Bully Boys

Slick Willy And Sheriff Joe: Behind All That Bluster Lies Cowardice.

By Jeff Smith

I'VE GOT HALF a yard, American, that says Joe Arpaio didn't vote for Bill Clinton either time. I'm not willing to bet that same $500 that Joe voted for Bob Dole or George Bush, despite his impeccable Maricopa County Republican Party credentials; I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't vote at all.

Smith Most of you should be familiar with Arpaio as sheriff of the greater Phoenix/lesser Buckeye part of our state--not that our interest in statewide politics is that catholic, but Sheriff Joe has forged himself into something of a national demi-celebrity. Like Ev Mecham.

Media from the more delicately evolved regions of the country go positively clammy over the sort of colorfully crooked, vaguely medieval politicians Arizona customarily places in positions of public trust--witness the national attention to the legal battles of ex-governors Fife Symington and the aforementioned Mecham--and Joe Arpaio seems created by central casting to play the role of the tough, wild-west sheriff.

At least as perceived by someone who's never ventured west of the Hudson unless it was by transcontinental airliner bound for LAX.

Sheriff Joe has taken away his inmates' TV sets, their Playboy magazines, their barely palatable rations. He's put them in pink underwear and on chain-gangs, and made them sleep in tents in the beastly heat of the Maricopa County summer. He is almost universally regarded as one tough sonofabitch.

Bill Clinton probably never voted for Joe Arpaio either. History does not record an instance in which Joe has appeared on any ballot in Bill's precinct. Be that as it may, and notwithstanding differences in political affiliation, President Willy and Sheriff Joe have more in common than either of them or many of us suppose.

They're white males in America, political, ambitious, power-driven and possessed of the self-delusion common to their type that persuades them that the laws that they were elected to uphold do not apply to them quite in the same rigorous fashion as to the rest of us. But that's not the nub of the issue.

Oh, and both Clinton and Arpaio are dishonest. But that ain't it either.

We all know what happened last week when Bill Clinton commandeered the nation's television cameras and entered our homes to deliver a lick-and-a-promise mea culpa for diddling with Monica Lewinsky and lying about it until the law came up with his actual pecker-tracks on the front of her dress. Using the same style of tortured prose he always employs when he paints himself into a corner, Clinton confessed to a "not appropriate" relationship with Monica, and, by silence as well as speech, to have given us a "misimpression." Judas Priest. Other issues aside, the man's abuse of the direct declarative English sentence is unpardonable.

Fewer of us may be aware that the week previous, up in Phoenix, Sheriff Joe was ticketed for parking in a gimp spot outside an office building and leaving his car there most of the afternoon. I caught it all on Flagstaff TV, and the video clearly showed the universal symbol for a stick figure in a wheelchair, painted in yellow and blue about four feet square on the exact parking bay where Arpaio's county car had sat. It further showed the usual sign on a pole in front of the space, telling what your offense was and your fine would be if you parked there without gimp plates or permit.

So what does America's toughest lawman say to that?

First Arpaio said he didn't notice. Then, confronted with tape of the obvious markings, Arpaio said that the sign on the post in front of the parking spot should have been in the middle of the spot, one for every dedicated handicap parking space, rather than in between the handicap space he took, and another gimp spot next to it. Technically, Arpaio said, unless there was a sign for every space, the sign was null and void.

Is this the kind of stand-up candor we expect or deserve from our favorite tough-guy sheriff, who delights the folks in the cheap seats with soundbites about not running a country club at the county jail?

Has Sheriff Joe ever forgiven a petty thief or nickel-and-dime druggie on a technicality? Not for the record.

Then when it was pointed out that the four-by-four painted gimp symbol on the pavement was pretty self-explanatory and impossible to miss, Sheriff Joe said, actually, that he gets a lot of threats (being the toughest law-dog in the West and all) so he needs to park as close as he can to anyplace he goes on bidness, in case he needs to get back to his gun and his radio in a hurry. Poor baby. I was under the impression Joe Arpaio could whip a gang of outlaws with his bare hands, or, under extreme circumstances...Don't make me take my belt off and spank you boys.

And in any case they make holsters for guns, and radios and cell-phones, and Joe could probably detail a meter-maid to ride along and protect him from bullies.

Well, it was all a pretty sorry spectacle, and followed so closely by President Clinton's words of whining and weaseling his way around the plain truth, I concluded that the worst these two powerful men have done to betray their public trust is to be mealy-mouthed and gutless and less-than-honest even while the unblinking public eye caught them with the smoking gun in their hot little hands.

But even that similarity, that commonality, is not the heart of the matter. Want to know what it is?

They're cowards.

Ask a psychologist, or just cast your memory back to grade school and those times when some scaredy-cat (you, your worst enemy, your best friend) got busted en flagrante delicto and went to babbling like a Philadelphia lawyer, giving 14 different versions of what was clear to an army of eye-witnesses was not the whole-and-nothing-but-the...truth.

It's the classic behavior of the coward. And by this I mean coward in the old schoolyard sense. We're not talking the philosophical niceties of moral courage and integrity, the intellectual bravery to take an unpopular public stand and stick to it, I mean the guts it takes to take a punch in the nose, a kick in the nuts, to 'fess up when you're wrong and especially when you get caught...

...and to take your whuppin'.

Now nobody, not even Ken Starr, has suggested that Bill Clinton get swats for sticking his cutie in Ms. Lewinsky. Neither is Joe Arpaio faced with corporal punishment for this parking beef. But to both men, the prospect of punishment for their misdeeds brings that old coppery taste of fright to the backs of their throats, that atavistic fear of violence and hurt. In Arpaio's case the manifestations are classic: the bully-boy behavior, with an army of armed and badged deputies between him and harm, the tough talk. Sheriff Joe is chicken-shit. That's why he can't cop to the simple truth.

And President Bill? Big ol', six-plus, potato-face Wm. Jefferson? Not that it defines courage, but I expect if he'd been on the high-school football team, we'd have heard about it in 1992.

I bet that like marijuana, the first time or two Bill Clinton got a hit of adrenaline, he didn't like it and didn't inhale. TW

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