Mecham's Final Strategy: Attack! Attack! Attack!
I was driving to Evan Mecham's Supreme Court hearing.
A newscaster's voice on the radio said: "The scene at St. Croix after Hurricane Hugo is described as near anarchy. Troops sent there to restore order have been told to shoot if necessary to defend themselves." The Arizona State Legislature was about to pass the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill. At the state Supreme Court, located on the second floor of the building which houses the governor's office, people were lined up for Mecham's hearing.
People were assaulting the talk radio shows. On KTAR, a woman shouted:
"Every time you turn over a rock, there he is. Let's bring him back and this time let's try him for treason." Another woman, a Mecham supporter, said just as fervently:
"The Catholics put in their own governor. I'm told she's had two abortions herself." Preston Westmoreland, the talk-show host, said nothing. He seemed stunned.
Walking through the capitol mall, I saw only a few demonstrators supporting Mecham. There were no signs about the Martin Luther King holiday.
The Mecham signs were mild.
"Governor Mecham Is Right," said one. "Who Elected Mofford?" asked another.
I knew the hearing would be on television later that night, but I wanted to see the event live. There are always so many fascinating underlying tensions attached to a Supreme Court hearing that the cameras don't catch.
For one thing, the justices always take themselves more seriously than the issues that confront them.
This excludes Justice Duke Cameron. Often, Cameron appears to be fighting the need for a nap.
Justice Stanley Feldman is always the central figure. Feldman's quick mind dominates both his fellow justices and the lawyers who argue before him. Feldman's friends insist that in real life he's shy, even reticent. One wonders what happens to that side of him when he puts on his black robe. I reached the courtroom fifteen minutes before the hearing began. There were a few seats remaining but I had plenty of time to look around the court.
I spotted Mecham in the front row. Max Hawkins, his right-hand man, was directly behind his old boss in the second row.
John Kolbe, the Phoenix Gazette columnist whom Mecham once labeled a nonperson, entered just before the justices mounted the bench. Kolbe took a seat on the opposite side of the courtroom from Mecham.
Larry Lopez of the Associated Press had also clashed frequently with Mecham. He was in a rear row.
Michael Lacey, the New Times executive editor, was there, too. Lacey had aroused Mecham by writing a satiric column that was widely misunderstood to call for Mecham's assassination. Leon Woodward, who has been harassed by the Department of Public Safety for his ardent support of Mecham, was a few rows behind Kolbe.
Ed Buck, who led the Mecham recall drive, was one of the last to enter the court. Buck wore a blue oxford cloth shirt, Levi's and a red tie. He stood against the rear wall.
For just one more time, they were all together again. I was reminded of something George Bernard Shaw once said: "If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, make it dance." The final dance was about to begin.
The fires have cooled. All these old enemies are now able to look at each other without an eruption of scalding anger.
The ex-governor was looking for a miracle. The others shared a moment in history with him and they felt compelled to see the circle being closed. Late in the morning the word came over the radio that Sam Steiger's conviction had been overturned by the Court of Appeals.
Wherever you turned people asked, "Did you hear about Sam? He won his appeal." Everyone smiled as they talked about it.
Steiger, five times an elected congressman, had been the most memorable witness in the impeachment hearings. He was fearless, irascible, witty and sometimes even brilliant. As always, he was self-denigrating and willing to play it for laughs.
Asked about Attorney General Bob Corbin, he replied without hesitation:
"Mr. Corbin is not very bright, but he is an effective politician. He has deluded you into believing that he is a competent person." Corbin had reached out to get Mecham, but the only one he succeeded in convicting was Steiger. The appeals court has now ruled that was a fluke.
So Corbin's record in office continues its amazing path. He has accomplished no major prosecutions and will leave with a pocketful of Charles Keating's money. Corbin refuses to return the money, insisting that he (Corbin) has done nothing wrong.
Does that tell you something about Corbin and Keating? No, it tells you only about money.
As Gertrude Stein once said, "Money is always there, but the pockets change. It is not in the same pockets after a change, but that's all there is to say about money." Steiger made the most telling blow against Corbin in giving his final statement before being sentenced.
"I lied to the attorney general," he said dryly, "for the same reason I would to a stickup man in an alley who asked me if I had any money." Nothing said at the Supreme Court hearing was memorable.
Mike Scott, the ever aggressive rodeo cowboy, had been superb at Mecham's criminal trial. He had run roughshod over Barnett Lotstein and Michael Cudahy of the Attorney General's Office and waltzed Mecham to safety.
Mecham's lawyers at the impeachment had been the florid Fred Craft and the callous Jerris Leonard. They both looked like stereotypes straight from Dickens and the Old Bailey. Before that, Murray Miller, a specialist in criminal law, had provided a kind of slick Chicago criminal court defense that proved extremely effective.
There's just one thing you have to know about Donald "Mac" MacPherson, Mecham's lawyer before the Supreme Court. On his own, he chose to take on the case of James Earl Ray, the killer of Martin Luther King Jr.
Attorneys have a right and even a duty to represent anyone they choose. But we also have a right to make our own conclusions as to their choices.
MacPherson was given only a brief time to state his case before the Supreme Court. The heart of the case would be in written form. But in his verbal argument, MacPherson took exactly the most confrontational and the most wrong path. He chose to attack Chief Justice Frank Gordon Jr., who had, of course, absented himself from the panel.
MacPherson blamed Gordon, who presided over the impeachment, for preventing Mecham's chance to get a fair hearing. MacPherson charged that Gordon had given a speech to the state Senate declaring the hearing part political and part judicial. Gordon, he added, forbade Mecham's followers from lobbying senators on the governor's behalf.
So this part is truly over now. Mecham's impeachment trial now seems so distant it is almost hidden by the fog of time. The brilliant and passionate work of prosecuting attorneys Paul Eckstein and William French are now a part of legend.
The picture of Mecham in the dock has dimmed. He was truly a lightning rod and the flashes were so blinding that they dimmed the plot hatched against him by Ralph Milstead, the head of the Arizona Department of Public Safety. It is now so long ago that any theory has the possibility of acceptance.
Justice Feldman spoke for the court when he questioned whether they even had the power to act. Can they make the Senate, a separate branch of government, do anything at all, he asked.
"How can we send it back when the Senate has new members?" Justice Robert Corcoran, the newest justice asked. "And would it be tried before the new Senate or the old? " Corcoran is a Democrat who owes his job to Governor Mofford. Many of the other justices are Bruce Babbitt appointees.
Feldman said, "You are asking for a new trial. They can tell us to go fly a kite." Mecham sat through the hearing without changing expression. He took notes. Mecham took notes all during his impeachment, too. What happens to those notes, I wondered. So much anger and energy has already been used up. Perhaps it's time for everything to cool.
Mecham wasn't finished for the day, however. The truth about him is that he is never quite finished. That is both his saving grace and his eternal curse. Mecham still had an appearance to make on KTAR radio and then a press conference in a Central Avenue hotel.
I headed for the hotel so I could listen to Mecham on the radio.
Network radio was still following Hurricane Hugo.
"Hugo is now a category four hurricane," the newscaster said. "But Charleston, South Carolina, will never be the same. Hurricane Hugo struck with devastating force early today." At the height of his power, Mecham appeared regularly with Pat McMahon on KTAR. McMahon shielded Mecham from irate callers.
A single call on this day tells you that period is over:
Westmoreland: Now let's hear from Nancy in Phoenix.
Nancy: (angrily) If anyone else did what you did in this town they would be in Florence now. Oh, you are a crook and a liar. We watched those proceedings from beginning to end and you should see the way you lied. If I was the court I would run you out of town so the people of Phoenix could never hear the name Mecham again.
Mecham: (jauntily) Well, thank you for your opinion.
Westmoreland: (embarrassed) That's probably not going to be a vote for you.
Mecham: (chuckling) You can never tell. She may change her mind.
I pulled into the hotel parking lot just as MacPherson, Mecham's lawyer, was getting out of his Silverado pickup with the West Point license holder on the rear. MacPherson is a Vietnam veteran who was graduated from the United States Military Academy.
The room set aside for the press conference was not quite filled. Those who weren't with television, radio or print press were long-time Mecham supporters.
At the height ot the confrontations between Mecham and the press, these events were charged with energy and acrimony. You could never tell when Mecham would laugh delightedly or explode with anger. There were always Department of Public Safety men on hand to protect him. Or were they all really pursuing that purpose? Now, the atmosphere has changed. Mecham seems to have mellowed.
MacPherson opened the press conference and spent fifteen minutes explaining his strategy before the Supreme Court. It was a strategy that hadn't made much sense the first time and didn't gain anything through explanation.
Then Mecham rose to speak. Physically small, almost tiny, Mecham wore a white shirt and tie and gray business suit. He was almost smiling as he took the microphone.
"I have two $400,000 words," Mecham said. "One is `exacerbate' and the other is `egregious.' I learned these from my high-priced lawyers." One of the few endearing qualities about Mecham is that he has what used to be called a tin ear. He has no sense of saying anything that is funny on purpose. Mecham spoke briefly of his situation. And his view made sense.
"Impeachment is something that's only used when a high official can thumb his nose at the usual criminal procedures," Mecham said. "It's to be used only as a court of last resort.
"I had one case that was already in the criminal court. I was facing a recall election. So there was no constitutional duty for the House of Representatives to bring impeachment proceedings." He summed up his feelings toward the possibility the Supreme Court might not act.
"That's a copout," Mecham said. "The judiciary can enter into anything they want." Mecham's lawyer had just finished telling the crowd that he did not mean to criticize Chief Justice Gordon.
Mecham put his own spin on that.
"I'll tell you what Gordon did," Mecham said, pounding on the lectern. "He prevented us from putting on our case. He exercised judicial restraint. And there wasn't enough of them in the Senate that had the guts to stand up to him and do something about it." Mecham's anger was feeding itself now.
"He wouldn't let us follow our testimony into really examining Ralph Milstead. He was ready to crack. Anyone who knew about stress could see we had him. There were 21 places where Milstead lied." Earlier, Mecham had said on KTAR that he now has information that Beau Johnson, another DPS officer who had been on his staff, also lied on the witness stand.
"Beau Johnson lied. . . . Colonel Phelps lied . . . and Milstead lied.
"And if the county attorney has guts enough to stand up for what ought to be done, he'll bring 'em in and have a grand jury. He's got plenty to indict them and make them stand trial for perjury." Mecham grinned, finally.
"When your top cops lie under oath that's what I call an `egregious' crime. At least that's what I've learned from my $400,000 lawyers." It was finished for now.
Later in the day, the legislature passed the Martin Luther King bill, hoping to bring the Super Bowl to Arizona.
Sam Steiger was celebrating up in Prescott but feeling suddenly used up by his courtroom ordeal at the hands of Corbin's henchmen. Hurricane Hugo headed up the East Coast bringing torrents of rain. The eye of the storm had passed.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.