John J. Rhodes Jr., the last member of an elite class of Arizona politicians who shaped the state and nation in Congress, died Sunday night at his home with his wife at his side. He was 86.
The Mesa resident who represented the East Valley in Congress for 30 years had battled cancer since October. He died about 9:30 p.m., said Jay Smith, a Virginia political consultant who once served as Rhodes’ press secretary.
In his career, Rhodes went from being a small-town lawyer who bucked the odds to become the first Arizona Republican elected to Congress to minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. In August 1974, Rhodes joined Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., and another Republican senator to confront President Richard Nixon, whose administration was collapsing in the Watergate scandal. The three convinced Nixon that he could not survive an impeachment vote. He resigned the presidency two days later.
Elected in 1952, Rhodes served in Congress until retiring in 1982. When his successor, John McCain, opted to run for the Senate in 1986, Rhodes’ son, Jay, ran for the seat and ultimately won three terms. During his years in Congress, Rhodes worked closely with Goldwater, R-Ariz., and Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., to give Arizona clout not normally afforded a state with a small population.
Among his greatest achievements was helping to secure funding for the Central Arizona Project, which brings water from the Colorado River to central Arizona. “His legacy is he probably did more for the state than anybody,” Smith said. “He was in a critically important place during the Watergate impeachment episode, and proved he was a true American patriot. He was the House Republican leader and expected to defend the Republican president.
But he held a higher regard for the Constitution and wanted the impeachment to go forward.” Rhodes would weep when he read praise about his work in Congress, Smith said. “His life is a remarkable life,” Smith said. “This man had such an impact. His legacy for Arizona, for America, is so strong, it will never go away. He was the real thing.”
Though Rhodes attained one of the most powerful positions in Congress, spending nine years as minority leader, his ascent came during one of the nation’s most tumultuous times. The Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s downfall also decimated the Republican Party, which lost 48 House seats in 1974. Rhodes ascended to the leadership post after Gerald Ford resigned his House seat to become vice president, replacing Spiro Agnew, who stepped down after pleading no contest to tax evasion charges.
Rhodes also was chairman of the 1976 and 1980 Republican national conventions. After his retirement, Rhodes made a brief return to the political arena. In 1987, when it seemed a petition drive would force a recall election against Gov. Evan Mecham, Rhodes became a candidate, hoping to unite the Republican Party and bring calm to a state in turmoil. The election was called off after Mecham was ousted through impeachment. In October, Rhodes began having pain in his right arm and shoulder, which doctors determined to be linked to cancer. After three unsuccessful operations, Rhodes’ right arm was amputated in June. Yet he kept in good spirits, telling the Tribune last month that he was doing well and was optimistic.
“I had to make a decision, either I died of cancer, a bad death, or I was able to survive it and maybe get three or four more years,” Rhodes told the Tribune in July. “At my age, that’s worth having.” Rhodes said then that he was staying active, and at that time there was no sign the cancer had returned.
“I’m not going to play golf or anything like that, but I’m able to do almost anything that you can do,” Rhodes said. Rhodes was born on Sept. 18, 1916, in Council Grove, Kan. After graduating from Kansas State University in 1938 and Harvard Law School in 1941, he married his wife, Elizabeth, and the couple moved to Arizona in 1942.
Rhodes also served in the U.S Army Air Corps during World War II, and as staff judge advocate of the Arizona National Guard from 1947 until 1952, according to his congressional biography. One of Rhodes’ favorite stories was how he was drafted into politics. Rhodes was a young lawyer interested in Republican Party politics in 1950 when he got a call from Goldwater, who at the time was managing the gubernatorial campaign of Howard Pyle and trying to build a Republican ticket for other state offices.
“Mr. Rhodes, I’m drafting you to run for attorney general,” Goldwater told Rhodes. “Well, Mr. Goldwater,” Rhodes replied, “there’s something you should know. I don’t want to be attorney general.” “Mr. Rhodes,” Goldwater shot back, “there’s something you should know if you don’t, Arizona is such a Democrat state that Republican people don’t get elected very often. So I think I can promise you won’t be attorney general.” Goldwater was right that time.
Though Pyle did win, other Republicans did not fare well in the 1950 election. But two years later, with Dwight Eisenhower running on the Republican ticket for president, Rhodes was elected to one of the state’s two congressional seats.
And Goldwater won his first term in the U.S. Senate. During the 1952 campaign, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Arizona 8 to 1. Rhodes is survived by his wife, four children and 18 grandchildren, Smith said
- Tribune writer Beth Lucas contributed to this report.