RUBBING OUT RACISM, SYMINGTON-STYLE
J. Fife Symington III had left explicit instructions he was not to be disturbed under any circumstances.
Alas, even in the world of the super-rich, the strictest orders are not always obeyed.
Not long after Symington's pronouncement was issued, the telephones rang throughout his palatial home in Paradise Valley.
One of the Symington maids answered it in two rings.
"May I speak to Mr. Symington, please?" The speaker was one of Symington's top campaign aides.
"Sorry," the maid said, "Mr. Symington's not available at this time."
"Please, listen to me. Tell Mr. Symington that it's most important I speak to him at once."
"Who are you with?" the maid asked suspiciously.
"Who am I with? I'm with the campaign for governor, of course. And if you don't let me speak to Mr. Symington right away, it's a campaign that will be over much too soon.
"Tell Fife it's about having no blacks at the Paradise Valley Country Club as members. He'll understand."
The maid rushed into the library to fetch Symington. The great man was busy playing a Nintendo game. The Arizona Republic, opened to the editorial page, was on a desk alongside him. FC
"Mr. Symington," the maid said, "I'm sorry to bother you. But there's a man on the phone. He says he has something important to tell you about your country club."
Symington shook his head from side to side. On his face was an expression of refined exasperation. He walked a few feet to the library extension and picked up his red phone.
"Hello," Symington said with an air of crisp efficiency. "All right, out with it. What's this about my club?"
"The problem is that Paradise Valley has no black members."
"No blacks?" said Symington. "Speak plainly, my good fellow. What the deuce can you possibly mean?"
By now, Symington was genuinely annoyed.
"Why would you call me, of all people, at this hour, to tell me about having no blacks in the Paradise Valley Country Club? I'm not a member of the admissions committee."
"It's the newspapers," the campaign aide said. "They've found out the club has no black members. The Democrats are going to hold a press conference and charge you with being a racist."
Symington slapped his forehead with his left palm. He shook his head from side to side like a man with a great weight on his shoulders.
His campaign for governor had been stalled for a month. It appeared that everyone was ready to ridicule any plan he offered to jump-start Arizona's economy.
Things were getting out of hand. At this rate, he wouldn't even get as many votes as Evan Mecham in the Republican primary.
And money was getting shorter all the time. One of the problems was that people perceived he was so rich that he had enough money to run his campaign without donations.
Nobody seemed to understand him. And now this.
At this point, the question of integrating the Paradise Valley Country Club seemed too trivial to even rate a discussion.
"Black members! Do you mean someone is actually asking about black members at the Paradise Valley Country Club? You have to be joshing."
Symington broke into a hard chuckle. He stopped laughing quickly. His eyes flashed. All at once, he knew how he would handle this matter.
He was a man used to thinking on his feet. It was he alone who'd thought up the idea to designate his shopping center at 24th Street and Camelback as "world class" when everyone else insisted it would merely cause a world-class traffic jam.
He realized that speed was necessary. He must answer this new challenge quickly before the Democrats added the charge that he was a racist as well as being a member of the Valley's elite rich.
"Come to think of it," Symington said, "I haven't noticed any blacks around lately."
"Do you mean to say we really don't have even one black as a member? Certainly, in this day and age, we should make certain we always have at least one."
"I agree, Fife," his aide said. "This thing all started because that Shoals Creek Country Club, where the PGA is holding a golf tournament, doesn't have any black members. So now they're checking country clubs all over the country.
"It's unfair to single us out. My God, they certainly don't have any black members at the Phoenix Country Club or the Arizona Club either. But none of their members are running for governor. So that's where it stands."
"That's rich," Symington said. "In fact, I think that's positively remarkable. But why would they ask any of the clubs about such a thing? Don't they realize this is Arizona?"
"We thought you might have an idea how to get us out of this thing," the voice said. "We must give them some kind of answer."
"Let's get a black member then," Symington said, "And let's try to do it before the primary election."
"Who do you suggest we ask?"
"How about Bill Cosby?" Symington said brightly. "He'd certainly have enough money to pay the initiation fee. Or how about Andy Young down in Atlanta? Couldn't we make him an honorary member? Maybe we could even get Willie Mays."
"That won't do it," the aide answered. "In order to satisfy everyone it will have to be somebody from the Phoenix area."
"Let's see," Symington said, "who do we know in Phoenix who is both black and has enough money to join Paradise Valley?"
The aide interrupted Symington at this point.
"Lincoln Ragsdale has already told the press that he lives almost across the street and has tried to join for years," the aide said.
"He's rich and he's vocal. But if we let him into the club, he might want to bring a whole lot more of his black friends with him. That would be all right if they were `good blacks.' But, as Ev says, you never know."
As anxious as Symington was to solve the problem, Ragsdale interested him greatly.
"Generally," Symington said, "it's not a good idea to recruit members who live too close to the club. You let them join and they hang around the swimming pool and the game room all the time."
There was a brief lull in the conversation.
"By the way, what does this Ragsdale fellow do for a living?"
"He's in the funeral business," came the answer. "He's a wealthy undertaker."
"A funeral director, did you say? Good God, man. Do you think funeral directors are the kind of members we're looking for at Paradise Valley?"
"Look," the man on the phone said, "I'm just trying to warn you that reporters will be calling. They'll be asking you about this."
Symington shook his head. Then he grinned.
"All right, I have the perfect answer," he said.
"I know just what to say. And every Republican in Arizona will understand exactly what I mean."
"What are you going to say?"
"I'll simply tell them that I hadn't noticed we don't have any black members at the Paradise Valley Country Club.
"Since most voters in Arizona feel the same way we do, that may well end this whole silly business. Who else will be able to cast a stone at our campaign? None of them have any black members in their top echelon, either.
"Heck, I might even offer to sponsor Ragsdale for membership myself. I bet you that will end the whole silly business."
Symington was right. This past Sunday, the Republic's lead editorial chastised the Democratic party for injecting the subject of race into the campaign.
The headline on the editorial read: "The Symington Smear."
The Republic didn't urge Paradise Valley Country Club to lower its racial barriers. It merely attacked Democratic candidate Terry Goddard for bringing up the matter.
It concluded with these stirring words:
"Mr. Goddard's duty is plain. If he does not wish to forfeit his own good name and the respect of all decent Arizonans, he will repudiate this name-calling and order his character assassins to desist."
Was it just an oversight that the Republic editorial writer failed to mention that Eugene S. Pulliam, president of Phoenix Newspapers, Incorporated, has for years been a highly valued member of the very same Paradise Valley Country Club?
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.