Evan Mecham (May 12, 1924 – February 21, 2008) was perhaps our nation’s last true ideologically conservative governor. A decorated hero of the Second World War, Mecham, who grew up in relative poverty, went on to become a self-made millionaire businessman. Known as a “cracker jack” pilot during the war, Mecham flew the famous P-51 Mustang fighter in numerous combat missions over Western Europe. He was also one of the first fighter pilots in history to engage in aerial combat or “dogfight,” with a jet aircraft.
On March 7, 1945, while flying on a fighter escort mission over Germany, Mecham encountered a Messerschmitt (Me) 262 – German jet aircraft. In order to protect the lives of American Airmen flying in a photo reconnaissance plane, Mecham courageously attacked the German fighter Jet in his prop driven P-51. Lieutenant Mecham engaged the enemy bogey with his six .50 caliber machine guns located on his aircraft’s wings. After a heroic battle, which drew the German aircraft away from the plane he was charged with protecting, the far faster and more maneuverable German jet was able to position itself in a blind spot under Mecham’s Mustang and opened fire. In an instant, Mecham’s P-51 was transformed into hurling wreckage, spinning violently toward earth. Despite the multiple G-Forces virtually pinning him inside the cockpit, Mecham was able to wrest himself free from his doomed airplane and deploy his parachute.
Making a hard landing on German soil, the young American Air Corps officer shattered a knee and was thus unable to escape or evade German security forces. He was taken to a prisoner of war camp inside Germany where he remained until the final days of the war in Europe. It was during his time as a POW that Mecham began to understand the true importance of leadership. It was clear to him that it was not soldiers who started wars but rather, political leaders. For his heroism, Mecham was awarded the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. Mecham was discharged from active service and returned home in early 1946 as a legitimate war hero.
He soon married his high school sweetheart and returned to college at Arizona State University. After college, Mecham purchased a Glendale Pontiac dealership primarily with the money he had saved both during and after the war. Mecham proved to have a knack for business and soon he would own several car dealerships in a number of states. A self-made millionaire by the time he was thirty-years-old, Mecham’s financial empire would eventually include a sizable interest in a mining company as well as other lucrative ventures.
It would have been quite easy for Mr. Mecham to coast through the remainder of his life on the fortune he had made during his early adulthood. Had he done so, he would have undoubtedly been recognized as a self-made man who epitomized the American dream. He would have been remembered as the unassuming war hero turned community booster who taught Sunday school at his church and who supported many charitable works. Perhaps most of all, he would have been remembered as a superb father to his seven children and many grandchildren as well as a stellar husband and patriarch of a very functional family. Yet, Mecham died in 2008 a broken man in financial ruin with his reputation destroyed. Why? Mecham, who sought more than mere financial success, apparently had the unmitigated gall to seek public office in defiance of and opposition to a small cabal of behind the scenes power brokers who owned the primary industries and major media outlets in the State of Arizona.
In the late 1950’s, Mecham, like many other Arizona businessmen and politicians, was aware of a small group of elite located in the City of Phoenix who virtually controlled the political and economic scene in Arizona which was then a small, sparsely populated state. Many complained about this group, which later would become known as the “Phoenix 40,” for their iron clad grip on the state through generous financial support and favorable media puff for those politicians whom they handpicked. In return, the Phoenix 40 received a free run of the state including the ability to develop large areas of land and harvest the state’s considerable resources with little or no regulation. Members of the Phoenix 40 also included the state’s most prominent bankers.
At all levels, the relationships were interwoven. The business interests in this elite group supported the group’s media owning members through their advertising dollars. The media members wrote favorable pieces about the group’s business interests as well as those handpicked politicians who were supported by the 40. The Phoenix 40’s politicians passed legislation favorable to their benefactors in the 40 and ran interference against bureaucratic meddling in the 40’s business activities. For the Phoenix 40, the arrangement was tantamount to a government mandate to print their own money. To unscrupulous politicians, it was a one of a kind blessing: near unlimited money and glowing press coverage in furtherance of their electoral ambitions. Those who dared to oppose the Phoenix 40 were destroyed.
Even Mecham believed, as did many others, that the influence, if not outright control, of the state by such a small group was wrong and dangerous to the democratic process. In 1960 he was elected to the Arizona State Senate and started an independent newspaper. A fighter from the beginning, Mecham took on the powerful special interest that had turned Arizona into their own general store. For his efforts, he was lambasted by the Phoenix 40’s media outlets and discredited throughout the state’s power elites.
Despite this organized campaign of character assassination, Evan Mecham was elected Governor, after several unsuccessful attempts in 1986 on a platform of returning control of the state to the people. The newly elected governor went after the Phoenix 40 and their supporters with all the vigor and leverage his new office could muster.
They day after his election, the powerful, behind the scenes elite and Phoenix 40 controlled media went after the newly elected Governor with a vengeance and a recall campaign was started before he was even sworn in. For his part Mecham, who was not a seasoned politician, spoke from his heart and committed a number of gaffes that were further magnified and distorted by a hostile media. He was also often misquoted by the press.
After only a couple of months into his term, Mecham were being investigated by the 40’s State Attorney General on some alleged and completely trumped up charges of financial misconduct. He was later charged with three different criminal offenses that were so outrageously fabricated, they are not even worthy of further description other than to note he was easily acquitted in a court of law of all charges which came as no surprise to those in the legal community. Although ultimately being exonerated by the trial court of all wrongdoing, Mecham found himself fighting a recall campaigned handsomely funded by the deep pockets of the 40 as well as impeachment proceedings prosecuted by 40 politicians which were the same as those he was eventually acquitted of But rather than let the Arizona voters and the courts have their say, the legislature removed him from office.
He was the only Governor in U.S. history to be attacked on so many fronts.After more than twenty years, compelling evidence now shows that his 1988 impeachment was orchestrated by a powerful behind-the-scenes group lead by the Phoenix 40 and was based on purely political motives. Threatened by Mecham’s pledge to take political power out of the hands of special interests and return to government on behalf of the people, the powerbrokers hatched an ingenious plot to get rid of him. Fifteen months into his four-year term, despite the fact that Mecham had not broken a single civil or criminal law, they succeeded.
Mecham died in 2008 in a veteran’s home in a pronounced state of failed health undoubtedly brought on by the overwhelming stress and anxiety of fighting the character assassination visited upon him. Most of his fortune had dissipated fighting the various make-believe charges brought against him and in defending his reputation.
The character assassination of Governor Mecham demonstrates what many today in America now realize: that the intricate processes of government can and is often easily manipulated by the elites. Thus, the moral to the Mecham story is that a handful of elites and special interests can veto the decisions of the voting public. Does this sound familiar?
Great article! I lived in Arizona while this was going on. The AZ legislature impeached Mecham because they knew he would win the recall and that the trumped up charges against him would not stand up in court. He was a great man.
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