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A DISTANT DRUMMERWILL STEVE BENSON EVER GROW UP?

When Arizona intrudes on the national consciousness the way an angry red pimple pops up on prom night, expatriate Steve Benson gets tears in his eyes.

Then, when he stops laughing, it's time to get back to work.
It's been a year since the cartoonist left his job at the Arizona Republic for Tacoma, Washington. But he hasn't forgotten about us.

"I'm proud to be a former Arizonan!" Benson exclaims in a recent telephone interview. That should be a tip-off that the grandson of Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson is still a wise guy. A look at his cartoons for the Tacoma News Tribune confirms it.

Last Veterans Day, for example, Benson displayed a storefront "Desert Shield Veterans Day Sale" offering coffins ("made to order"), body bags ("one size fits all") and prosthetics ("we won't charge you an arm and a leg"). Not surprisingly, the cancellations and death threats poured in from News Tribune readers.

What a relief for Benson. It's so nice to know you're wanted.
Usually, he says, it's just nice, period, in Tacoma--at least when it comes to local politics.

"People here are very tolerant," says Benson of his fellow Northwesterners. "They tend to live and let live. It's excruciatingly boring for an editorial cartoonist."

Unlike Arizona, of course.
"Here, it's semicivilized," Benson says. "They actually have budgets that are actually passed. Leaving Arizona for here is like coming out of mud-wrestling into a Mozart symphony.

"It's much more challenging. You actually have to read the papers, not just depend on some babbling idiot to open his mouth. But I kind of miss the zoo."

Once in a while, though, Benson decides to rattle Arizona's cage. His "Charlie Keating Salutes America" featured the Keating Five senators as finger puppets for Charlie to thumb his nose at his countrymen. (Dennis DeConcini was the thumb puppet, incidentally.)

When Arizona voters rejected the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Benson conjured up a desert shack as the "Arizona Tourist Bureau and Waterin' Hole," complete with an outhouse for "coloreds" and a cowboy saying, "No need to worry 'bout the '93 Super Bowl cancellation. We just booked a David Duke rally."

Thanks to such godsends as C-SPAN and Arizona's propensity for the national slimelight, the 36-year-old cartoonist manages to keep up on his ex-state's current affairs. Some of his observations:

* On Arizona politicians, in general: "Did you know that 98 percent of Arizona politicians were bottle-fed as babies? Even their mothers didn't trust them."

* On gubernatorial hopeful Fife Symington, in particular: "He has no eyebrows. Boy, that's tough for a cartoonist."

* On Governor Rose Mofford, whom he once described as having her hair done at Dairy Queen: "The same old Rose. Plug her in and turn on the tape."

* On DeConcini's speech to the Senate Ethics Committee: "He is a pit bull! Remember the part about his invoking Mother Teresa's name? If I were Mother Teresa and DeConcini mentioned my name, I'd turn in my smock."

When Benson left Arizona, editors at the Republic vowed to subscribe to his syndicate and occasionally print his cartoons. But the newspaper has dropped him--Benson says he thinks it's to give his successor, Scott Stantis, "some breathing room." The Mesa Tribune and Scottsdale Progress are the only newspapers in the Valley where Benson hits print. But he's not hurting. Jim Cavett of the Tribune Media syndicate says "a couple of hundred" newspapers subscribe to Benson, compared with "forty or fifty" that carry Stantis.

Those who haven't seen Benson's work from Tacoma might be surprised to learn that he's virulently antiwar these days. He was the first cartoonist to visit Saudi Arabia since the United States started shipping a generation of young people there. Benson came back with an inkpot brimming with venom.

"I am completely opposed to military operations there," he says. "I simply don't think this war can be justified. We imposed economic sanctions on the Soviet Union for forty years. Well, it took forty years, but they worked."

As far as Benson is concerned, "Our foreign policy has no moral basis."
On December 7, Benson drew the USS Arizona sinking in flames in Pearl Harbor, with a voice onboard saying, "At least we're not dying for oil."

Sounds like a Commie hippie, don't he?

He may be turning into one. In a recent cartoon, Benson composed a new version of the Sixties antiwar anthem "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" by Country Joe and the Fish. It ends with: "Super unleaded is what we seek, so let's go kill for Arab sheiks!"

"If I were Mother Teresa and DeConcini mentioned my name, I'd turn in my smock.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy