Master showman for the news media

I spent months working on a book about the impeachment of Governor Evan Mecham. I would occasionally take a chunk from the book and put it in article format, then send it off to an editor. Some of these guest columns were published in the Mesa Tribune and Phoenix Gazette, along with smaller newspapers throughout Arizona. The following is an article I had intended for the Wall Street Journal, but I don’t recall ever sending it to a Journal editor. Maybe I was planning to send it elsewhere. Whatever the case, I don’t believe the following draft was ever published. I dropped the book idea when I could not get a commitment from a publisher.

– Ken Smith


April 18, 1988

By Kenneth V. Smith

Political reporters cover Arizona’s Evan Mecham for the same reason sports reporters cover auto racing. They are not looking for a quietly competent, expert driver who smoothly wins the race without incident. They want spectacular wrecks and Mr. Mecham is a rainy day at the Indianapolis 500.

All good journalists should know the former governor has said nothing profoundly new in a couple of years. That’s not the point. Mr. Mecham is hot copy in the news business because he frequently says something sensational which goes against the grain of mainstream behavior for American politicians. Journalists are not interested in his proposed programs, and Mecham indeed has had some good ideas that received little or no publicity.

Mr. Mecham was the first governor in 60 years to be impeached and the only governor in American history to face all three methods of removal from office at the same time. There were formal charges against him, of course, but the root cause was that most of the 90 members of the state legislature and a million or so Arizonans were tired and embarrassed by his willing participation in a national media feeding frenzy.

“I’m not really against the press,” Mecham said. “They’ve had more fun with me than anybody in the history of the state.”

In September 1987, eight months into his turbulent administration, I was recruited by several Arizona Republicans to put out brush fires which Mr. Mecham had started. Republican leaders were very blunt in their advice to me on how to handle the job. “Just get Mecham to keep his mouth shut,” they counseled. One afternoon shortly after beginning the job, I met with Barry Goldwater, who concluded our meeting by patting me on the shoulder and saying, “Good luck, son.”

During the six months I worked for Mr. Mecham, he was the target of a massive recall petition drive, he was indicted on six felony counts by a state grand jury, and he was impeached by the legislature.

I began with what seemed to be a logical assumption that Mr. Mecham was naive about political public relations and he was hopelessly unaware of the consequences of his indiscreet remarks to the press. He had spent most of his adult life either campaigning for office or planning for the next election and had finally been elected governor on his fifth try. It did not make good sense that he would then purposely squander the prize of the governor’s office.

Now, 18 months after I first met Mr. Mecham, I believe an equally plausible explanation might be that he is a promotional genius who masterfully manipulates the news media. Maybe, just maybe, his goal has not been to win elections but rather to get his name in newspapers, his voice on radio and, above all, his image on network television. If Mr. Mecham is viewed as a performer instead of a politician, he is a tremendous success.

He does not seem to care whether the reviews of his act are positive or negative. Mr. Mecham loves to be on stage and his antics and insults make the news media his biggest and best audience. He seems to know instinctively when an interview, speech or press conference does not contain a headline or a 12-second video bite. Time after time, he departed from standard gubernatorial statements on economic development or the state budget and interjected an outrageous comment which awakened reporters. He appeared to enjoy the resulting notoriety, especially so when it made national news.

There is a remarkable sameness at the many speeches and rallies Mr. Mecham gives. His audiences have more of the electricity of a fan club than a gathering of political activists. Mr. Mecham is a talented showman who books rooms with capacities slightly less than the anticipated audience because the crowding adds to the excitement. The atmosphere is like that of a revival as hundreds of true believers hurry to find a place to sit in the neatly lined rows of folding chairs. Standing in a cluster against a wall will be a gang of reporters, looking smugly uninfected by the nearby enthusiasm.

There is a symbiotic relationship between Mecham and a dozen or so young reporters who have launched their careers writing about the impeachment of Governor Mecham. These reporters, most of whom are under 30, set the tone for the national news coverage of Mr. Mecham. For his part, Mecham positioned himself as a media-bashing, tax-cutting champion of the people who fights toe-to-toe with sniveling, liberal reporters.

The truth is Mr. Mecham likes the reporters who cover him, and many of them appear to return the kindness. In late December 1987, at the height of the controversy, a group of print, broadcast and wire service reporters went to the Mecham home and sang Christmas caroles. They sang at the front door, then Gov. Mecham invited the group in to have apple cider and cookies which Florence Mecham had made anticipating their arrival.

While Mr. Mecham will continue to be a political disaster, his role as a performer and media manipulator is fascinating. He is just having a good time.

The news media has been a tremendous disappointment. There have been thousands of newspaper articles and broadcasts about Mr. Mecham, nearly all of which replay familiar themes.

Hundreds of reporters came to Arizona and immediately joined the cluster surrounding Mr. Mecham. The visiting journalists spent as much time interviewing other reporters for background material as they did talking to primary sources. There were few independent thinkers and most filed surprisingly similar stories.

Why should the rest of the nation care what happened in Arizona in recent years? Well, it’s not over yet. Last week, Mr. Mecham announced his sixth campaign for the governorship of Arizona, a year and a half before the 1990 primary election. The story was carried not only on television and radio station in the state, on the front page of every daily newspaper, but also on national television and radio networks, the wire services, and the political columnists are once again rehashing.

There is no reason to expect that state and national coverage of Mr. Mecham for the next 17 months will be any less shallow or sensational.

No shades of grey here, nor a complex speech to comprehend. Mr. Mecham puts whistles and bells on the most imflammatory statements so that even the slowest reporter will get it. It’s boilerplate journalism at its easiest.

All that is necessary for balance and objectivity is to make a couple of phone calls to a long list of rebuttal witnesses. Mr. Mecham’s enemies are standing in line waiting to be on television or to be quoted in a newspaper saying something nasty about the bigoted runt.

One week after his inauguration, Mr. Mecham kept a campaign promise and cancelled the Martin Luther King Holiday for state employees, which he said had been established illegally by his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Babbitt. Not only did he cancel the holiday, he was characterized in the news media as attacking King’s reputation with antagonistic gusto. He then drew fire for saying that working women caused divorce and that homosexuals should not hold jobs in state government. During a question and answer session at a Phoenix synagogue, Mr. Mecham said the United States is a “great Christian nation” and that Jesus Christ is “Lord of the land.”

I started with the logical assumption that Mr. Mecham was naive about how public opinion was formed and he was hopelessly unaware of the consequences of his indiscreet remarks to the press. It did not make good sense that he would knowingly squander the prize of the governor’s office. But, even at the height of his troubles, Mr. Mecham could not be dissuaded from accepting invitations to appear on television. Nor could he be convinced to stop making off the cuff comments to reporters who clustered around him whenever he was in public.

From my close observation of him for six months, Mr. Mecham thrived on controversy and appeared to be exhilarated by negative news coverage. This behavior was frustrating and maddening for those advising Mr. Mecham because it was obviously self-destructive.

Now, 18 months after I first met Mr. Mecham, I believe an equally plausible explanation might be that he is a promotional genius who masterfully manipulates the news media. Maybe, just maybe, his goal has been nothing more complicated than getting his name in newspapers, his voice on radio and, above all, his image on network television. If Mr. Mecham is viewed as a performer instead of a politician, he can be judged a tremendous success.

“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.

“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.

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.

Why should the rest of the nation care about recent Arizona history? Well, it’s not over yet.

Two weeks ago (April 4) on the first anniversary of his removal from office, Mr. Mecham announced his sixth campaign for governor of Arizona, a year and a half before the 1990 primary election. The story was carried not only on every television and radio station in Arizona, on the front page of every daily Arizona newspaper, but also on all national television and radio networks, the major wire services and most major newspapers throughout the country. As a performer, Mr. Mecham had scored again.

For all of his eccentricities and outrageous comments, Mr. Mecham retains a sizeable following in Arizona, as much as 30 percent of those who are most likely to vote. There will likely be several other weaker candidates on primary ballot. Because of his skill at generating free publicity, Mr. Mecham stands a very good chance of winning the Republican primary in September 1990. Virtually no one gives him any chance of winning the general election, regardless of the quality of the Democratic candidate.

By most measures, Mr. Mecham has been and will continue to be a political disaster. But, the greater injury to the national character is the trivializing of political news. In the coming months, Mr. Mecham will again be in the national news in articles and broadcasts which will be depressingly similar to the news of the past several years.