For more than five years, William Cheshire grimly presided over the Arizona Republic's predictably far-right editorial pages as the state's professor of conservatism, sternly lecturing readers on a variety of subjects in his courtly, patrician style.
But there was one basic lesson of human nature the professor himself failed to learn: The boss doesn't like it when you go over his head.
According to Republic and Phoenix Gazette staff members, ignoring that essential truism of office politics cost Cheshire his job. And it may have guaranteed the thing Bill Cheshire feared most--more moderate editorial pages at the Republic.
The tale of corporate intrigue that led to Cheshire's demotion last month--from editor of the editorial pages to weekly columnist--began with a disagreement between the opinion czar and R&G publisher Louis "Chip" Weil over the hiring of a young, conservative editorial writer.
The writer, Matthew Scully, began his career as a conservative proselytizer at the Arizona State University student newspaper, where he was especially noted for a column that made unfavorable comparisons between a well-known liberal professor and a pet rat. Scully then moved on to become national director of Accuracy in Academia, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group that monitors "leftist bias" in the classroom, and he also did a tour of duty at William F. Buckley's National Review.
Most recently, however, Scully landed a job as a speechwriter for Dan Quayle during the former VP's final year in the White House. It was that last, prestigious notch on Scully's rsum that made Cheshire believe the young man was a top candidate to write editorials and columns for the Republic. But in Chip Weil's estimation, Scully's Quayle connection must have produced loathing rather than admiration.
"It's a well-known fact that the Quayles don't like Chip," says one writer familiar with the situation. "They think he's too liberal. Chip doesn't care much for them, either, and they have been known to wrestle over the direction of the papers.
"From Chip's point of view, bringing Scully onboard would be like letting one of Quayle's secret agents into his own backyard." Both Dan Quayle and his father, Jim Quayle, own large blocs of stock in Central Newspapers Inc., the Indianapolis-based parent company of the R&G. Jim Quayle married into the family newspaper empire founded by the late Eugene C. Pulliam, which owns Arizona's biggest newspapers as well as several Indiana dailies.
It isn't difficult to see why the ultraconservative Quayles might tag Weil with the L word and view him as an adversary. The publisher, who assumed control of the R&G in 1991 after a stint at Time magazine, has been portrayed by many Arizona Democrats and minority groups as the Mikhail Gorbachev of the local Fourth Estate, ushering in an era of perestroika at the daily newspapers.
Weil has made a point of holding meetings with those who previously felt their views were not represented in the newspapers, and has aggressively recruited and promoted women and minorities--including two black women as editorial writers--in an effort to erase the perception that the R&G building is the exclusive habitat of middle-aged white males. Under Weil's regime, women have advanced at a breakneck pace. The top editorial managers at the Republic, the Gazette and the Arizona Business Gazette are women.
Weil has drawn fire from conservatives, both locally and from within Central Newspapers Inc., for his new policies, and for running popular features like the daily newspapers' semirisqu personal ads, through which the lovelorn of all sexual persuasions can find companionship.
But perhaps most egregious in the Quayles' eyes, Weil has taken an active role in moderating the newspapers' conservative editorial positions, recently dismissing Republic deputy editorial-page editor Richard Lessner, perhaps the newspaper's most strident voice from the right. After Lessner allowed a cartoon opposing gays in the military--drawn by Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Benson--to appear in the newspaper, he was demoted to religion editor. Rather than assume that post, which he had formerly held, Lessner quit.
Lessner, who has written a novel since his dismissal, says Weil wants editorialists who are "country-club Republicans, people who are malleable to his wishes and who have no real ideology other than maintaining the status quo. . . . I didn't fit that description."
Evidently, neither did Scully. Despite Cheshire's heated protests, Weil reportedly vetoed the decision to hire him. According to editorial-page staffers, that infuriated Cheshire, who was already smarting from the publisher's earlier refusal to hire Jay Heiler, another youngish conservative who cut his rhetorical fangs at ASU and is a Cheshire prodigy. Heiler is now working as an aide to Governor Fife Symington.
Although Weil eventually relented and allowed Cheshire to make Heiler a job offer, Weil reportedly limited the salary level for the position to $50,000, far less than the $75,000 Heiler makes at the Governor's Office. Heiler declined the job.
"Bill Cheshire is a man of strong convictions," says one editorial writer, "and he wanted to make sure his beliefs echoed beyond his tenure by bringing young guys on to take up the burden. He was very frustrated that Chip was standing in his way."
He was so frustrated, in fact, that Cheshire reportedly told his staffers he was considering a "conservative jihad" against Weil: going over the publisher's head and appealing to the conservative faction of Central Newspapers Inc.'s stockholders in an effort to overrule the Scully decision--or possibly even to unseat Weil altogether. That meant enlisting the aid of the Quayles, especially father Jim, a Cheshire acquaintance who makes his winter home in Wickenburg.
It is doubtful that even a direct appeal to the Quayles could have ousted Weil. Although both father and son are members of Central Newspapers Inc.'s board of directors, much of their stock is of the nonvoting variety. Most policy decisions within the company are actually made by a ruling family triumvirate that includes Eugene C. Pulliam's son and widow, along with Frank Russell, the president of CNI and a longtime family friend. That group reportedly regards Weil as a fair-haired boy, and may be grooming him to take over company leadership in the future.
In any event, according to editorial-page staff members, Cheshire never got the chance to make his plea for help.
"Bill made a big deal out of telling people he was going to run to the Quayles," a staff member says. "Of course, Chip got wind of it and viewed it as insubordination."
Previous slip-ups by Cheshire may have contributed to Weil's ire. For instance, the Republic's failure to run letters to the editor in response to a Lessner column criticizing Miami hurricane victims was an embarrassment. In addition, Cheshire's decision to write a confusing column praising Symington and refuting the opinion of the newspaper's political columnist, Keven Willey, prompted some observers to wonder if the editorial pages were tucked deeply in the governor's pocket--a perception the image-conscious Weil would no doubt find disturbing.
But the threatened end run to the Quayles was "the straw that broke the camel's back," the staffer says. "It gave Chip the reason he has been needing to get rid of the old, conservative guy."
Neither Cheshire nor Weil returned telephone calls from New Times.
Jim Quayle, reached at his home in Wickenburg after returning from a meeting last week of the CNI board of directors in Indianapolis, said he doesn't "feel it is appropriate for me to discuss any problems I may have with the way the [Phoenix] newspapers are being run." But he did coyly point out that the April 26 issue of the National Review noted Cheshire's demotion with despair, observing that he was "fired" and replaced with a liberal.
Calls to Dan Quayle, who was elected to the board during the recent meeting, were not returned.
Weil has brought in the more moderate Paul Schatt, former chief of the Gazette's editorial pages, to replace Cheshire. Co-workers say Schatt's political views are somewhat amorphous, and are based on middle-of-the-road pragmatism rather than on ideology. During his career, spent entirely with the R&G, he has certainly failed to display the kind of hard-line conservatism that was Cheshire's trademark during his time as a campaign aide to U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, as opinion-page editor of the rabidly right-wing Washington Times and at the Republic.
There is already evidence that Schatt is trying to steer the Republic away from some of Cheshire's well-marked positions, especially in regard to Symington, the recipient of slavish devotion from the Cheshire regime.
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"Schatt is a man who is attuned to the political realities of the community," says an R&G employee familiar with details of the recent editorial-page upheaval. "You won't see him going over the falls with Fife Symington."
Schatt declined to comment, saying it was "inappropriate" for him "to speak on internal issues."
But an R&G employee close to the scene says the demise of Cheshire and Lessner, combined with the rise of Schatt, speaks volumes about the direction Weil--who is now without a rival within the newspapers--is leading the local dailies.
"I think the readers are going to notice a lot of changes in the kind of issues the Republic supports from now on. The days of dogmatic conservatism are over.
"And Bill Cheshire has learned a lesson. If you want to plot a coup, you better get your ducks in order. Otherwise, they will put you up against a wall.