Governor Mecham on Ted Koppel’s Nightline

Also see my notes at the bottom of this page. The media event surrounding the interview with Koppel was nothing short of bizarre. 

I had tried for weeks to keep Governor Mecham off Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” show. His producer had called me several times to schedule an interview and each time I said the governor was very busy and I did not see an immediate opening in his schedule. Then, Koppel phoned me and I repeated the same excuse.

After the recent disaster on “60 Minutes”, I could see nothing to be gained by Mecham going on national television. My strategy here was simply not to tell Mecham about Koppel’s invitation. But, Koppel one evening phoned Mecham at his home and said his staff “had been trying for weeks to get Ken Smith” to schedule Mecham on Nightline. Immediately after finishing his conversation with Koppel, Mecham called me at home to chew me out for not telling him about the “opportunity” with Nightline.

Unfortunately, I was correct in not trusting Ted Koppel. After Koppel phoned Mecham at home and a date was set, I had phone conversations with several of Koppel’s producers. I explained my concern that the show would repeat the distortions of the Arizona media, particularly the case of Alberto Rodriguez of a shooting 33 years earlier.

The case involved the shooting of a suspected burglar and Rodriguez was one of eight police officers involved. The man was shot on the U.S. side of the border, but managed to get back across into Mexico where he died. The shooting was investigated by local and state police, the FBI and the U.S. State Department (because the man died in Mexico). Rodriguez, along with all other officers, was cleared.

In phone conversations with the producers, I said that there was a general belief by many people in Arizona that Attorney General Bob Corbin had re-opened the very old case as a way to politically damage Governor Mecham. I asked that full details of the shooting be provided to viewers of the show, spelling out that Rodriguez had been cleared many years before. I also suggested that Koppel phone Corbin and ask if dredging up such an old case was politically motivated. Fat chance.

I faxed news clippings to the producers to prove that the bogus case against Rodriguez had been dismissed by a judge four months earlier. But more than that, I provided details that Rodriguez had spent a career in the U.S. Army and retired as a full colonel with full security clearances that a accompany that rank.

But, in the opening seconds of the show, a voice-over announcer telling about the upcoming interview said, “A liquor commissioner under investigation for murder.” There was no further explanation, no details about the case, leaving the impression that a Mecham appointee was currently under investigation for murder.

I knew that Mecham’s views on homosexuality would be a hot-button topic. I told the producers my concern was that Koppel would not get the answer he wanted and he would then badger the governor by repeating the question, over and over again.

I suggested to Mecham that he turn the tables on Koppel when the questions about homosexuality came up. Mecham could respond by saying that in his religion and according to the Bible, homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle. Then, ask Koppel, “Are you asking me to change my religious beliefs?” Then, ignore Koppel’s follow-up questions saying that the question had already been answered. Mecham ignored my suggestion and much of the show was about homosexuality.

One of Koppel’s producers phoned me the next morning to apologize. He said it was the worst interview that Koppel had ever done.

Here is a transcript of the Koppel-Mecham interview.

– Ken Smith


Governor Refuses to Answer Many Questions During ‘Nightline’ Program

November 21, 1987

By Laurie Asseo
Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Gov. Evan Mecham scoffed at polls suggesting he should resign and refused to answer many of the questions asked as he appeared on ABC television’s “Nightline” program.

“I haven’t picked out the gays at all; they’ve come challenging me,” the Republican governor protested to anchorman Ted Koppel on Friday night as he was asked about his views of homosexuality. Mecham refused to answer Koppel’s question about the governor’s statement a month earlier that homosexuals are lawbreakers and thus do not deserve jobs in government.

“Let’s play by my rules for a moment,” Koppel said. “You evaded for the first two or three times that I asked you (about his view of homosexuals).”

“We have spent so much time on homosexuality,” Mecham complained.

“You have spent so much time evading” that the program has not had time to move on to other subjects, Koppel returned.

Afterward, state Republican Chairman Burton Kruglick gave Mecham a “plus rating” for his performance. “There was a definite intention to embarrass the governor, in my opinion, and show all the negatives,” Kruglick said.

However, state Rep. Chris Herstam, R-Phoenix, one of the first GOP lawmakers to come out against Mecham, said: “It’s sad that millions of viewers across the nation were further exposed to Arizona’s continuing political tragedy. … He appeared to be detached from reality.”

“It was embarrassing and it was disgusting,” Mecham Recall Committee founder Ed Buck said. “More and more so he’s evading questions. … He’s clearly out of touch and on the run.”

On “Nightline,” the governor didn’t want to discuss his feelings about the people who signed petitions seeking his recall.

“These aren’t the people who voted in the election,” he said. The governor also blamed much of the opposition to his administration on the Phoenix newspapers.

Afterward, Mecham refused to comment to reporters and some of his bodyguards shoved at least one newsperson aside as the governor made his way to his car. His press secretary, Ken Smith, also would not talk to reporters.

Koppel began the program by saying many Arizonans had come to regard Mecham as “a massive embarrassment.”

However, Mecham insisted, “The good people across this state, they see through all of this.”

On “Nightline,” Mecham scoffed at polls that show a majority of people saying he should resign. “I’m behind in every poll that they’ve ever taken,” he said.

He admitted he had made some mistakes since taking office, but “not anything of real substance.” Mecham tried to focus on the positive things he said he had accomplished in office, including an anti-drug program and establishing a foreign trade office in Taiwan.

“Your accomplishments are not what have made you a national figure,” Koppel said.


Comment:

This was not one of the finest moments for either Mecham or Koppel. One of Koppel’s producers called me the next morning to apologize for violations of some ground rules that we had previously agreed upon. He added that he thought it was one of the worst shows Koppel had ever done.

I had tried for weeks to keep Mecham off the Koppel show. But, Koppel one evening phoned Mecham at his home and said his staff “had been trying for weeks to get Ken Smith to schedule” Mecham on Nightline. Immediately after finishing his conversation with Koppel, Mecham called me at home to chew me out for not telling him about the Nightline opportunity.

Koppel promised Mecham an opportunity to tell his side of the story. Naive as he was, Mecham accepted.

This incident is interesting to me for many different reasons, but it is included here because it vividly reminds me that reporters, too, are subject to mass hysteria. The reporters were not allowed in the Channel 3 studio, but did watch the interview with Koppel on a monitor in the station’s waiting room. The show was broadcast live on the east coast, but delayed three hours on the west. The reporters were in the studio to get a jump on the Arizona broadcast.

My wife and Mrs. Murray Miller also were in the waiting room, but they were not recognized or known by any of the reporters. My wife told me that throughout the interview with Koppel, the reporters were nearly hysterical, shouting at the television monitors, and yelling that Koppel was not being tough enough, that he was letting Mecham slip through, that Koppel was not was not asking the questions local reporters had provided. Mrs. Miller had similar observations about the reporters.

Following the interview, the energized reporters crowded around Mecham as he was going to his car. Contrary to what the article above says, a security guard did not push a reporter. I saw what happened.

Laurie Asseo was emotionally charged, yelling at Mecham, wanting to know why he did not answer Koppel’s questions about homosexuality. She was not pushed by a security guard. She was walking backwards, single-mindedly pursuing what she thought was a story, and she tripped over a parking lot divider.

No great assault on the news media here. Laurie Asseo simply did not watch where she was going.

These articles also describe a shouting match between me and the reporters. The shouting was one-directional.

I didn’t think I could add much to a debate between a national television newsman and a governor, so I was trying to leave. Laurie Asseo was nearly rabid, and kept pulling my hand with my car keys away from the door lock. She was screaming questions and obscenities. “Answer my fucking questions,” Asseo screamed.

At one point, my wife said we were already late for dinner, and Asseo yelled to her, “Shut up, you bitch. This is his job.” Even after I was in my car, pulling out of the parking lot, Asseo was pounding on my window with her fist, demanding that I answer her questions.

The next morning I phoned Gavin Scott, Asseo’s boss at AP, and I left a detailed message complaining about Asseo’s behavior. He phoned me back later that afternoon, saying he listened to her pocket tape recorder that confirmed the validity of my complaint. Scott told me he had talked with Asseo and she was asked to tone down her language and her behavior.

Scott then asked me what I would think about Larry Lopez being reassigned to cover the governor’s office. Lopez had worked in AP’s capitol bureau before I had arrived in Arizona, but he was transferred following some dispute. I was surprised that Scott would ask me this question. I told Scott I had only met Lopez through phone interviews, but he seemed fair and had always quoted me accurately. Within a week, Lopez was back at the capitol covering Governor Mecham.