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.