). Since Mecham had been removed from office through the impeachment process, the recall election was canceled. In June, a Maricopa County jury found Mecham not guilty of violating campaign finance laws with respect to the $350,000 loan (Murphy “Back on”).

Mecham as the Avenger

Arizona has a well-earned reputation for being a politically conservative community. Many Arizonans take great pride in their conservative nature, which they proudly contrast to “liberal activists” of Berkeley and San Francisco (Maloney C4). Arizonans’ letters to newspaper editors in support of Mecham demonstrate the perception that Mecham was a hero to many social conservatives, whose particular values were being mocked by “liberals.” (6) The standard defense of Mecham was that he was an “honest,” “moral,” and “good” man, and the only people offended were those that did not recognize the good he was doing for the state. Consistently pro-Mecham Arizonans created him as a champion of socially conservative values (understood as the key to a great society) and a righteous martyr at the hands of liberals.

When Mecham canceled Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a paid state holiday, an explanation for his actions was necessary. Mecham made clear that the previous governor, Babbitt, had violated the state constitution by declaring a state holiday, which is in fact outside gubernatorial authority in Arizona. Not stopping at logical appeals, Mecham went on to define his minority position on the King holiday:

Do I think King, the man, deserves a holiday? No … The people who want to recognize Martin Luther King [Jr.] can recognize him till the cows come home. They can recognize him 365 days out of the year. Why is it so important to force everybody else to recognize it? (qtd. in Siegel 21, 23)

Social conservatives are not unaware of the socio-political importance of recognizing King; however, it is typically viewed as an act of over compensation for past sins in the realm of racial equality. As Mecham himself explains, “The time does come when the majority says, ‘We’re not going to take it any more'” (qtd. in 60 Min. 3). A resident of Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix, admired Mecham for having the “intestinal fortitude” to cancel the paid holiday and honesty to “say what he means and mean what he says” (Adams A14). Another Mesa resident applauded Mecham’s refusal to honor King, writing, “We are for black people but not for King,” while “Congress has chosen to honor a man who had communistic ties, and then sealed up his files so people won’t know about him” (Hudson A13). Mecham’s willingness to defend a position that would be seen as racist and from which other politicians would shrink away was appreciated by at least one Arizonan as “a breath of fresh air” (Cravey A10). As a hero, Mecham’s role was to do that which his followers felt they themselves could not do, “The truly religious man, for instance, had no ambition to ‘be as good as Christ.’ … He wanted to be as near like his hero as possible within his own human limitations” (Burke, Attitudes 268). Knowing that they were constrained by the good taste of political correctness, those who idealized Mecham could vicariously participate in his bravado to speak the thoughts that one did not otherwise dare to voice in public.

Another socio-political conflict for which Mecham was admired was his personal, and thus political, attitude towards homosexuality. When on a call-in radio show and asked about his views on homosexuality, Mecham invited people with names of homosexual government employees to come forward (60 Min.). The threat of being fired was clear. Again, Mecham supporters came to admire their governor who protected the right to reject homosexuality strictly on the basis of moral turpitude. Heroes are only as powerful as the enemy they are capable of confronting, and one Arizonan credited Mecham as a “good, honest, moral, constitutional conservative” taking on the homosexual lobby, a “vile, evil group [that] is well funded and extremely well organized” (Whitlock A11). The response of some Arizonans to the issue of homosexuality demonstrates that Mecham was able to take advantage of a blatant homophobia that believes, “If homosexuality continues it will bring ruin to our nation” (Hudson A13).

The status of Mecham as a hero is the result of his willingness to say those things that most reject as offensive but others secretly believe yet fear to say out loud. The understanding of his supporters was that Mecham was one of the few politicians willing to say what he believed and not what he felt would garner the most positive response in the polls. Consistently, Mecham’s supporters celebrated his honesty:

I am thankful we finally elected a governor who has the courage to stand up for what he thinks is right. (Nicoll A12)

He has integrity, stamina and above all is sincere. (Field A10) I pride honesty over diplomacy anytime. (Bowers A8)

From the beginning of the recall campaign, Mecham bolstered his supporters by depicting himself as having to fight for his socially conservative values against those collecting petitions, whom he is attributed as calling a “band of homosexual agitators and dissident Democrats” (Jones 26). The insinuation that these were dark forces conspiring against him was not lost on his supporters. Those in opposition to Mecham were typically described by Mecham supporters as “extremely unkind, unfair and even hateful” (Wallace A13). Numerous supporters of Mecham took hold of the idea of “homosexual agitators” and made a defense of the governor that created him as a champion of Christianity, “It is bizarre that a people whose country was founded on Christian principles can go so far astray as to actually become the champions of perverted issues” (Cannon).

Being a hero is not only supporting a position but also being willing to suffer for one’s convictions. For Mecham, the price for having, what his supporters considered, the integrity to speak his mind was harsh criticism and a drive for a recall election. As an acceptance frame, the epic enables the hero to cash-in on imminent defeat as well as victory. No act is a greater boost to the social order than a member willing to die for the cause. The description of Mecham as a victim, preparing him for the glory of being a martyr, was a consistent element in many letters of support, “Gov. Evan Mecham is an innocent victim of a homosexual revolution” (Noel A14). A resident of Tempe, another Phoenix suburb, compared the treatment of Mecham to mob violence, “As an 84-year old man, I remember hearing about lynching when I was [a] child. But I never thought I would experience a ‘political lynching.’ But that seems to be what the ‘mob’ is doing to Gov. Evan Mecham” (Shofstall A12). Well after the recall election was planned and Mecham was less than two weeks from the impeachment vote that would remove him from office, a resident of Cochise County made Mecham the ultimate martyr, Christ:

‘Pick up your cross, Evan,’ they said, as they forced it [the cross] down upon him. The weight bore him down. His glasses fell to the ground. Through the long morning, they led him through the corridors of the Capitol … whipping … tantalizing … cursing him. At about noon, the earth grew dark, the ground shook. They crucified Evan and divided his governorship among them. And the state will never be the same. Register–and remember! (Bechtel A10).

There is a dual effect of pleading that a lynching or crucifixion end. On the off chance that the torture ceases, the social order is gratified because the hero lives on. Should the hero die, the cause may become invigorated now that a “brother” has been slain, and if and when others fall as the martyr had they may find a special dignity in identifying with their slain hero. People, such as Bechtel, did not miss the opportunity to cash in on Mecham’s impending demise by urging citizens to “Register–and remember!,” thus using the loss of their hero as motivation to fight harder against threats to their political philosophy.

Mecham as the Incomprehensible Fool

While Arizona remains a politically conservative state, the drive for a recall election of Mecham provided many Republicans with the opportunity to redefine Arizona conservatism by rejecting its more extreme positions. The burlesque frame was an ideal mode for rejecting Mecham’s brand of social conservatism, because it allows for rejection that would not require Republicans to completely jettison conservative ideology, just the portion that they found offensive. The burlesque characteristic of a vague distinction between rejection and acceptance is obvious in many of Mecham’s detractors who identified themselves as Republican but not aligned with Mecham or his supporters. The rejection of Mecham and his ideology was accomplished through typifying Mecham as a senseless buffoon by his sometimes seemingly inexplicable actions and statements. Granted, the reductio ad absurdum of Mecham was not a difficult task, but the reduction of Mecham to a mental patient, a common theme in negative criticism, is perhaps an extreme extrapolation of a person that lacks the ability of sound judgment.

As a leader of the recall movement, Buck, of course, did everything to encourage the notion that Mecham himself fueled the entire movement. As the recall campaign was about to begin collecting signatures, Buck quipped that “Evan Mecham was hired on as our public relations man, and he has done a wonderful job. The entire campaign has been fueled by Evan Mecham being Evan Mecham. We have done nothing to create issues” (qtd. in Stanton, “Mecham-Recall” A11). In the New York Times, Buck hyperbolically claimed: “This movement is inevitably fueled by Evan Mecham himself. Even if I had $200 million, I could not buy the kind of publicity he has given the recall. He has never failed to keep us moving” (Knudson A18). While Buck could be hyperbolic, the very titles that newsmagazines gave articles about Mecham also indicate the degree to which he contributed to the movement. Newsweek ran an article entitled “Shooting from the Lip” (O’Connor and Wright Newsweek), and one Time article, with the sub-title “Arizonans Are Poised to Recall Their Foot-in-Mouth Governor,” called Mecham a “buffoon” and a “veritable faux pas factory sporting a constant smirk and vindictive manner, [who] strikes many voters as a simple-minded ideologue” (Hull 61).

The response of Arizonans and local cartoonists was often more harsh and better captured the burlesque mood towards Mecham. The old adage of shameful buffoonery can be applied to Mecham, “Evan Mecham is a joke, and it is not funny.” However, some burlesqued Mecham as “a silly governor to relieve the tension” (Kaczmarek C4). Some descriptions themselves of Mecham were absurd, one calling him a contemporary Ivan the Terrible (Vidal A10). A Mesa resident wrote the most disturbing comparison of all:

I lived in France from 1937 to 1941, and had to endure penury under Nazi Germany’s SS troops. Then my parents took me to Argentina just in time to put up with Juan Peron. In 1953 I arrived in the United States and decided to make it my home–no dictators here, right? I am now living in Arizona, the laughingstock of the nation, ruled by a paranoid, insensitive, illiterate, abrasive gnome, who does not have enough sense to fall on his own sword to save the honor of his state! (Maldonado A17)

Suggesting that Mecham “fall on his own sword” demonstrates that the disorder caused could have been repaired through a tragic act of mortification. However, because Mecham chose to continue in a misguided crusade, an upset public must then stop him through burlesquing him as an “abrasive gnome.”

Most residents writing to newspaper editors emphasized that Mecham should no longer be governor because he was in no way competent. The actual phrasing, however, was typically more vague as to the actual reasons, choosing to call him: “A pudding-headed, clumsy, loose-talking, insensitive, incompetent, embarrassing governor” (Helm) and a “short, smug, silly, obnoxious little oaf” (Rehder A12). In a mocking defense of Mecham, a resident of Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, said that “Poor Ev has been promoted beyond his capabilities and thus became an unwitting incompetent” (Kassen). Mecham’s professional history as a car dealer prompted more obvious responses that reduced the governor from being a sincere, however flawed, politician to the archetypal used car dealer, “Mr. Mecham, please go back to selling cars. In that profession you can fool 90 percent of the people 90 percent of the time. As the governor of Arizona, you cannot fool anybody” (Crown A8). Comedian Robin Williams blended the harshest of Mecham criticisms with the “car dealer” motif, “Y’all come on down and get a free baseball bat and a Klan rope” (qtd. in Jones C1). One Phoenix resident identified the burlesque, and thereby dehumanizing, tone of anti-Mecham writings, “Mecham is still no angel in my eyes, but he is a human being and deserved more consideration [than] he was given” (Garcia A6).

Bostdorff established in her analysis of political cartoonists’ treatment of James Watt that cartoons are a mode of expression especially useful to burlesquers for it provides the perspective by incongruity that allows us to see the present in a new way (Bostdorff 45). Numerous cartoons responded to Mecham’s denial that his career was in danger even as the 390,000 signatures were being handed over to state officials. One editorial encapsulated the sentiment: “[Mecham] Thriving on Delusion” (Murphy, “We Have” C2). Stronger statements to the same effect were had through political cartoons of Mecham. One cartoon asked Arizonans to consider Mecham as an attempt at dictatorship by depicting him in king’s garb lying on a psychiatrist’s couch asking the physician, “Seems like everybody’s out to get me, Doc. … What do they call that?,” “Democracy” (Boro in Siegel 58). The cartoon sought to break the sense that an elected official has the right to serve the entirety of his or her term but is instead ultimately responsible to the electorate. Another cartoon of a similar theme has Mecham speaking to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, “I don’t know about this ‘We the people’ stuff. Sounds like mob rule to me, boys” (Fitzsimmons in Siegel 83). The ridicule was aimed at denouncing the notion of Mecham and his supporters that Arizonans as a whole did not know what was best for them, and that the power of decision should be removed from the masses. What is more, both these cartoons provided a perspective that denied Mecham the position of being an abused servant of morality by accentuating Mecham’s arrogance. Depicting Mecham as imagining himself to be a monarch and of more keen wisdom than America’s “Founding Fathers” implied the need for voters to exercise their rights as members of a republic to recall their governor.

Having sufficiently rejected Mecham by banishing him to the realm of absurdity, his accusers enjoy a “self-serving redemption” (Appel, “Burlesque” 272). Republicans who rejected Mecham were able to redeem themselves from their association with his intolerant brand of social conservatism. The rejection of these values by conservatives was a significant theme in many of the detractions made against Mecham. In response to the categorization that those behind the recall movement were homosexual and dissident (liberal) Democrats many of those who wrote letters to the editor overtly identify themselves as both Republican, or at least conservative, and heterosexual. (7) A recall volunteer stated that “You’d be surprised how many of those signing make it clear that they are not ‘dissident Democrats’ or ‘homosexual agitators'” (qtd. in Crehan). The self-definition provided conservatives with the opportunity to redefine their political makeup by cutting away the values of extreme social conservatism that Mecham represented but allowing themselves to remain conservative Republicans who were more libertarian on social issues.

Through rejecting Mecham, Arizona Republicans found redemption from the stigma of extreme intolerance associated with the Republican party. Attesting to the fact that Arizona is a conservative state, one Arizonan noted that “Mecham is undoubtedly a product of his environment” (Dessaseure 3). The keen observation explains that the collection of signatures from numerous Republicans was a political moment larger than removing Mecham from office. Those Republicans who signed petitions to recall Mecham were rejecting the most extreme wing of social conservatives in the Republican Party and attempting to shift Arizona’s political environment to a conservatism emphasizing libertarianism and fiscal policy, as reflected in limited government and low taxes. It is interesting to note Arizona produced Evan Mecham as well as Barry Goldwater. As a presidential candidate some twenty years earlier, Goldwater’s dominant campaign slogan, “In your heart you know he’s right,” celebrated a forthright anti-communist brand of conservatism that boasted such themes as, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Mecham’s reputation and subsequent rejection for speaking what his supporters considered to be bold proclamations of truth and morality stands in contrast to Goldwater’s acceptance by Arizonans and speaks to the fact that some forms of extreme conservatism are not acceptable to the majority of Arizonans. The contrast was exemplified by Goldwater himself, when he admitted, “I once said that the Reverend Jerry Falwell needed a swift kick in the ass” (Goldwater 385). Goldwater made this comment after Falwell and others opposed the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, due to votes she had made while a member of the Arizona Legislature in the early 1970s. Goldwater said that groups such as Falwell’s Moral Majority were often referred to “as ‘the new conservatism’ but ‘I have spent quite a number of years carrying the flag of the old conservatism and I can say with conviction that the religious issues of these groups have little or nothing to do with conservative or liberal politics'” (“Goldwater tells”). The rejection of Mecham was in this vein.

“What Good Can Come of This?”

Both supporters and detractors of Evan Mecham often asked what good could come of the 16 months that were Mecham’s governorship of Arizona. Mecham’s supporters felt that those supporting the recall movement were tearing down a “good man” while his detractors felt he was more of a “good ol’ boy.” When a politically tumultuous time strikes it is always a cue for the rhetorical critic to enter and consider what we might learn of the human condition from the experience. From studying the public reactions to Evan Mecham, we are better informed about the ways in which a citizenry manages their opinions of an elected official. Through Burkean analysis, strategies that ultimately accept or reject a public figure can be better understood. In the case of Mecham, using the epic frame to think about the Governor, Arizonans were able to fortify an extreme form of social conservatism. Moreover, they were able to invigorate themselves by cashing in on both the possibilities of Mecham’s success as well as his political demise by elevating him to hero of the cause and martyr for the faith. Arizonans who rejected Mecham used the recall drive and conviction at the impeachment trial for their own gain. By rejecting Mecham as an imbecile who aptly represented an intolerant social conservatism, while affirming their own conservative political orientation, Arizona Republicans were able to redefine their own political orientation as a libertarian form of conservatism. The Democrats, on the other hand, were simply vindicated. The struggle between Mecham as a hero or buffoon would continue to play out in Arizona voting booths when Mecham ran for the Republican Gubernatorial nomination in 1990, losing to Fife Symington. He also waged an unsuccessful independent run for Senator in 1992, focusing almost exclusively on attacking Republican incumbent John McCain.

Mecham scholars have a paradigm case in which to examine Burke’s poetic frames. The current analysis begins to question the absolute nature of Burke’s frame perspective by identifying a case where social order can be constructed through the simultaneous examination of multiple, yet contradictory, frames. Elements of both the epic and burlesque frames emerged in Mecham’s stint as governor. Some voters interpreted his rhetoric as heroic, while others branded it buffoonish, which fueled sentiment from voters that ultimately coalesced to create a more moderate form of conservatism in Arizona, one that emphasized libertarianism and fiscal responsibility.

Future Burkean criticism might examine additional tensions between the epic and burlesque frames or push the current analysis even further to find additional tensions among Burke’s poetic frames. Politicians and/or issues that are particularly divisive might be illustrative of these tensions (e.g., Clinton, David Duke). Further Burkean analyses that contemplate instances of concurrent use of contradictory frames may reveal the various implications of a public divided between accepting and rejecting a particular social order.

The concurrent contradictions are replete in the gubernatorial rhetoric of Evan Mecham. His comic and controversial statements placed him in the national spotlight for his brief tenure as Arizona governor. The justification for critical analysis resides in his own words. When replying to national criticism of his statements and actions as governor, Mecham accented the predominance of and need to consider contradictory perspectives: “I’ve got some letters in the mail saying, ‘We are not going to come to your state.’ We also, however, have some that say, ‘Thank God for people like you, and we think more of Arizona and we’ll be out there.’ So … that cuts both ways” (Siegel 31). Ev, we could not agree more.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Western States Communication Association Convention, Sacramento, CA, February 2000. The authors would like to thank Noelle Stovell and the late Katherine O’Connor for assistance in data gathering, Karen Susag for filing the newspaper clippings, and Ed Buck for access to his newspaper clippings. We would also like to thank Cheree Carlson for her comments on the paper. Editor’s Note: The review of this paper was initiated under the direction of the previous WJC Editor, David Henry. The current editor wishes to thank Professor Henry for all of his help on this and other manuscripts (and related reviews) that he has forwarded.


(1) One need look no further than detractions made against George Washington for having slaves or the reports that Martin Luther King Jr. was an adulterer for examples when national icons are subjected to a degree of debunking that is met with a mix of personal betrayal, disbelief, and rage.

(2) Mecham finished second in the 1990 Republican gubernatorial primary. He ran as an independent for the U. S. Senate seat held by Republican incumbent John McCain in 1992. Mecham finished a poor third, with about 10% of the vote.

(3) The paper noted that the text was printed without corrections. Spacing in the text of this paper reflects that in the letter, as printed in the newspaper. The vast majority of the paragraphs have only one sentence.

(4) The last sentence of the quotation appeared as the first sentence of the following paragraph.

(5) Citation is from the transcript. This statement is in the introduction as well as the story. It appears on p. 2 and 6.

(6) This was the standard classification for proponents of women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, racial equality, tolerant Christians, and any person or piece of media less than flattering in its evaluation of Mecham.

(7) For just a few examples see: Christian; Clark; and Crown.


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The author, Clark D. Olson, is a member of the instructional staff at the Hugh Downs School of Communication, Arizona State University.