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The Last Laugh

A fable for modern times: Once upon a time, in a city not far away, a most remarkable thing took place. In this city, there was a very large plot of open ground that had been used for years as a school for the children of Native Americans. It was...

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A fable for modern times:
Once upon a time, in a city not far away, a most remarkable thing took place.

In this city, there was a very large plot of open ground that had been used for years as a school for the children of Native Americans.

It was an absolutely perfect place for a large, sprawling public park and garden of the kind that have made cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco so distinctive.

For years, people who loved the city had thought about how the city could design a beautiful park on that property if the government ever decided the time had come to close down the school.

This, mind you, was a city that already had all the big office buildings that it could possibly use. In fact, there were so many of these big boxes up and down its Central Avenue that most were less than half-occupied with lawyers, doctors and bankers.

There were also more than enough department stores and shops of other kinds. Also, there was no shortage of places where its citizens could buy McDonald's hamburgers or Miller Lite beer.

One day, it was announced in Washington, D.C., that the school would indeed be shut down. Those dreamers who hoped for a park began waiting for an announcement about the disposition of the land.

The city had some fairly powerful representatives in Congress and felt certain these men would be on its side.

One of the most powerful was called Congressman Mo Udall, and his specialty for thirty years in Washington had been the telling of jokes.

He even ran for the presidency one time and campaigned by telling joke after joke as he traveled about the country.

Some of his jokes were actually pretty funny. Unfortunately, these jokes didn't translate into votes.

Now, at the conclusion of his long career in Washington, it turned out that Udall had one final joke to play on the people of this city.

He announced that out of the goodness of his heart and his vision for the future, he had arranged a wonderful thing for the property.

Udall was the head of a big committee in Washington, and he had the power to do almost anything he wanted.

"I am trading this land, which is only a couple of hundred acres, for thousands of acres of swampland in the Florida Everglades," he said.

He may not have used those words exactly, but they come pretty close.
Udall told the people in the city he had made the trade with a wonderful Florida company that would take over the land and build a wonderful new shopping center.

A new shopping center was the last imaginable thing the city needed.

But Udall, who was suffering from Parkinson's disease, was so debilitated that he would brook no opposition to this grand design of his for the creation of the largest shopping center west of the Mississippi.

And the people were so used to listening to Congressman Mo's jokes over the years that they could not conceive that he really meant to do this terrible thing to them in his last days in office.

In order to believe this, they would have to believe that the rest of his career had been a sham. They didn't want to believe that and so some actually began to believe that they deserved what was happening to them.

"Perhaps we have been terrible people and the world's largest shopping center is actually what we deserve," they said.

This was a city that had been victimized over and over by more than its share of land-fraud artists and other mountebanks.

When the mayor of the city, Terry Goddard, asked Udall to change his mind so that the city could have a park, Udall's answer was blunt:

"The train's in the station," Udall said. "Start dealing with my people in Florida or stand on the platform and wave goodbye."

Udall was in fine form. His language was still colorful.

What he never pointed out was why he was granting such an enormous landfall to the Baron Collier Corporation of Florida.

The Collier family had bought the swampland for $1 an acre during the Depression. The only thing that might someday prove valuable to them in the Everglades was the right to drill for oil.

Udall and the Colliers saw to it that when they traded their swampland to the city, they would retain the right to drill for oil when the time came.

You can understand why so many thoughtful residents of the city felt betrayed.

When Goddard left the mayor's office to run for governor, Paul Johnson became mayor. He appealed to all the other members of the state's delegation.

Their reaction was the most surprising of all.

Senators Dennis DeConcini and John McCain had veritably performed flip-flops for Charles Keating. They had summoned government officials to their offices and threatened them.

Keating, of course, had piled huge amounts into their campaigns.

The voters of the city had done nothing more than give them the votes that elected them to office.

"We can't interfere," the senators said.

Their decision was announced so clearly that it was as though DeConcini and McCain regarded it as unethical to consider requests that actually came from mere voters and homeowners.

It was hard to understand their reasoning. Why couldn't they interfere with a Florida corporation that was bent on creating more urban blight in the state they represented?

They had gone to bat for Keating for the precise reason that he did business in Arizona. If they went to bat for a powerful millionaire, why not do the same for the thousands of people who lived in the city?

Were there campaign donations to DeConcini and McCain from Collier representatives that could be traced back to the Collier corporation in their records?

No one wanted to believe that. The Senate Ethics Committee hearings had already embarrassed DeConcini and McCain enough.

But why else would they side with an out-of-state group against their own constituents?

The strangest reaction of all, however, came from Congressman Jon Kyl. The property was in Kyl's district.

Certainly Kyl, more than anyone, should have been aware of the potential ecological damage to his constituents of such a project.

But Kyl also sided with the Florida people.


"It would be an unacceptable gift to the citizens of Phoenix from the nation's taxpayers," Kyl said.

No one knew how to respond to that remark. The residents of the city were so dumbfounded by the enormity of the land swindle taking place before their eyes that they said nothing.

Only crusty old Barry Goldwater had something to say. As usual, it was blunt:

"It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Goldwater said.

There is a moral to this tale:

Never trust a congressman who loves telling tall tales. His last one might be real.

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