I remember the echoes in the stadium.
I was at a U2 concert in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.
The crowd was loud prior to the show. Excited, anxious, eager, loud. The rumbling murmur rolled around and around and around as night fell.
And then – silence.
A reddish glow had appeared on the stage and a single note began to play from an unseen keyboard.
The note grew louder, shifting, steepening, building, growing and growing and growing.
Figures appeared, silhouetted in the red-amber and moved to a drum set, a few guitars, a microphone and the plucky, chiming first bars of “Where The Streets Have No Name” rippled out into the crowd, fired up and standing, swaying, hands in the air.
It was incredible. It’s still easily the most magical concert moment I’ve had in my life.
I was 19 years old. I’d just graduated Basic and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, a few weeks earlier and was now an Armor Crewman on M60 tanks in the Army Reserve. I was young, fit, patriotic and proud.
I remember exactly what I wore to the concert, too: my black Army trench coat and, because the air was cold on my freshly-shorn head, a red Santa hat. I could pull that look off back then, or at least I thought I could.
1987 was quite a year in Arizona.
In 1986 we had elected a controversial new governor, Evan Mecham. It was the first election I could vote in. Mecham, a car dealer and Republican, had run as an outsider in what turned out to be a three-way race after the Democrats had a former member run as an independent and siphon off support. Mecham won with barely 40% of the vote.
Things went downhill quickly from the moment Mecham was inaugurated. He rescinded the state’s Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, a wildly unpopular move as most of the country had been actively recognizing Dr. King. Technically, Mecham was correct in doing so as the holiday had been created by an executive order from the former Governor, Bruce Babbitt, and not by the legislature, as the state constitution required. Mecham had little support for his handling of this, though, after telling civil rights leaders that they didn’t deserve another holiday.
Arizona became a pariah. Boycotts ensued. Bands cancelled shows, conventions moved away, the NFL took away the Super Bowl that had already been awarded. Protests. Marches. U2 joined in, announcing that they were donating money to an impeachment campaign.
I was resentful, at first, as were many of the people I knew, of all the artists and businesses from outside the state meddling in what we thought was a state matter.
Feelings were pretty intense, as I recall. I had voted for Mecham in 1986 because I was a good Republican and never would have considered voting for a Democrat. I’m not sure why I was a Republican but in 1986 in Arizona it seemed that everyone I knew was. I think my parents were, but I’m not certain. We were at the height of the Reagan years, too, so from what I could tell from my limited world view everyone else in the country was a Republican, too.
As 1987 progressed, though, things got worse and worse for Mecham. He alienated the female population by stating that the high divorce rate at the time was their fault because they wanted to have jobs instead of staying home with their families where they belonged. He offended the Jewish population by claiming that America should be a Christian nation. He offended visiting Japanese businessmen by describing how “round-eyed” they got when they saw Arizona’s golf courses. He referred to African-American children as “pickaninnies”. And throughout it all he blamed the press. He would say whatever he wanted and then blame the media for reporting what he said.
He continued to lose support as he chose highly controversial people for his cabinet, including a man for the Liquor Control Board who was under investigation for murder and a Superintendent of Prison Construction who had served time for armed robbery. Both he chose without consultation of the Republican legislature, stating that he was under no obligation to do so and did not have to answer to them.
By the summer of 1987 I’d had enough of him. I’d decided to join the military to get money for college but I elected to join the Reserves instead of the National Guard because I wasn’t willing to let Mecham, who as Governor was effectively the Commander-in-Chief of the state National Guard, be my boss. He was too offensive, erratic and inconsistent and I wasn’t willing to tie my fate to his whims.
Just as I began distancing myself from him many others in the state did, too. Having run as an outsider he had very little support from the Republican-controlled legislature. As his statements and behaviors started driving business from the state they began withdrawing their tepid support. By the end of the summer even Barry Goldwater and John McCain were calling for his resignation. A recall effort gained momentum at the same time impeachment charges were being drawn up after evidence started to come to light that Mecham had failed to report a $350,000 contribution to his election campaign and then used campaign funds to help his auto dealership.
He was impeached in early 1988 and replaced by the Secretary of State, Rose Mofford.
What did I learn from all this? That image matters. That words matter. That character matters. That honesty matters. That behavior matters. That support and consensus and cooperation matter.
And here we are, thirty years later, and I hear the echoes of 1987.
“I believe in the Kingdom come, when all the colors will bleed into one.”
But we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.
I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.