SYMINGTON'S VAST CARELESSNESS
The politician doesn't grow more human with age. In the end, he becomes a wharf rat.
--Henry David Thoreau
The governor spoke at the Republican party's annual meeting the other day.
"The trouble with our prisons in Arizona is that we don't have the concept of arduous labor," J. Fife Symington III announced grimly.
Symington hesitated, so he might bask in the warm glow of the cheers from his right-wing loyalists. He then promised to construct a special state prison "where no man will want to go . . . where the inmates will be put to breaking rocks."
The cheering approached delirium. The first thing that hits you about this kind of talk from the governor is that it can't be taken seriously. What kind of politician stands at a microphone and actually allows himself to utter phrases like "arduous labor"? So right away, it strikes you. None of this can be real. But it is.
Watch Symington the next time he ascends a platform. He smiles on cue. He wets his lips, just so, before speaking. His body moves are studied. And he will be dressed like a model lifted straight from the Madison Avenue window of Brooks Brothers.
It's almost as though Symington were taking his cue from the pages of one of those classic novels he read in freshman English at Harvard University.
The tough-talking-governor routine could certainly come from Governor Willie Stark of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.
But Symington doesn't measure up as a truly memorable character like Governor Stark, Jay Gatsby, Jake Barnes or either of the two captains, Ahab and Queeg. But he could easily slip into a spot in the choir. That's the strange thing about Symington. He is so otherworldly at times that he could easily be one of those dimly remembered characters in a novel who catches your eye for a few pages and then disappears.
Think back for a moment. Can't you visualize J. Fife mingling with the young, rich people at posh Long Island parties, amid Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan?
Can't you see him sitting mournfully out on a pier until just before dawn with Gatsby, looking with wonder at the green light at the end of Daisy's dock?
Or here is J. Fife running with the bulls in the streets of Pamplona in The Sun Also Rises alongside Hemingway's Jake Barnes and Robert Cohn, creating a memorable incident they will relate to Lady Brett Ashley later over a bottle of cognac. Symington is the absolutely perfect type to be an Oxford classmate of Sebastian Marchmain and Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited.
Consider, for a moment, Symington's immediate predecessors in office. There was Evan Mecham, the Pontiac dealer who was impeached. There was Rose Mofford, the avid collector of kachina dolls, who fell off the speaker's platform and hit her head.
Neither came close to preparing us for Symington, the arrogant Ivy Leaguer. His style is lost on us. We find it impossible to take him seriously. It always seems as if he is playing a part in a school play. Did you ever notice how often Symington glances over the heads of his listeners? You wonder whether he is looking for the deus ex machina or merely groping to remember his lines. Symington reacted ominously last week when the Arizona Republic reported (a mere three and a half months after New Times published the information) that a federal grand jury is now eyeing his slippery real estate activities during the building of the Esplanade at 24th Street and Camelback. "Unfair tactics," Symington bellowed in the general direction of his accusers. He is nothing if not contentious. Every thrust and parry from government lawyers provokes the governor to cry with alarm about unfair tactics.
"It's a classic political smear," Symington whined. It was not a smear. All that was happening was that the grand jury in the federal building was finally deciding whether Symington should be indicted as a sleazy criminal along with Charlie Keating and the other high rollers of the 1980s.
At times, Symington can be so smooth, so debonair. Symington's patrician background will not allow him to imagine that others might weigh his actions and consider him a common con man.
It's difficult to remember now that Symington barely edged out Terry Goddard four years ago. That's when he came on so strong in his role as a no-nonsense businessman.
Symington assured everyone, "My qualifications are obvious. I am a successful real estate developer who has remained solvent while all around me are being wiped out."
This was Symington as a character straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Oddly, that's what he has been for us--an echo of the Jazz Age. Ever since he came on the political scene in Arizona from the Maryland hunt country, I've been expecting him to appear suited up in a striped summer jacket, wearing a straw boater and carrying a ukulele under his arm. Each time Symington approaches a microphone, I search the crowd for the melancholy face of Jay Gatsby. Symington is a true blue blood. His family actually owned its very own steel mill. He was raised with neighbors who had names like S. Bonsal White Jr. and Benjamin Howell Griswold IV. And then, of course, after prep school, he went on to matriculate at Harvard. Not too long after Symington was elected, the state of his own bank balance came into question. He was forced to divest himself of the Mercado, the Mexican-themed shopping center in downtown Phoenix that he tried unsuccessfully to sell to the city. One by one, his business ventures took a dive. Finally, Symington held a press conference to admit that his real estate ventures had hit the skids.
So now, each day, the grand jury meets to hear testimony about the amazing guile Symington employed while putting together the deal to construct the Esplanade. The grand jury will learn:
Symington was actually a member of the board of directors of Southwest Savings when he proposed that the group invest its money to build his Esplanade project at the corner of 24th Street and Camelback. This was improper on the face of it. The approval of federal regulators was required before such a transaction could take place. Symington's weak excuse is that he did not vote on the S&L's investment, but merely presented the plan to the board.
The money Southwest gave Symington was the single largest investment ever made by the thrift. RTC sources claim Southwest lost $38 million in the deal. The RTC charges that Symington actually only put up $432 of his own money as his share in the Esplanade project that paid him more than $8 million in development fees. The agency initially labeled this as "blatant self-dealing."
When Southwest failed, it cost the taxpayers millions. In a separate civil suit, the government now seeks to recover $197 million from Symington and 11 other Southwest officials.
In order to sell the deal, Symington spent nearly $1 million on a high-powered radio and television campaign. It was required in order to overcome the public outcry over traffic problems the project might cause.
As part of this battle, Symington felt the need to engineer the election defeat of Ed Korrick, a Phoenix City Councilmember who opposed the Esplanade project. So Symington donated $30,000 to the campaign of Korrick's opponent. At the time, the campaign limit for individual donations was $200. Despite Symington's money, Korrick won the race.
But Symington, then secretary of the state Republican party, made it appear that his underhanded $30,000 donation was given to Korrick's foe directly by the Republican party. The criminal-complaint case was presented to Bob Corbin, then the state attorney general, for criminal prosecution. Corbin declined to prosecute his fellow Republican.
In Arizona, justice always takes a back seat to party protocol.
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.