Arizona Republic readers picked up their Sunday, February 28, Perspective section to find a damning review of Governor Fife Symington's first two years in office. Political columnist Keven Willey leveled blow after blow against the governor in her essay and accompanying report card, citing everything from the collapse of Symington's real estate empire to his attempt to establish a legal-defense fund.
"At the midpoint of his four-year term . . . [the] governor has yet to prove himself worthy of reelection," Willey wrote, marking Symington's report card with grades more worthy of a dunce: six Ds and one C.
For those accustomed to the Republic's stultifyingly conservative opinion pages, it was a startling assessment of the top Republican official in the state.
But Willey, the Republic's veteran political columnist, wouldn't have the last word. That would go to William Polk Cheshire, Grand Old Editor of the Republic's editorial pages.
In the March 7 Perspective section, Cheshire wrote a column correcting Symington's report card. It was preceded by a note, apparently intended to explain away the confusion of the 180-degree turn that was about to be wrought on readers: "This column, as with last week's Perspective section cover story, is part of an ongoing effort by Republic analysts to assess the administration of Governor Fife Symington at the midpoint of his first term."
There was no such qualifier the week before, and Willey laughs about the editor's note on Cheshire's column. "I'm not sure whether they plan to 'ongo' that any further," she says.
Cheshire's column usually runs down the left side of the front of the Perspective section. That's where it was situated on February 28, when Willey's story and report card appeared. (Cheshire penned a paean to Rush Limbaugh that day.) On March 7, however, Cheshire's column was bannered across the top of the section's front page.
"Last week's Perspective section contained a detailed 'report card' on Governor Symington's second year in office," Cheshire wrote, "but it wasn't quite right."
Without mentioning Willey by name, Cheshire wrote that when her report card had been compiled, "some of the governor's homework papers had gotten shoved down behind the sofa cushions." Symington's grade point average would have to be revised, Cheshire continued, because "the complete record [was] unavailable when his grades were averaged last week."
Cheshire--who had not read Willey's piece before it was published--then proceeded to elevate Symington's grades to honor-roll status: three As and one B+.
Despite Cheshire's attack on her credibility, Willey is diplomatic. "I have always been an advocate of diversity of opinion," she says.
However, she concedes that some readers might be confused by the divergent viewpoints. And she characterizes the reaction to the knockdown as "bizarre. I've had many phone calls from people who view [Cheshire's] piece as much more disparaging than it was."
It wasn't difficult to imagine what occurred in the wake of Willey's report card. Symington's spin doctors got busy. "We rained all over them," Barry Aarons, the governor's director of public information, tells New Times. "I'm sure that had some impact on Cheshire."
It should come as no surprise that Symington and Cheshire are philosophical soul mates. Cheshire was director of communications for the Jesse Helms for Senate Committee in 1972. Prior to his appearance in Arizona, Cheshire was editorial-page editor at Washington, D.C.'s ultraright, Moonie-owned Washington Times, where he earned a reputation as a hard-liner.
Their shared love of conservatism aside, Cheshire and Symington have other mutual interests.
Last January, the governor established a search committee to find a new director for the Arizona Office of Tourism. Named to the committee by Symington were seven bigwigs whose credentials ranged from executive vice president of the Arizona Hotel and Motel Association to president of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau. One week after a press release announced those selections, Symington added two more names: Mike Ratner, president of the Arizona Restaurant Association, and Lucy Cheshire, the wife of William Cheshire.
Last week, Don Harris, spokesman for the Department of Commerce, whose director heads the committee, was unable to locate Lucy Cheshire's qualifications, but says, "I think she was in advertising or public relations."
Lucy Cheshire, who couldn't be reached for comment, quit the committee at the end of February, according to Harris.
Then there's Jay Heiler, a $75,000-per-year special assistant to the governor and former editor of the State Press, Arizona State University's campus newspaper. William Cheshire reportedly helped arrange for Heiler's job on Symington's staff, and Heiler is now said to be a candidate to become an editorial writer at the Republic.
"He [Heiler] was certainly among Cheshire's top picks," says Willey.
Before graduating in 1983, Heiler caused a stir on the ASU campus with his self-proclaimed archconservative views, doled out on the pages of the State Press. "People were protesting and marching around the building," recalls Ed Sylvester, a journalism professor at ASU.
While Heiler has said that his views have since moderated, a student who answered the telephone at the State Press last week says the newspaper is yet to rid itself of Heiler's legacy: "The State Press is still trying to live down the reputation that he left us."
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Heiler would be another Symington friend inside the Republic's insular editorial department, which Republic and Phoenix Gazette journalists refer to as "Biosphere 3." Last year, when R&G employees were asked to rate the performances of in-house departments, the Republic's editorial department got among the lowest marks.
Last week, Scottsdale Progress columnist Steve Wilson wrote about an imaginary Symington-Cheshire conversation in the wake of Cheshire's fawning column. Wilson has Symington telling Cheshire, "Even some people on my staff, affectionately, of course, refer to you as Toady Bill."
Contacted for comment, Cheshire said, "You can quote me as saying that I consider the New Times a disreputable rag." Then he hung up.
This from a man whose own "homework" lacks credibility. While rebutting Willey's report card, Cheshire mentioned that the Resolution Trust Corporation "hopes to squeeze him [Symington] for some of the money lost when a sour real estate market collapsed Western Savings & Loan." Right industry; wrong direction. Actually, Symington was on the board of Southwest Savings and Loan.