Transcript: Ted Koppel interviews Evan Mecham

Transcript of ABC’s Nightline. November 20, 1987

There’s a song about him. (song) There’s been a series of Doonesbury cartoon strips about him, and all over America people are beginning to hear about him. And what do they hear? “Mecham has been disastrous from day one.” “We’d like to wake up in the morning and realize it was just a bad dream and it will all go away.

Good evening, I’m Ted Koppel and this is Nightline. The outrage he’s created has made him a national figure. Less than a year after taking office, Governor Mecham of Arizona is fighting for political survival. we’ll talk to him live tonight.

The office of Arizona Governor Evan Mecham has issued what it calls a partial listing of accomplishments performed by the Governor and his administration during his first 10 months in office. There are 23 items ranging from the sponsorship of a resolution to repeal the 55 mile per hour speed limit, to the opening of a trade office in Taiwan. But whether or not one excepts the list as impressive, even the Governor’s most ardent supporters would have to agree that it is not his accomplishments that have made him the object of national curiosity, and bitter state wide controversy.

Evan Mecham has become one of the best known Governors in the land because a growing number of Arizonans appear to regard him, his pronouncements and several of his appointments, as a massive embarrassment.

The Governor, who is nothing if not feisty, treats his critics with the same open contempt that they have shown him. What’s all the fuss about? Here’s a report from Gary Shepherd. His name is Evan Mecham, and he’s running for his political life. He ran for Governor of Arizona five times before he was finally elected last November and now, after only 10 months in office, he is under siege.

Series of comments from various people: “You have elected a Governor who is totally insensitive”. “We’ve got to get it behind us quick, by getting him out quick.” “We may be talking impeachment.“

Seven days after the former auto dealer was sworn in last January, he rescinded Arizona observance of the Martin Luther King holiday. He said he was legally obligated to do that, but in addition, he personally opposed it. Governor speaking: “Martin Luther King, in any way you justify it, is not entitled to a national holiday”. Fifteen thousand citizens marched in protest. Outraged black leaders called for a convention boycott in retaliation. Voice: “I’ve said consistently that Evan Mecham has a racist mentality.” Governor: “I’m the farthest thing from a racist there is.”

But whether or not he is, words keep adding fuel to the fire. Governor: “The time does come when the majority says we’re not going to take it any more. And let me tell you that when the majority rises up and says we’re not going to take it any more, I fear for what happens to the blacks, and I don’t want to see that happen”.

Then there were a series of political appointments that left some people here shaking their heads in disbelief. A tax collector who failed to pay his own taxes on time. A liquor commissioner under investigation for murder. A special assistant to the Governor indicted for extortion. Voice: “This is so bizarre. That’s the word I keep coming back to over and over again. Bizarre. It is a regular side show.”

Mecham angered gays by declaring homosexuality an unacceptable lifestyle. On the radio he’s asked about the number of gays in government. “Well, I’ll tell you what — if you can tell me who they are I’d like to know.” Feminists are alienated when he agrees that working women cause divorce. Then he defends the use of the term “pickaninny” in a history book to describe black children. VOICE: “The whole notion that the governor of this state would refer to, or think it’s OK to refer to folks as pickaninnies, in my judgment, is simply offensive.” VOICE: “It’s the people of Arizona that are going to take leadership in this position and get Evan Mecham back in Glendale, where he belongs, selling cars”.

Last July a campaign to recall Mecham was officially launched. Governor’s voice: “If you’ve got a few homosexuals and a few dissident democrats trying to recall you know, I’ve been listening to this for months.” Millionaire businessman, Ed Buck, the leader of the recall, admits he’s gay, but says that’s not the issue, Mecham’s the issue. ED BUCK: “On balance, Evan Mecham’s been disastrous from day one. Probably the only good thing you can say about him, he’s gotten more people involved in Arizona politics than ever before in history.”

As the recall gathered momentum the embattled Governor was even spoofed in Doonesbury for an entire week. And in Phoenix, they were playing his song. (Music at this point about “the letter”.) The letter was sent out to 25,000 conservatives around the nation, asking them to sell their homes, move to Arizona and donate money to help the Governor fight those out to get him.

Mecham’s relations with the news media, strained from the start, have steadily gotten worse. Public opinion polls have revealed that Mecham’s popularity has fallen off sharply. VOICE: “The word that pops up is embarrassment. It’s a collective response to a large number of incidents which seriously question the governor’s competence.”

GOLDWATER: “The best governors we’ve had are people who know this state, people who’ve lived here. That’s why I’m backing Ev Mecham.” Former senator Barry Goldwater, Arizona’s republican patriarch, campaigned for Mecham. Now he’s calling on him to resign. So are several Republican legislators.

VOICE: “It is in the best interest of himself, and his family, the state of Arizona and the Republican Party, unfortunately, that he would tender his resignation.”

The governor has steadfastly refused to resign. But that seems to be the lease of his problems. Arizona’s House of Representatives is talking impeachment as the result of a Grand Jury investigation into his campaign loan. Mecham was subpoenaed to testify before the panel earlier this week, and could be hit with a criminal indictment. At the same time, according to the head of Arizona’s state police, the Grand Jury has also being hearing testimony on a shocking new allegation. Former Mecham aide, Donna Carlson, also called to testify about the $350,000 campaign loan, received a death threat from Lee Watkins, another of the Governor’s appointees, who allegedly warned her to keep quiet.

Earlier this month recall supporters delivered nearly 400,000 signatures to the state capitol. 0fficials are now checking them. If only 217,000 are validated the recall election will be ordered, probably next May. VOICE: “we’d like to wake up in the morning and realize it was just a bad dream and it all went away.” But it’s not a bad dream at all. And after serving less that one year of a four year term, Evan Mecham’s political future is very much in the air. Gary Shepherd for Nightline in Phoenix.

Koppel: When we return we’ll be joined by Governor Evan Mecham, of Arizona, live from Phoenix.

Koppel: With us now live from our affiliate KTVK in Phoenix is Arizona Governor Evan Mecham. Governor, nothing’s out of bounds. Right? I mean you and I don’t have any limitations on where we can go on this interview.

Mecham: You’re asking the questions and I’m giving the answers.

Koppel: That’s just fine. That’s the way we’ll do it then. I just want to be sure, because I looked at that interview that you did with one of my colleagues down there at KTVK earlier this week, and there seemed to be a little bit of hard feelings. That was a pretty rough interview. What do you think the reaction to that was?

Mecham: Oh, I don’t know, heavens, what can I say? I told my message, and he wanted to cross examine, so, you know, you be the judge.

Koppel: As I say it was a pretty tough interview. What do you think has been the reaction from the voters in Arizona?

Mecham: Well, I think on balance it’s been very good for me. I think that the interviewer really took it in the chops, quite frankly. From all I’ve heard why they felt that he was way out of bounds. He was just trying to cross examine, when in reality he should have been asking questions that were suppose to be trying to bring some news value to the people.

Koppel: Sir, you think if anything that the trend is starting to go in your favor?

Mecham: Oh, heavens, it’s been going in my favor for quite a while. If it hadn’t, they would have run me out of the state. It has been a pretty strong attack. It started before I got in office. Pretty well coordinated. Oh, yes. No, the people of Arizona, a lot of people, the good people across the state, they see through all of this. So, that’s the reason this doesn’t have the effect that a lot of people in the news media, and some of the people around the capitol think that it has. I get out and around this state a good deal, and our people are pretty solid people. And, they look through that, and they judge me by what I do, not by what some people, particularly the Phoenix newspapers say about me.

Koppel: So, obviously you haven’t seen tomorrow morning’s Phoenix Gazette and the poll that they just took.

Mecham: Well, I’ll tell you. The last poll they took, about 10 days ago, before we had a vote on Rio Salado. Rio Salado was a tax increase, and it was told downtown that the only people against Rio Salado was Governor Mecham and majority leader in the House, Jim Ratliff. And they said that it was too close to call. It went down two to one. So, so much for polls. I’ve been behind in every poll they’ve ever taken.

Koppel: well, you’re behind in this one too. Let me just read you what the highlights of the poll are, and this is going to be in the Phoenix Gazette tomorrow morning. “Should Mecham resign” is the question. 58% say yes, 36% say no, 6% have no opinion. Question: Has Governor Mecham been truthful? 39% think you have been, 47% think you’re lying, and 14% have no opinion. Question: Are you satisfied with his answers to questions regarding the campaign loan? 21% think you have been honest about it; 63% think you’re lying; 16% have no opinion. Uh, but you don’t much care because you don t think the poll is right.

Mecham: No I don’t think the poll is right. The thing of it is when you’re right in the middle of what they’re trying to say, and everyday in the newspaper — you see time and time again it’s been listed as a secret loan. It never was secret. It’s been listed that it wasn’t reported. I told people it was reported. It was, and of course, that will all be proven.

Koppel: I’ll tell you Governor Mecham, it can become kind of mind-bending, as I discovered when I listened to you give about a 15 minute answer there when you were on Arizona television earlier in the week. But, the essence of this thing is the loan was kind of lumped in with a couple of other loans and it wasn’t as identifiable as $350,000 coming from that one. I know he didn’t want to be known as a “fat cat“ contributor, but $350 grand makes him a pretty fat cat. You did write him a letter in which you agreed to keep his name out of it — you agreed to keep it confidential. We can get into a discussion of confidentiality and secrecy are the same thing, but we can let the public decide that. You agreed to keep it confidential. Right?

Mecham: No… no. There’s a lot of difference. He didn’t contribute that. It was a loan.

Koppel: It was a loan.

Mecham: You said contribution.

Koppel: I stand corrected. You’re absolutely right. That’s all it was was a loan.

Mecham: Yeah. That was it. It was a business deal. He got good interest on his money.

Koppel: What kind of interest did he get?

Mecham: I think it was 10%, I don’t recall now, but I’m quite sure 10%. It was better than prime rate. It was a business deal. He knew that he got nothing for his money. When I first met him, when he said he was willing to help the campaign. I’m always concerned about that, because nobody made any deals. In all of our fund-raising, we made sure that the disclaimer was there. Nobody buys anything when they contributed to this campaign except good government. I asked him. That was the first question I asked him. I said, “Mr. Wolfson, what do you expect?” And he said, “Good government.” And I said, well, that’s what you’ll get and that’s all you’ll get“.

Koppel: Well, of course, that’s what the controversy is all about. Whether you’ve been providing the citizens with of the state of Arizona with good government. I think that’s what we’ll get into after this break. If you’ll stand by Governor, we’ll continue in just a moment.

Koppel: With us again now is Arizona Governor Evan Mecham. The critics say and indeed even some of your friends say, that you’re kind of a tough, inflexible fellow. You don’t change your mind much. If you had to do it all again, I mean we’re only talking about 10 months of administration — anything you’d change?

Mecham: Oh, I guess I would understand a little bit more about the desires of so many people not to go along with an election that the people voted and put in a governor. You see, I came in and I told the people fairly and squarely what I was planned to do and I’ve been doing what I’d said I’d do.

Koppel: Forgive me for interrupting you, Governor. My point is any of the things for which you’ve been criticized — is there anything at all that you would be willing to concede? It may have been an error in judgment, or maybe you spoke a little too harshly, or quickly. Which of those things would you take back if you could?

Mecham: Oh, of course, you learn a lot. Heavens yes, I came in from the business world. I learned a lifetime of things. Sure, I made some mistakes, of course.

Koppel: Yeah, which are those?

Mecham: Oh, heavens, I don’t know. It’s not anything of real substance. I’ve been pretty good at negotiating and working with the legislature — got most of my legislative programs through.

Koppel: That’s hardly one of the mistakes you’d cite, though, is it?

Mecham: No, no. I said this is what I’ve done, but you probably say some things that perhaps you wished you hadn’t of said. I don’t know of anything of great substance, but you learn as you go along, and also, I guess I’d of taken far more seriously the opposition. I really kind of thought that after the election that most everybody would come to follow along, and we said we’re going to have a new beginning in Arizona. I took over a government that has been pretty much in a period of malaise for about a decade. We’ve had to change the direction. Taxes were going up quite regular, spending was going up much faster than the increase in wealth, our tax incline was quite steep. And when you change a lot of things, and you sort of chart a new direction, then you do draw some opposition, and of course, the people that’s been in the saddle, and they’re no longer calling the shots. They don’t like that.

Koppel: But Governor, you see that has a way of happening all over the country. People get elected Somebody wins, somebody loses, those who are out of power are always resentful of those who come into power, but somehow they have not created the kind of national spectacle that has been created in the state of Arizona. And, quite frankly, I mean it’s not that anyone’s charging you of being a homicidal maniac, you’re just regarded as an embarrassment. Now, you don’t seem to be embarrassed. I think that’s one of things that people resent about you.

Mecham: Let me tell you, they shouldn’t resent me. It is an embarrassment what’s happened in Arizona, to think that what really could be programmed and put together and a newspaper in the capital city that has just been determined to kick a governor out of office. And I think that most people are embarrassed by a newspaper trying to continue to run government when all the people should be.

Koppel: Governor, I may be off a little bit on the precise figures, but you were elected by 40% and I think about 340,000 votes. About 387,000 people have all ready signed a recall petition. I mean it’s hardly one newspaper just going after you. You’ve got a lot of folks in that state who’d like to see you out again.

Mecham: Ted, really, if you’d like to really look. You ought to look at this newspaper for 30 days, and have somebody really look at it.

Koppel: Governor, quite frankly I don’t care about the newspaper. What I’m concerned about is 387,000 people who signed a recall petition. I mean that’s more than a poke in the eye. They’re coming after you with big guns now.

Mecham: well, of course, they’ve had lots of money, of course the Democratic Party with a little outside help. But, let’s wait until the recorders check and see how many real registered voters they got. These aren’t the people who voted in the election. So, let’s wait and see. Let’s not run this and go on that way. Let’s wait and see.

Koppel: Well, you know a few weeks ago you were talking about, or maybe it was even a few months ago, but you were talking about a few dissident democrats and a few homosexuals. Now you’ve got to admit there’s a few more folks here signed up. Unless you have a larger dissident democratic and homosexual population in Arizona than anybody thinks you’ve got. There’s a lot of folks from Republicans, I mean Barry Goldwater, who at one point, you know, endorsed you, now calls upon you to resign, members of the legislature, Republicans, are calling upon you to resign. They’re the ones who think you’re an embarrassment, Governor, not these dissidents.

Mecham: Well, Ted, let me say something here. I think if we spend just a little bit of time, as you said before, talking about what we’ve done — the people of this state when they get over all of this emotional hoopla, and they get down to the brass tacks of what’s really happened, they’re not going to trade somebody with a record of solid accomplishments that we have. we’ve got a drug program going on that nobody did anything but talk a little bit about …

Koppel: But, Governor, I’ll tell you what Governor, that’s why I mentioned at the top of the program we got the list from your office of the 23 accomplishments, and I must tell you, I don’t mean to be rude, but you wouldn’t be here tonight if all we had were your accomplishments. Your accomplishments are not what has made you a national figure. It is some of the things you have said about blacks, some of the things you have said about gays, it is those kinds of intransigents on your part, Governor, that’s made you a national figure. Now, I can’t argue whether or not you’re going to be in office, or whether you’re going to be recalled, that’s clearly up to the people of Arizona. I don’t think it’s really appropriate for us to be sitting here talking about your many accomplishments. You wouldn’t be here if it was just your accomplishments.

Mecham: Mr. Koppel, if the news media talked anywhere near as much about my accomplishments as they do quoting those who would like to tear me down, we wouldn’t have a national figure either. That’s what’s the embarrassment is. I think the people of Arizona will take care of that all in due time.

Koppel: I guess that’s what I’m getting at. Why do you think — I mean the newspapers don’t go around trying to tear down the governors of the 50 states. There has to be — maybe you will prove that there is absolutely nothing there. That all the appointments of yours which have been questioned will turn out to have been thoroughly brilliant appointments, and charges against some of these people will all be dismissed, and then again, maybe they won’t. But, you’re facing a recall movement. That’s unique in the country.

Mecham: well, when we talk about the appointments, and you talk about the newspapers, the Cox newspapers, they said my appointments were very, very good. Very few of the 421 appointments I have made have ever been anything but given accolades. But, you haven’t read the newspapers. You ought to read the newspaper in Phoenix. In Tucson, the newspaper’s a whole different ballgame. You wouldn’t even think they were writing about the same governor.

Koppel: Yeah, but what about Mr. Watkins, Lee Watkins? Now, he is the man who reportedly made that death threat against that other appointment of yours. You appointed him to be what?

Mecham: I didn’t appoint him to be anything.

Koppel: Well, what was he suppose to be?

Mecham: He’s been hired by the Department of Administration to work in prison construction. That’s something that the grand jury is still working on, so I don’t think we ought to talk about that one in detail.

Koppel: He’s the fellow who served time for postal robbery.

Mecham: As a 17 year old, he did, yes. Kind of got over that. A pretty good fellow, but I don’t think you ought to taint him with that, Mr. Koppel.

Koppel: Well, he’s the one who tainted himself with that. You’re the one who doesn’t want any homosexuals in government office, because you consider homosexuality to be a crime. You know, at least be consistent. (Pause) Problem?

Mecham: Did you ask a question? I thought you were making a statement.

Koppel: I was. I thought you would like to react to it, but if you don’t want to we can move on to another question. Don’t you think there ought to be a little consistency. It seems to me you’re picking out one form of citizen and saying if someone commits a crime they shouldn’t work for the government, but then seem to take a far more tolerant view of someone who at age 17 engaged in a postal robbery.

Mecham: Who are you talking about?

Koppel: I’m talking about Lee Watkins. You just told me it was age 17.

Mecham: No, you said something about I’m picking out one segment of population or something. I missed what you’re trying to say there.

Koppel: I was talking about gays, Governor. I thought you at various times during your administration indicated that gays should not be in the government because they committed a crime.

Mecham: I haven’t picked out the gays at all. They’ve come challenging me. I haven’t gone after the gays at all.

Koppel: So you have no problem with gays in government.

Mecham: I didn’t say that. I said I haven’t gone after them.

Koppel: I’m sorry, Governor, someone was talking in my ear there and I didn’t hear your answer. You mean you have no problems with gays in government?

Mecham: I said, I have paid little or no attention to them.

Koppel: Well, we just saw in the interview that was ahead of this program, the radio interview — I regret that it was just a partial clip there, but you said if someone would give you the name of the gays in government, I got the impression that you would kick them out of office if you found out who they were.

Mecham: No, let me give you what that really was. Somebody was challenging me. I never went after them, I never even brought the subject up. Somebody was challenging me and saying we’ve got all these people. And I think I responded with something, “Well, heavens, tell me what their names are.” They said we’ve got 250,000 people. Get them all together and I’ll talk to them all at once. I never went after them. It’s them that’s come after me.

Koppel: If someone were, for example, to give you names what would you do about it?

Mecham: I wouldn’t do anything about it. Heavens, it’s a matter of speech. Should we talk about something positive, Ted?

Koppel: We’ll talk about some other things, Governor. We are going to take a break. We’ll be back with Governor Mecham in just a moment.

Koppel: I like to begin by apologizing to our affiliates as must be apparent to you. We have all ready run over. We’re going to run over a couple of more minutes so we can continue our discussion with Governor Mecham of Arizona. Governor, you know for a minute there, you had me convinced that I lost my mind here. I knew that I had heard you say what I thought you said. Let me read from you from a transcript of a 60 Minutes interview that you did. This ran on 60 Minutes last month. And, Morley Saffer said, “Do you believe the people who practice homosexuality should be afforded the same rights as people who are heterosexual?“ And you said, “What are you talking about rights?” Saffer said, “Jobs in government.” And you said, “Define yourself. Jobs in government. Anybody who is breaking the law shouldn’t have a job in government. It’s up to me to uphold the law. A homosexual act is against the law.” Now that sure sounds to me as though you are suggesting that homosexuals shouldn’t be in government. I’m thoroughly confusing the issue here?

Mecham: Mr. Koppel, we’ve had a 30 minute program. You’ve spent the first part of it telling all about the things. Would you allow me to just respond in a positive way?

Koppel: Now Governor, I’ll tell you what — you can make all the positive announcements that you want to in the state of Arizona that you want to. I’ve told you from the very beginning, and I tried to be as candid with you as I can, you’re not here to talk about your accomplishments in office, you’re here because you have become a national figure of considerable interest, not because you opened a trade office in Taiwan, not because you’ve been tough on drugs. Try and answer that question, will you?

Mecham: Not because I balanced the budget, not because I took a 150 million dollar deficit that my predecessor gave me and got together with the legislature, not because of …

Koppel: Governor, I’ll tell you what, Governor, on that 150 — (tape goes to side B here) — they have contributed to it, they were going to balance that budget with you or without you. Had you been elected, or had someone else been elected. Now, just for a moment let’s play by my rules for a moment, and let’s go back to the question that I asked you initially, and which it seems to me you evaded the first two or three times that I asked you, were you not calling for the elimination of homosexuals from government office because in your view they break the law?

Mecham: We have spent so much time on homosexuals.

Koppel: You have spent so much time evading, if you just answered the question a little more directly, Governor, then we could have gotten through this in about a minute or two.

Mecham: I have looked at no homosexuals in state government. I sure looked at vetoing the tax increase, I looked at hiring, and the first governor in the history of the state to hire a black to head a major agency. I’ve just finished an executive order to make sure that we finally comply our laws with all of the civil rights laws in the United States; we’ve got an Affirmative Action program.

Koppel: Governor, you collected money, or have been trying to collect money by that letter that you wrote all around the country — the 25,000 like-minded conservatives asking for money to help you in your campaign here. You will clearly need the money if you’re going to have a recall election, and I would like to suggest to you, if you want to use the money then to talk about the various accomplishments that you’ve had in office, that you do it at that time. But, if you’re not going to answer my question, at least be forth right enough to say Ted, I’m not going to answer your question.

Mecham: Ted, I have answered your question. And let me tell you, you said you wanted to tell people what’s going on in Arizona.

Koppel: No, no, no.

Mecham: There’s a lot more going on than homosexuals in this state.

Koppel: I’m sure that is so, and one of these days we will do a program on Arizona. This is not a program on Arizona, this is a program on the governor of Arizona who is up for recall. And I remind you governor, that is really the main reason that you’re the object of viewers‘ attention around the country. Not because of any of those other things that you have done.

Mecham: Well, look. We aren’t sure that I’m up for recall. They’ve got 60 days to collect the signatures. So let’s see how that goes along as time goes on.

Koppel: One other question, Governor, and then I’ll call it a night. we made a few calls down in Arizona today; what we’re hearing is that some 26 conventions have been canceled over the last few months, costing the state of Arizona some 46 million dollars. Now, I read where you claimed that the convention business has gone up.

Mecham: It is. It’s up over 10% in Phoenix, and it’s up over 40% in Tucson.

Koppel: So what are all those figures about 46 million dollars worth of lost convention money?

Mecham: Well, I wish I knew, because the convention business is up. Our tourist business is up. The economy of Arizona is booming, doing very well. So you tell me. That’s why I tried to tell you that you really ought to see the horror stories in the Phoenix newspapers. In Tucson, it isn’t that way.

Koppel: I’m not talking about horror stories in the Phoenix newspapers. I’m talking about calls that we made to the Office of Tourism in your state presumably. They’re under your sponsorship of some kind or another. Are they not state offices?

Mecham: Did you talk to my department of tourism? I don’t think so.

Koppel: That’s who we talked to, Governor. They are the ones who are telling us 26 conventions canceled, 46 million dollars.

Mecham: I really hate to differ with you Mr. Koppel, but you didn’t get those figures from my department of tourism. My department of tourism has got the statistics where we’re up over 11%. Why is it that it’s so hard for you people to accept positive figures, when they really are factual.

Koppel: I guess because some of the positive figures, and some of the positive statements, Governor, are really open to legitimate debate, and I guess the time for that is going to becoming in Arizona over the next few weeks. If that recall election happens, that will be what? Next spring?

Mecham: I really don’t know. I suppose it will be May or June along in there sometime.

Koppel: You just haven’t been paying any attention.

Mecham: Oh, yes. I’ve been told. I said May or June. That’s what I’ve been told. I’ve paid attention to it, of course.

Koppel: Governor Mecham, it was good of you to come on tonight. I appreciate you being here with us. Thank you.

Mecham: All right, you bet.

Koppel: That’s our report for tonight. I’m Ted Koppel in Washington for all of us here at ABC news, good night.