Backed to the Wall, Snarling

I arrived at the Ritz-Carlton hotel early. It was raining heavily. The inadequate parking lot was jammed with cars and trucks sent out by all radio and television stations in town.

Governor J. Fife Symington III's press conference was going to be broadcast live. There was an air of feeding frenzy about the whole thing.

Inside, the place was crowded with people carrying cameras and tape recorders. Up in front, there was a huge Christmas tree and flags of the country and state. Also prominent on the lectern was the logo of the Ritz-Carlton.

The rear of the room was filled with loyalists, on hand to give Symington their unquestioned support. Among them was Symington's great and "good friend," Annette Alvarez, dressed demurely in black and a white-lace collar.

The newsprint reporters were up in the front rows, staring straight ahead. Over the years, I have come to realize that reporters don't really like each other very much. They rarely speak. When they do, they avoid sharing information.

Sullenly, they sat waiting for the press conference to start. Since it was set for two o'clock, the writing reporters would be much too close to their deadlines for comfort.

At three minutes past two, Symington walked in with his entourage. He was accompanied by his wife, Ann, and John Dowd, the Washington, D.C., lawyer who defended Senator John McCain in the case of the Keating Five.

In years gone by, Edward Bennett Williams was the Washington lawyer people referred to as "The Man to See" if you were guilty and wanted to get off. Dowd, who did so well for McCain, is now in that position. He also reportedly charges close to $1,000 an hour for his time.

Symington wore a blue suit, blue shirt and tie. His wife wore a dress, also in blue.

Dowd wore a gray suit with a bold red Washington, D.C., lawyer's tie. The suit was not so well-tailored, however, as to obscure his monumental stomach.

Symington had applied so much pancake makeup to his face that he could easily have substituted that night for Patricia Bowman and told Diane Sawyer how he had been raped and deserved to be more than a "blue blob."

About him, there have always hung a certain rich boy's arrogance and petulance. These were apparent as he began his attack.

Once, he even stepped from behind the podium to place his hands on his chest and decry the fact that Resolution Trust Corporation had the effrontery to sue his wife, "the first lady of Arizona."

He called the suit against him "a classic political smear" and threatened to bring down those who had leaked uncomplimentary things about his business dealings with Southwest Savings and Loan.

"Some people play golf for recreation," he said. He was going to recreate by going after RTC.

There was no doubt, he said, that this business would not be demanding enough to interfere with his ability to govern the state.

"Ann and I haven't missed a beat," he said. "I love my job. I know I'm absolutely right."

He spoke for more than an hour, slipping and sliding his way through a half-hour of questions from reporters. Most of the reporters, myself included, understood very little about the arcane figures and factoids he had printed up in special booklets.

When John Dougherty of the Mesa Tribune began pressing Symington on the assessed valuation of the Esplanade, Symington first ignored him and then dodged.

Symington claimed the Esplanade project was worth "several hundred million."

This flies in the face of an assessment made by the Maricopa County Assessor's Office, which carries it on the books as being worth only $48.9 million.

Symington shunted off questions that demanded he explain why his own company had fought an earlier assessment by the county at $72 million as being too high.

When Mark Flatten of the Scottsdale Progress attempted to back the governor into a corner on another matter, Symington showed a mean streak.

"I spent five or ten minutes explaining that earlier, Mark," he said. "I'm sorry you missed it."

Symington's supporters laughed uproariously at Flatten's expense.

I remembered how former Governor Evan Mecham always tried to handle Flatten the same way. In the end, Flatten, a hardworking reporter, was there to write the story of Mecham's removal from office.

Symington is never loath to puff himself up and pat himself on the back. Without embarrassment, he speaks of his "talent" and "hard work," and never stops assuring anyone who will listen that he was the only one who could put together a deal like the Esplanade.

"This is one of the finest mixed-use projects in the United States," he asserted.

This despite all evidence to the contrary. Anyone with any sense of symmetry needs only glance a moment or two at the three mismatched buildings on the corner of 24th Street and Camelback and groan.

It turns out we lost an excellent Christmas-tree lot only to assuage Symington's monumental ego.

From the start, Symington sold everyone a bill of goods. Now he is being called upon to defend his actions.

It is amazing how detached Symington can be from reality.

He was the first to call for former Governor Mecham's resignation because his problems would make it impossible to govern properly. The truth of the matter is that Symington's problems are much more severe than Mecham's ever were.

Someone asked Symington about an FBI investigation of him.
"The FBI is one of the great institutions and known for its objectivity," Symington shot back. "I welcome the inquiry. They're real professionals. Let's go."

The most amusing of Symington's defenses was his claim that the attack on him is political.

This is a deal that's being ramrodded by his own Republican party, and there is nothing for anyone to gain by attacking Symington merely because he holds the office of governor of Arizona.

On a national scale, the governor of Arizona is just so much warm beer.

The only logical reason for Resolution Trust Corporation to go after Symington is because the agency is convinced he truly was a "blatant self-dealer" who got away with millions from Southwest Savings and Loan.

"I spent two years of my life to build this magnificent property you see here today," Symington said toward the end.

"I was the only one who had the guts and talent to put a project like this together."

It was uncanny to hear Symington speak like this.

He sounded just like Charlie Keating did in the final days before the government shut him down.

After it was over, Symington and his wife walked out through the Ritz-Carlton lobby. It was like a scene out of Dickens. There were all those Christmas decorations and all those fawning employees. The governor and his wife were surrounded by camp followers and photographers. I stood off to the side to watch the crowd pass.

I don't ask questions at press conferences. They do no real good except for the television viewers. Besides, unless you know a politician inside and out, it's next to impossible to trip him up in his own area of expertise--himself.

Any politician worth his salt knows how to slip off a potentially embarrassing question and parry it with an answer that merely seems to be addressing the matter head-on.

Symington spotted me at the edge of the crowd and made a detour toward me. He had already attacked everyone else on his list during the press conference. I assumed I was next.

"Have you ever met Tom Fitzpatrick, Ann?" Symington asked his wife.

At this climactic moment, in the presence of the august governor and his first lady, I couldn't take my eyes off the military decoration Symington always wears in his left lapel.

It is the Bronze Star, which Symington was awarded during the Vietnam War. His constant wearing of this war ribbon tells much about his character. He is like the benchwarmer on a successful football team who insists on wearing his letter sweater every day of the year.

You see, there are two kinds of Bronze Stars: One is for bravery, and the other is for meritorious service. Symington's is for the latter. He was a loading officer in Laos who received his decoration for doing a workmanlike job of telling people which bombs to load on which airplanes.

Compare this to Kansas Senator Robert Dole, who wears a Purple Heart ribbon in his lapel. Dole was recovering in a hospital for three years after being wounded in World War II and is still unable to use one arm.

Compare it to Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, who also wears a ribbon in his lapel. Inouye is missing an arm.

Fleetingly, I thought of asking Symington when he was going to introduce me to his girlfriend, Annette Alvarez. She had already left the hotel alone. But even for me that would have been a bit rude.

I asked Symington instead about the possibility of a criminal action against him that might stem from a loan he took out from the American Savings and Loan Society in Salt Lake City while he was still sitting on its board of directors.

"Ann," Symington said, "didn't we take that loan out on our house?"

Symington didn't wait for an answer.

"Yes," he said, "we were allowed to take out one loan. We did that, and I think we've already paid it off. Well, it's nice to see you."

With that, Symington and his caravan moved on.

Standing in the wake of the crowd, I thought of that old Arabian proverb: "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on."

How much longer will this one march forward? The parallels with Evan Mecham and Charles Keating are uncannily similar.

At one time, they, too, seemed untouchable.

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Tom Fitzpatrick