I covered then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for a few months for The Arizona Republic back in 2002. Here’s how that went.
The good: He could be charming, putting on a gruff Italian grandpa act, and he would occasionally give you a tiny signal that he knew he was slinging bull.
When he found out I had a great-uncle who had died in the line of duty as a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Deputy (Warren La Rue, 1971), he took an interest and made sure my family knew about the dedication of a memorial statue to fallen deputies outside the courthouse.
His staff had a sense of humor, which is always an organizational characteristic that flows from above. He read the newspaper carefully and would sometimes remark on stories that I had written that weren’t about him — though he called them “cases.” He always returned phone calls.
The bad: There was never a conversation with him that didn’t swing around to his favorite subject — the glories of Joe Arpaio — within two minutes. He had immense reserves of self-pity and would obsess about whoever he felt was “blasting” him, even when he brought it on himself.
He couldn’t have cared less about what the data was showing about how his famously cruel jail policies were not making any difference in public safety. Worst of all, I never got the sense he understood (or cared) about the pointless suffering that he caused in his jails.
The ugly: I have never met anyone as addicted to press coverage as Arpaio. He told me once, in a moment of pathos, that the first time he ever got the feeling that his father was proud of him was when his name showed up in a wire story in the local paper in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the 1950s after he made an arrest.
As the elected sheriff, and a dynamic one at that, you couldn’t ignore him. But I came to conclude that every story I wrote, even the critical ones, was just providing him what psychologists call “narcissistic supply,” making me complicit in the whole mess. The only metrics he cited for his job performance were his approval rating in pre-election polls, and the number of international journalists who had come to Phoenix to do stories on him and make the tour of the grotesque concentration camp in the desert called “Tent City.”
This was before the big immigration sweeps and his operatic crusade against the county supervisors, so I missed out on that action. And I didn’t do a terribly good job: it was B- coverage at best, and I could never get together the comprehensive inventory for which my colleagues Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin at the East Valley Tribune deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
After Donald Trump began to pick up momentum in July 2015 and his words were broadcast at length, I recognized this person immediately: the self-regard, the neediness, the weird charm, the obliviousness to real-world impacts, the guy-from-the-neighborhood earthiness, the dog-whistle racism.
Imagine Trump with a badge and a gun and running a jail.
That was Arpaio.
Tom Zoellner is the author of several nonfiction books and has worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Arizona Republic.