With the Help of His Ancestors, Fife Takes On Congress
Governor Symington goes to Washington!
On Thursday of this week, J. Fife Symington III is scheduled to appear before a Congressional committee looking into the fall of Southwest Savings and Loan.
If Symington, a Harvard man, were also a diarist, here is how he might describe the upcoming events:
It should be quite a show. There is no forum so effective as a Congressional hearing to justify your point of view.
At the same time, such an open event is fraught with dangers. You can never predict what anyone might say in the heat of battle. And one should never suppose these staged events are anything but battles of the most serious kind.
For that reason, I will have my excellent lawyer, John Dowd, close to my side at every moment. I may even have Jim Vieh, my Phoenix lawyer, on hand, too. After all, Jim went to Harvard Law School. That always counts for something. Or does it?
Jay Smith, my public relations consultant, will be there, too. No sense having any loose ends.
After all, it's Washington, D.C. This is the big time. I must demonstrate from the start to these insiders of the Beltway that they are dealing with a governor of some significance.
I don't intend to be trifled with. I will not have them treat me like some hick from the provinces.
I've watched a lot of these hearings. I understand the drill. No Arizona politician has ever done better at them than John McCain did a year ago when he went before the Senate Ethics Committee.
McCain went before the committee charged with being bought off by Charlie Keating. He came out of it as a Vietnam war hero and a diligent senator. No one has ever played the Congressional hearing game with more skill.
At his side for those hearings was none other than John Dowd, the same lawyer I'm bringing with me. At Dowd's instructions, McCain went on the attack. He really didn't address the charges against him.
He never mentioned that he had turned himself into not only a Keating lackey but also a close personal friend. McCain took Keating's money with both hands. But he never bothered to explain why he had flown free on Keating's airplanes or vacationed without charge in Keating's home.
McCain never addressed the fact that his wife and father-in-law were in a shopping-center business deal with Keating.
All McCain did was express righteous outrage that he had been called before the committee. Then he sat back as Dowd blustered about the unfairness of the hearing. And while this was going on, Jay Smith, his PR man, was performing in invaluable fashion behind the scenes.
Why is it that I find myself smiling as I mention Dowd and Smith? What a combination they make. It makes me a lot more comfortable knowing they're on my team.
Who is this congressman I will be going up against?
His name is Carroll Hubbard Jr., and he's a Democrat from Kentucky. From what I can learn in the Congressional Quarterly, he's not very impressive. He's been in Congress for 18 years and he's up for reelection.
This Hubbard has no real background. No family worth mentioning. He worked his way through law school at the University of Louisville. For years he was a close friend of Jim Wright's. That's the Texas fellow forced to resign in disgrace.
Hubbard has conducted some hearings into savings-and-loan matters, but they haven't been as successful at getting publicity as those of Henry Gonzalez, the congressman from Texas.
In fact, Hubbard actually defended Senator Dennis DeConcini and McCain for attempting to intervene with M. Danny Wall in the Keating affair.
Hubbard himself had also telephoned Wall, then-chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, at the same time. Hubbard also asked Wall if it were all right for Keating to sell Lincoln Savings and avoid its seizure by the government.
I wonder where he's coming from now.
He's from a backwater district consisting of small towns, most of them with a Deep South flavor and all with fewer than 50,000 in population. As a matter of fact, this area was the birthplace of Jefferson Davis!
What a surprise Hubbard has coming to him. He probably thinks I'm some Western bumpkin who'll come in wearing cowboy boots. He probably sees me as a pawn he can play with by asking a lot of rude, leading questions. Some chance!
He will find out I have a genuine family history; I'm not some greenhorn just off the banana boat.
I never mention this to John, but if it weren't for the accident of his birth and the fact that he was taken prisoner in Vietnam, he'd be nothing but another retired naval officer. He'd be just another ring knocker who went to Annapolis hustling around Washington for work.
And after all, who was Dennis DeConcini? Sure, he is one of the richest men in the Senate, but what about his family? Besides, he's Italian. And he married that pushy little Irish woman who insists on being at his side at every public event.
I don't say these things to demean Dennis. He's pleasant enough. But one of his family's neighbors in Tucson was actually Joe Bonanno, the former New York Mafia don.
Dennis insists his family always thought Bonanno was in the cheese business. I smile each time I think of that explanation. So does everyone else.
And his performance at the hearing was not a success. There was that terribly tacky strategy of dragging his grandchild into the hearing room. There was the constant presence of his wife, once again at his side. She was in the hearing room more than Howell Heflin, and he was supposed to be running the show.
Such bad form. But what can you expect of Italians? Always, they are too emotional.
I have plenty of family background. Sometimes I find myself thinking about it as I sit in my office and catch a glimpse of the portrait of my great- grandfather that sits above my desk.
I remember how impressed Evan Mecham was by it the day he came to visit my office on the third floor of the Esplanade.
He was already out of office. Just a year or so before I had publicly called him "a schoolyard bully who deserved a punch in the nose." Mecham sat down in front of my desk. He looked up past me and saw the oil portrait of my great-grandfather Frick glaring down at him.
In the little Mormon town where Mecham came from, I don't suppose they have pictures like that even in the library.
"Pretty fancy place you have here," Mecham said, still staring at great-grandfather. "Who's that in the picture?" "That's my great-grandfather," I said. I never let on there was anything out of the ordinary. "His name was Henry Clay Frick. He founded U.S. Steel." "You don't say?" Mecham said, giving me that little car salesman's smirk that was his trademark.
But I could tell he was impressed. He had to be.
I must make certain of my strategy and not waver from it. My mission will be to denounce the investigators who insist I behaved without integrity in my dealings with Southwest Savings and Loan.
I will continue to insist the Esplanade is a world-class project and will eventually make money for its investors. Perhaps I'll even repeat some of the phrases from my press conference at the Esplanade when I roundly denounced the government tactics and threatened to investigate its investigators.
This will give me a chance to demonstrate how well I understand my great-grandfather's business philosophy. He became a multimillionaire by buying up acres and acres of land filled with coal during a depression in the 19th century. Later, he combined his holdings with those of Andrew Carnegie and they formed U.S. Steel.
In 1892, when their Homestead Plant in Pennsylvania was hit by a strike, great-grandfather hired his own police force to run the strikers off. Ten men died. Great-grandfather himself narrowly missed being assassinated by the anarchist Alexander Berkman.
Henry Clay Frick was a man who never cultivated close friends. He was a fair but tough employer. Liberal do-gooders called him ruthless.
Matthew Josephson wrote slightingly of great-grandfather in The Robber Barons:
"In his palace, he was seated on a Renaissance throne under a baldachino and holding in his little hand a copy of the Saturday Evening Post." I always wondered what the author thought was so funny about the Saturday Evening Post, or my great-grandfather, for that matter.
He certainly had the last laugh when he died in 1919. He was so wealthy that he bequeathed New York City his mansion and a fabulous art collection that was worth millions.
I remember that, as a young man, I was presented by an aunt with a leather-bound version of great-grandfather's biography.
"To J. Fife Symington III," the inscription read, "may this biography of your great-grandfather inspire you to excel in everything you undertake." I have always had that in mind. It carried me when I created the Esplanade against all odds. It carried me to the governor's office by the narrowest of margins.
It enables me to make the constant tough decisions a governor has to make. My job is not made easier by the people in the state legislature I must deal with. They are so limited.
They resent me and try to portray me as a governor who doesn't have time to do his job because of his business failures.
I am going to Washington, D.C., to show them all how wrong they are. It should be great fun tussling with those fellows.
The last time I had so much fun was when I was growing up in Maryland and we used to have all those wonderful fox hunts.
"It was wild and crazy. It was survival. You've got 150 people on horseback trying to jump the same fence at the same time, and the foxes heading off into the country and the hounds are in full cry and it's crazy..."
And I bet that's just what it will be like when I face Congressman Hubbard of Kentucky on Thursday.
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