Jury Acquits Governor, Wall Street Journal editorial

Wall Street Journal

June 21, 1988

REVIEW & OUTLOOK (Editorial)

A jury has just acquitted former Arizona Governor Evan Mecham, recalling to mind the collapse of criminal cases against two other public figures, Labor Secretary Ray Donovan and former NASA Director Jim Beggs. But none of these things happened before the reputations of all three men were essentially ruined.

Such are the rules of political mudball. Asked last week about House Speaker Jim Wright’s problems, Michael Dukakis said, “I thought there was a presumption of innocence in this country.” To which the Associated Press’s reporter correctly noted: “That may be true in the courts; perhaps not in politics.” Further to the point, before a single indictment has been handed up, Washington is luxuriating in a new defense-procurement “scandal.” In this atmosphere, any Washington figure drawing public attention to archaic notions such as “presumption of innocence” would be laughed out of town.

We devoted considerable space to the Evan Mecham story because we believed it was emblematic of a disturbing turn in U.S. politics. Democratic elections — people putting officials in office with their votes — are losing force as the central, determining factor in the political process.

Elections can now be overturned or devalued by public melodramas that are making American politics look like the Roman Colosseum.

In 1986 Evan Mecham won a three-way race for Governor of Arizona by taking 40% of the vote. Several months ago, the Arizona Senate voted to impeach Governor Mecham and replaced him with Secretary of State Rose Mofford. Then a court canceled the recall election, and so Mrs. Mofford ends up as governor until 1991. Last week, after deliberating six hours over the most serious charge ever leveled at Mr. Mecham — that he concealed a $350,000 campaign loan — a jury voted to acquit him. So a year-and-a-half after the people picked a governor, Evan Mecham is on the sidewalk and Rose Mofford is in the statehouse, running Arizona.

In the end, the state of Arizona stood before the rest of the nation as a pathetic circus. We never did read a good A.J. Liebling-type story explaining what this affair was really about. Apparently all anyone outside Arizona had to have reported to him was that Governor Mecham repealed Martin Luther King Day and routinely made tasteless remarks about people.

We continued to wonder, however, why polls showed a third of Arizonans solidly supporting Mr. Mecham. No one bothered to ask what was on the minds of these Arizonans. And we never found out about the place of the Mormons in Arizona politics, though they are about 15% of the electorate and Mr. Mecham is a Mormon. We wondered about independent Flagstaff City Councilman Murray Feldstein’s intriguing comment on the 1986 election: “Mecham had everything against him except that he opposed the higher taxes all of his establishment rivals favored.” But the issues of the ’86 election were never allowed to intrude on the melodrama.

Now the U.S. is about to proceed with a presidential election, and perhaps what we said at the outset of the Mecham affair bears repeating: We worry when scandal is used to overrule elections. The interpretation of complex laws, decisions about selective prosecution, the control and manipulation of the media — these are the skills of political elites. Since Watergate, it has become increasingly fashionable to use these skills to overrule the ballot box.

Over the same period, voting participation by the masses has plummeted and anti-establishment rhetoric has soared on both the right and left. These are not healthy trends.

We’ll know the trend is improving when a concept such as the presumption of innocence is no longer treated as irrelevant.