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The Straight Shooter : Retiring NRA Chief Bob Corbin Led as He Lives: No Compromises and Never Surrender

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few know the man or even the name.

Yet he is vilified for the lobby he leads. He is at odds with President Clinton, Mother Teresa, Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams, other top cops and liberals who consider him a fusty gunslinger.

In his real, gentler life here, Bob Corbin is a 65-year-old father of three daughters; a crew-cut, 130-pound Hoosier who drinks Hamm’s and likes country cafes that serve biscuits and gravy for breakfast.

He dotes on two grandchildren, wife Helen, heating baked beans in the can to save on dishes, gunky pipes and prowling for lost gold mines in Arizona’s clean mountains.

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Corbin does not like career criminals, a Congress in a mood to prohibit assault weapons, Washington Post editorials, the views of Sarah Brady--and being photographed with a rifle.

He says it would not be appropriate.

Not for the president of the National Rifle Assn.

“Burglars read newspapers,” he says. To date, no burglar has hit Corbin’s home cache of hunting rifles, pistols and a fully automatic but fully legal MP5 submachine gun. “My second concern is the minute people who don’t like guns see someone holding one, they are opposed to you. I want people to listen to what I have to say and then make up their own mind. After that, I don’t care.”

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Except to care about those who might presume that Corbin plus an assault rifle equals John Rambo. As NRA’s top gun notes: “The perception today is that guns are evil and people who own guns are evil. I have been in law enforcement all my professional career and I don’t think I’m evil.”

Gun control advocates, however, disagree.

They are awaiting Sunday and the NRA’s annual meeting in Minneapolis when Corbin ends his leadership of a 123-year-old gun club considered by some to be a greater threat to public health than the Tobacco Institute.

Corbin has been a devoted president. Yet on his two-year watch, politicians have defied the all-mighty NRA and its megabuck phone banks, the Brady bill became law and firearm debates rage hotter than a $2 pistol.

Could it be, ask gun controllers, that the NRA is thinking compromise is the better part of discretion? Might a new president be closer to moderation and Jesse Jackson than extremism and Jesse James?

“It won’t make one bit of difference who becomes president,” Corbin snorts. “There is no way the present board is going to change direction and thinking of NRA. Which is no compromise, no surrender.”

*

No wonder those around former Arizona Atty. Gen. Corbin, his state and its legacies do think of him as Buffalo Bob.

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Also a banty rooster who calls a spade a shovel; a frontier thinker who sees only blacks and whites, guilt or innocence, victims and perpetrators.

Also a little big man of several fascinations.

* Corbin has been married to one woman for 34 years, is opposed to abortion, favors the death penalty, enrolled his grandson in the NRA at the age of 3 days and is a lifelong Republican. Deborah Corbin, his oldest daughter, is divorced, supports abortion rights, and is both anti-gun and a registered Democrat.

They do not speak.

* Corbin has followed Yaqui guides into Mexico in pursuit of century-old whispers about bars of buried gold. His highest fever centers on the Lost Dutchman Mine of the Superstition Mountains east of here.

Corbin has spent 40 years and made 300 treks in search of the mine without finding enough ore for a pair of cuff links.

* Corbin may not know where that tha’ar gold is hiding, but he certainly knows where its miner is buried. He once lead a municipal drive that restored a pioneers’ cemetery near downtown Phoenix and the weedy, cracked, 1891 grave of Jacob Waltz, last known digger of the Lost Dutchman.

* In 1965, Corbin, as Maricopa County attorney, handled the rape and kidnaping prosecution of Ernesto Miranda, whose appeal of an earlier criminal tangle produced the Supreme Court’s sine qua non decision on suspects’ rights.

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Corbin won conviction. Miranda went to prison for four years. In 1976, in a fight in a Phoenix bar, Miranda was stabbed to death.

“There were witnesses,” Corbin remembers. “But nobody said a word. They knew their Miranda rights and that murder remains unsolved.”

* The only creak in Corbin’s career was over his friendship with the financially powerful developer of the Phoenician resort. When Corbin contemplated a run for governor, his friend donated $39,000 to the campaign. That was in 1986, when there seemed nothing wrong in accepting money from Charles Keating.

In 1990, with the savings and loan scandal unraveling, with political enemies after a hard-nosed attorney general’s hide, Corbin made a typically pugnacious gesture. He refunded Keating’s $39,000--but to the Resolution Trust Corp., which is prosecuting and overseeing the S & L bailout.

*

If there was a trademark to Corbin’s public service, it was always an office with props of a territorial lawyer: roll-top desk, spittoon, the bass tick of a Regulator clock and a framed invitation to a 19th-Century public hanging.

Corbin wishes he had lived there and then.

“If I could have picked my time, it would have been 1860 in the West,” he explains. “Arizona. New Mexico. They were all settled by independent, tough, strong people who gave up family and friends to struggle out here.”

That’s why Corbin prowls ghost towns and graveyards. To touch and sense the energies of that generation. That’s why he has studied outlaw histories and recognizes a trace of gunfighter in his makeup.

That’s certainly why Jim Skelly, friend, political ally and state legislator describes Corbin as “the last relic of frontier justice . . . he believes wrongdoers should be punished. He doesn’t buy that modern crap that all these things are society’s fault.”

Old foes from a dozen years as Arizona’s attorney general may doubt Corbin’s methods and means. But never his uncorruptibility. New enemies from Corbin’s two NRA terms will dispute his beliefs. But never his sincerity.

And no one accuses Corbin of partisan prosecutions.

In 1988, Republican Atty. Gen. Corbin busted Republican Gov. Evan Mecham for misusing campaign contributions. Charges were dismissed. But only after Mecham was impeached.

In 1987, Corbin indicted former GOP congressman Sam Steiger for extortion of a parole board member. Steiger was convicted but won on appeal.

“He’s a fascist at heart,” Steiger says. He attacks Corbin for everything from a “low IQ” to “bad breath.” “But I have a deep and undying bias that won’t go away by logic and common sense.”

Clearly, Corbin is a law-and-order man in the mold of Roy Bean and somewhere to the right of Daryl Gates.

“There must be stability in the law so people know what to do,” he believes. “Someone once said I would prosecute my own mother. Probably true.”

Probably not. Mother is 91.

*

Fascination for firearms began when Robert Keith Corbin was 12 and a .22 caliber Springfield was a rite of passage for kids in Worthington, Ind.

Corbin took his first rifle atop a railroad trestle over the junction of the Eel and White rivers and plinked at water snakes.

At 18, he ate bananas and milk to make 111 pounds in skivvies, minimum weight for joining the Navy. Corbin served two years, spent his GI Bill to study accounting, and worked as a court bailiff to pay for 3 1/2 years of night school and a law degree.

By then, he knew by heart a Saturday Evening Post story about the Superstition Mountains. It told of silver bars a person might trip over, of lost gold mines and an immigrant miner named Waltz.

To Corbin, the piece promised “freedom of the West . . . a place where if you gave your word, you didn’t have to put it in writing.

One Saturday in 1957, Corbin was admitted to the Indiana Bar. On the following Monday, with law books and luggage jammed into a Triumph TR-2, he headed for Arizona.

“I came through the Salt River Canyon at night,” he says. “There was this huge moon, a million stars and cactus black against the sky. I remember mountains, silent, proud, honest. I knew the people would be the same way.”

*

But the people first encountered by Corbin as a rookie prosecutor with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office were murderers and wife beaters.

Even then, Corbin’s impartiality was close to a religion.

He heard rumors that a judge was signing blank bail bond releases. The jurist happened to be the ex-county attorney who had hired Corbin. No matter. Corbin took the complaint to the presiding judge. His former boss resigned and left the state.

As county attorney and state attorney general, there was no misinterpreting Corbin’s Way: die-hard and unflinching conservativism.

Lock ‘em up and let ‘em hear the tinkle of keys being thrown away. If there be more criminals, let there be more prisons. To be effective, the death penalty must be swift and sure with a limit on appeals.

“But I don’t think I’m a dying breed,” he says. “I think I’m a breed that has been put back in a corner for the last 30 years. And I think people are waking up. We’re going back to the basics.”

Until recent tempering of Arizona by a younger, more liberal electorate, Corbin’s views were a snug fit. By all analyses, they also built an effective attorney general’s office.

*

Under Corbin, the agency became the 10th largest in the nation. He doubled its staff of lawyers and investigators, quadrupled the annual budget and scored a 95% conviction rate.

And when his terms were done in 1991, his attorneys presented their hip-shooting boss with a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun.

Burton Barr, an old adversary from the Arizona House of Representatives, doesn’t agree with Corbin’s shoving ways.

Those who can’t concede alternative sides to an issue, he says, stand in the way of progress. The history of America is dialogue and compromise while deciding what one must give to get. On the other hand, Barr notes, the threat of organized crime against Arizona lurked huge when Corbin was in office and “he had to fight it hard and fight it large. Yes, organized crime retreated before the threat and effectiveness of Bob Corbin.”

*

Corbin’s cursing would have stirred a dead outlaw. On this, his latest prospecting trip, a horse had stomped hard and Corbin’s toe was between a rock and a hard hoof. But in these harsh Superstition Mountains, which have buried six dozen men, coarse words and men are part of the ecosystem.

It’s lovely lore.

They say Apache Jack was killed by a curse picked up here.

When they found Adolph Ruth’s skull, a hole in the side matched the punch of a .45 caliber slug.

Miner Jacob Weisner died of blood poisoning after ripping an Apache arrow out of his arm and shoulder.

All had looked for the Lost Dutchman Mine of Jacob Waltz. None would have denied this lode was worth dying for: Filthy rich gold ore worth $1.6 million a ton.

And Bob Corbin won’t stop prowling the Superstitions, poking for the Lost Dutchman until he dies. Preferably of natural causes and very wealthy.

But there is a more to it than gold lust.

The Superstitions, cool and exquisite in spring, a hot death sentence in summer, are Corbin’s Walden Pond.

“Over the years, it’s the only place I can go where you (reporters) can’t get to me,” he says. “When I get on a horse, I forget about phones and cities and politics. My mind is here.”

“Here” is approaching Weaver’s Needle, a tall, broad pillar setting directions from just about anywhere within the soul of the Superstitions. The rocky, broken trail is hours from Apache Junction, where Corbin picked up a new mare. But Corbin doesn’t need the Needle to find his way.

*

Several hundred trips have taught him each crease and creek of the endless Superstitions. He has read every word, heard every rumor of the Lost Dutchmen. He has held its ore, which is “half-gold, half-quartz, the richest I’ve ever seen.”

He wants to believe that the mine is still there. Although it might be covered over. He has studied 100 maps of its location and none agree. But one could be right.

So this day is like all other times he has backpacked the Superstitions. A good horse with a back made of bricks. A young sky lifting frowns from the canyons. Tobacco in his pipe. Vienna sausages out of the can and always the escape of silent loneliness.

Three hours into the mountains, Corbin and mount have climbed Black Top with its far overview of LeBarge Canyon.

Corbin ties the mare to a thorn bush, starts talking and history pours: “They found Ruth’s body just down there in 1931. Well, his head was found under a Palo Verde tree and the body a mile away.

“Marie Jones used to work the Needle. Her grandfather was half-black, half-Apache who had told her about a jewel-encrusted, gold statue of Christ buried in the Needle by Apaches who had massacred a Mexican pack train.

“God, don’t get me started. But that’s why it is intriguing. Like I said, I have always wanted to live in the 1800s and this land is the way it was in the 1800s.

“There’s peace out here. Except when Crazy Jake is dynamiting.”

*

During a maiden bid for attorney general, Corbin considered making a television commercial that showed him on horseback, a six-gun on each hip. During a campaign speech, he suggested that the best way to stop airborne drug runners might be to shoot them down.

With stiff postures his legacy, friends say, no wonder Corbin became president of the National Rifle Assn.

Nor were they surprised to learn that he was point man in a coup to reload this rich, all-powerful lobby from placid years when membership fell, lobbying went limp, association policies emphasized target shooting before self-defense and gun control editorials remained unchallenged.

“What we’ve done is throw out (moderate Warren) Cassidy, the executive vice president . . . and brought in (Executive Vice President) Wayne La Pierre with the idea that we were going to fight,” Corbin says.

Corbin is comfortable on a sofa at home, an unpretentious adobe ranch with a gasp of a view of Phoenix sprawling flatly to the south. There’s a portrait on a wall, a bad oil of Corbin with the statue of blind justice when both were much younger, less jaundiced.

Corbin’s iced tea is melting. He is puffing his pipe into a smog alert. The topics are NRA and the media, Congress and its Brady Bunch, the state of the gun battle and the future of the war.

NRA membership, he says, is up to 3.4 million from 2.4 million during the Cassidy era. Although a recruiting blitz, a campaign to counterattack the media, and a program to rebuild national and local lobbies ate $40 million in NRA cash reserves, there’s still $50 million in the ammo box.

“And we’ve instituted a lot of new programs,” Corbin notes.

There’s Crime Strike in support of local anti-crime bills and responsible, in part, for pushing three-strikes-you’re-out legislation. Also seminars to instruct women in firearm self-defense and programs on gun safety for elementary school students.

*

Some, however, challenge Corbin’s effectiveness. They say the American majority favors some form of gun control; therefore, the NRA is flogging a dead cause.

Corbin returns fire: “The media says we have lost our clout in Congress. But we were in 31 House races two years ago. You know how many we lost? One.”

Corbin doesn’t understand the media. He thinks that gun control editorials are moved more by emotions, by grief at today’s violence, than by the balanced reason and facts of the issue. Editors and general assignment reporters are generally younger, and often from the East, he says, where hands-on experience with firearms is limited.

But the NRA’s immediate priority, he says, is zeroing on the Brady Act--so named for press secretary Jim Brady, shot in the brain during the attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan.

NRA-backed suits in five states are seeking to overturn the law and further confirm individual Second Amendment rights to “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”

Corbin sees the Second Amendment as sacrosanct as the First guaranteeing freedoms of speech, religion and the press.

“My God,” he snorts. The lighter is clacking again, his pipe belching and glowing. “Somebody breathes that they are going to do something to the media and they are up in arms screaming about First Amendment rights.

“When we scream about Second Amendment rights, we’re evil, we’re wrong, we should compromise.”

*

It’s all over now. Years of estimating public moods and second-guessing political systems. Months of trials, unseeing juries and work days ending at dawn.

Until, at 65, Bob Corbin knows that there are no new debates, only stale arguments presented by fresh opponents.

“It’s got a little old,” he says. “Some days you feel like going out and fighting. Some days you want somebody else to do it. So I guess it’s time I backed off and started enjoying myself.”

Bob and Helen Corbin will enjoy themselves at Walker, site of a disappeared gold town, and the cabin they are rebuilding in the Bradshaw Mountains north of here.

Helen will continue to write home-grown and locally successful paperbacks. Bob will get really serious about extended explorations to gold fields lost and far.

Recently, among the trees and the 7,000-foot silence, with plops of frozen snow still clinging at this level, Corbin looked back. Maybe he is out of touch; a man whose day and ideas have passed. But they worked well in his time and one day, who knows, those old basics of a firm handshake and honest words might help this country again.

He regrets nothing. Except for what his career stole from three daughters: “When my kids were little, I thought politics were important and you had to be everywhere. If it took you until 3 in the morning to solve a problem, you stayed until 3 in the morning.”

*

But daughter Kathy Corbin-Russ, 33, a wife and mother, NRA-educated gun owner and a Phoenix golfing professional, speaks no resentment. She says Dad did what a professional dad has to do.

“Mom tried to balance it all out and that seemed to work fine,” she says. “I don’t think I missed anything.”

Lori LaJeunesse, 37, a Los Angeles nutritionist and personal trainer, says life with father was softer than one might imagine.

“If I’d done something wrong and had to wait until father to get home, he’d ask: ‘What do you think you should do?’ ” she recalls. “Mother would ground you for life.

Deborah Corbin, 41, of Washington, D.C., a membership benefits representative with the American Federation of Teachers, sees her father as “a man with integrity . . . intense, very smart, reserved.”

But they have been estranged for years.

“I’m a unionist . . . a feminist and a registered Democrat, a member of NOW (National Organization of Women) and pro-choice and absolutely anti-gun,” she says. “So there’s sort of no common ground.”

Meanwhile, Corbin continues painting and plastering the cabin on an 1897 gold claim. He has installed a burglar alarm, for this remote mountain home between Potato Patch and Big Bug Creek has been broken into seven times in five years.

That riles Corbin’s sense of frontier justice.

He says he’d like to string up the burglars. Then display the bodies like coyotes as a warning to others. When the corpses crumble, he’d rebuild the skeletons with baling wire.

“I’m joking,” he says. “I guess.”


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