Fife Symington Reflects on His Time as Governor, His Troubles, and Saving Bill Clinton’s Life

Posted: May 08, 2014 11:52 PM EDT
Updated: May 09, 2014 12:34 AM EDT
By John Hook, FOX 10 News

PHOENIX (KSAZ) – For some reason, Arizona’s Governor’s have had a spotty attendance record.

It’s been almost 30 years since an Arizona Governor completed two full terms in office.

Evan Mecham was impeached in 1988.

Janet Napolitano left during her second term to head-up the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration.

And then there was Fife Symington, he was convicted of fraud and resigned from office in 1996.

Out of all of the governors who left office early it’s Symington who had the most lasting impact on Arizona.

25 years-ago few were riding as high as Symington. The brash developer had just brought the Camelback Esplanade to fruition.

Symington parlayed that victory into an improbable march to become Arizona’s 19th Governor.

FOX 10 recently caught up with him at the Esplanade where it all started. He was lamenting the loss of the fine marble that was in the entryway. Symington hand picked that marble from a quarry in Italy.

“They’ve torn out that beautiful marble,” he said.

FOX 10 asked him if he thought about his time as Governor. “You know I really don’t, I’m reminded of it periodically, I don’t live there, that to me was a waypoint in my life,” he said.

Yet so many of the battles he fought as Governor are still with us today. School choice, Symington made Arizona a haven for charter schools.

“And by creating that choice and creating charter schools the public education institutions would be forced to compete and get better, it was never meant to hurt, it was meant to make them better,” he said.

And Indian gaming, it began on his watch even though he vigorously opposed it.

“The impacts have not been what I expected, it’s had less of an impact on the rest of the state, I think I was probably wrong, I was maybe too concerned about that,” he said.

Symington’s second term was cut short when he was convicted of bank fraud, stemming from his developments, including his beloved Esplanade.

When asked if he wished this had never happened he said, “The Esplanade, oh no, I loved building this project, it was really great… I have nothing but the fondest memories of this effort, I never dreamed it would be used as a weapon against me, I was pretty naive looking bad”.

The day after Symington was convicted he resigned as Governor.

“I have never been one to linger, and I have no intent to start now,” said Symington.

“I just felt that the office is more important than the person holding the office, and that it would not be good for the state to have a sitting governor under these convictions and under appeal. It just wouldn’t make any sense, it would not be good for the state,” he said.

Symington was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. “It was a deeply humanizing experience, it really did change me, it made me a lot less judgemental, it made me even more concerned about the power of the federal government, and the damage they could do to anyone if they put a flashlight on you, the bright light on you,” he said.

While his appeals wound through the court, he found solace behind a stove.

“I went to culinary school to take my mind off of that,” he said.

Symington became a chef and opened the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. “I used to teach the custard and creme brule class,” he said.

But prison was always looming. “I had a yellow duffle bag in my bedroom that was packed because I might have to report to Nellis on a 24 hour notice if I lost my appeal,” said Symington.

He never did go to prison; his conviction was overturned. Government prosecutors considered re-trying him, but President Bill Clinton ended that when he pardoned Symington. The two politicians had a chance meeting years before when both were 19 years-old.

“Outside the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port… it was a very interesting weekend,” he said.

Introduced by a mutual friend, Tommy Caplan who later petitioned the president to pardon Symington.

“So we all got together at Hyannis Port on a weekend, and two of my very attractive first cousins Jane and Elise were with us,” he recalled.

The girls caught Bill Clinto’s eye.

“So I quickly realized I needed to protect my two first cousins both of whom were just drop dead gorgeous, its sort of a stormy day and were down on the beach and were walking along the beach, and the red flags were up and rip-tides all the sudden Tommy turns to me, and he says well where’s bill, and then I looked out, and there 100 yards off shore is this head bobbing, and there’s Bill Clinton caught in the rip-tide headed to Portugal,” said Symington.

Symington climbed into a rowboat and headed out to save the future President.

“I got upstream of him and he crashed into the boat, i’ll never forget because I reached down and grabbed him by his hair, which there was a lot, and he’s a big guy and I lifted him up and said “you need a ride?”, And I flipped him into the boat and he was coughing, and he lacerated his chest, because he’d been raked over some shoals and brought him to shore that was it.” said Symington.

In that afternoon, he had saved the life of the future president and perhaps saved himself.

“He said I saved his life; he was in trouble, there’s no doubt about that,” said Symington.

Fife Symington turns 70 next year and with all the highs and lows he’s experience he seems genuinely content with his life.

“I’m proud that I was Governor of Arizona, I love my state, I love Arizona,” he said.

When asked if he would consider running again he said, “No, it’s a no”.

“I do not see how going back into public life would fit anymore, I’ve got other things I want to do with my life,” he said.

Beyond charter schools, indian gaming, and tax reform Symington is known for something else. “The Phoenix Lights”, the UFO event here in the valley in 1997. Symington witnessed the phenomenon and he’s convinced what he saw that night was “not of this world”.