May 15, 1988
By Kenneth V. Smith
If Evan Mecham had followed my advice, he probably would be governor of Arizona today. More than likely, the impeachment proceedings against him would have fizzled and he would not have been the nation’s first governor in six decades to be thrown out of office.
There was nothing unique or particularly brilliant about my advice. In fact, there were dozens of staff members, consultants and Republican veterans who were offering Mecham similar or better suggestions on how to reverse his downhill slide.
Mecham hired me as his press secretary last September after he had suffered nine months of poor relations with the news media and warfare with the state legislature. Optimistically, I thought the situation could be fixed by convincing him that what gets politicians into office is not the same thing as what keeps them in office. From my first day on the job, I was part of the chorus offering advice to Mechyam on how to save his political and personal hide.
The advice was fairly simple. Keep quiet. Assume a low profile. Become a ribbon-cutting, ceremonial governor until the heat dies down. Quietly remove all controversial appointees. Avoid unscheduled contacts with reporters. Deliver all speeches from perp reared text. Delegate controversies to senior staff and department heads. Don’t offend the civic elite or power brokers. Grant some favors to political enemies. Let key members of the legislature win some arguments.
Mecham was also advised to recognize his profound political error in canceling the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday shortly after he was inaugurated. The national furor was caused not only by the cancellation itself, but also by the antagonistic gusto with which Mecham rescinded the holiday. His persistent view was that the King holiday holiday controversy would fade away.
The King holiday was the spark that started the national prairie fire that ultimately led to Mecham’s downfall. He was advised to admit his error and then take whatever action was necessary to resolve the King holiday issue.
He rejected almost all such advice. Mecham enjoyed dancing close to the fire and he was oblivious to the dangers facing him.
Mecham never understood the danger of being overexposed. More than any other politician I have ever met, he was addicted to appearing on television. He did not seem to care whether the coverage was positive or negative.
Like a self-destructive moth, he was drawn to television lights. Against the advice of nearly everyone around him, he continually searched out public appearances and media exposure.
A tireless campaigner who was finally elected on his fifth try, his fatal flaw was that he could not quit running after he had won the race. He was impeached not only for relatively minor allegations that would have been swept under the rug for a less controversial governor, but also because he was willing bait for a national media feeding frenzy.
Governor Mecham could not see that the impeachment trial as both political and personal. He would not believe that every member of the legislature was embarrassed and fatigued by the media attention he was generating. Compounding the problems, not one Arizona legislator owed Mecham a political favor.
“Governor Mecham is being railroaded by the legislature,” was the first line of a joke making the rounds during the impeachment proceedings. The punch line was, “That’s true, but he laid his own tracks.”
The tragic fact of this story is that Mecham will be remembered as an incompetent, bumbling bigot who got what he deserved. But, there was far more to Evan Mecham.
He had some charming personal qualities. He had a genuine interest in helping the disadvantaged. He understood economic development far better than his predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, or his successor, Rose Mofford. He believed in economic equality for all races and minorities, arguing this would be necessary before political and social equality could b e be achieved. He was deeply troubled by rampant drug abuse. And, his pet project this year would have been a statewide campaign to help illiterate adults learn to read.
This side of Mecham was lost in a fog of controversy that he helped create. Why? For Mecham, the best explanation would be that he was hopelessly unaware of the consequences of his remarks to the press.
For many, it is now comfortable to dismiss Mecham as a mud-slinging, maverick outsider who refused to join the team. The easy course is to forget all of Mecham’s ail charges about elite conspiracies and biased newspapers.
It is also convenient to forget that Mecham touched a favorable nerve in much of the electorate and even as a branded, impeached former governor he retains the support of possibly one-fourth of Arizona’s voters. And, it is expedient to ignore the reality that Mecham stood a fair chance of winning the recall election that would have been held Tuesday.
In the camp that successfully fought against Mecham, there remains a smug sense of achievement as if a malignant tumor had been excised from the body politic. It seems to make little difference that the surgeons used meat cleavers instead of scalpels to perform the operation.
The deep wound to the social and political structure of Arizona will not be healed until those remaining in power conduct an honest appraisal of the past two years. Contrary to prevailing beliefs, Mecham was not merely a political aberration.
A sizable percentage of the public feels disenfranchised from governmental and political processes. Mecham was perceived as an outsider who was not part of the established order. He satisfied an emotional need in many voters. The hard and cold facts are that many people do not trust government, politicians, or the news media, and for these people Mecham became and remains a hero.
If Arizona’s political leaders, power structure and news media do not recognize why many voters feel alienated, another Evan Mecham will be elected.