You could tell right off that Grant Woods was upset. "This was so bad and so outrageous," said the attorney general in a phone call to New Times managing editor Jeremy Voas. "It's absolutely fucking ridiculous."
Mr. Voas did not disagree.
We had asked Woods to be photographed, telling him it was for the paper's annual Best of Phoenix supplement. We'd said we wanted to take the attorney general's picture with the winner of the Best Hot Dog Stand category. The attorney general had been tickled at the prospect.
But Woods also suspected something was afoot.
"Oh, you're going to name me Best Hot Dog, aren't you?" he inquired at the photo shoot. Actually, what we did was take his photograph with a hot-dog vendor who was, in reality, an escaped convict.
We wanted to make the point that the county jail has an ongoing problem with inmates breaking out. We wanted to make the point that Grant Woods would do anything for publicity.
We wanted a good laugh.
Last Wednesday, the New Times cover read, "Grant Woods: There is no such thing as a bad photo opportunity."
Underneath these words, a four-color picture showed the attorney general receiving a wiener from a hot-dog vendor whose wide smile suggested he was having an excellent day. They were standing in front of the county lockup.
The headline stated, "Attorney General Poses With Escaped Convict. Felon flees custody, then sells hot dogs in front of jail." Mr. Woods was not amused.
"Like I'm supposed to recognize every escaped convict," said Woods to Voas. "Most of the guys who run hot-dog stands look like convicts, anyway."
Mr. Voas did not argue.
"I thought, there is no possible way anyone will do that to me," said a surprised Woods. "Anyone who's going to take me, as attorney general . . . why in the hell would a newspaper do that?"
Responding to media inquiries, Woods quickly announced that he was considering suing New Times. The vitality of the threatened lawsuit rested not upon its legal merits, which were dubious, but rather upon Woods' fit of pique. Others who called the office were laughing so hard it was difficult to understand what they were saying.
Steve Tseffos, on the other hand, was quite audible throughout his phone call to David Pasztor, the reporter who wrote the story explaining how the satire was executed.
"I purposely waited until this afternoon to call," said Tseffos, who is Woods' press secretary, "because I didn't know if I could be in control this morning." And everyone at New Times knows just how out of control the high-strung Tseffos can get.
The press secretary is fondly remembered in this office as the fervent flack who called a radio talk show and assumed a phony identity to roast Woods' political rival, Governor Fife Symington. Tseffos disguised his voice with a Southern accent, but lost the drawl when he got excited, thereby blowing his cover. A now-calm Tseffos told Pasztor that the attorney general would never talk to New Times again. Even when he becomes president.
"I think Woods would have, over time, been real good for you guys," observed Tseffos. "I mean, if he moves on in his political career, he would have been someone that could have been a wealth of information."
Not only was Grant Woods not going to talk to us ever again, but he, Steve Tseffos, was so upset that he was prepared to break the law, if that's what it took to convince New Times just how far we had wandered off the reservation by laughing at his boss.
"If you need information from us," said Tseffos, "you can file a Freedom of Information Act request. If I get to it, great. If I don't, that's the way it goes." This, of course, is illegal.
Although Woods had huffed and puffed about suing the newspaper, he never actually did anything foolish enough to land him in a courthouse. Now his press secretary was volunteering to do it for him. Tseffos went on to describe the pain behind the humor.
"It was hurtful," said Tseffos. "I mean, you might think it was funny, but it was actually hurtful. The thing, 'In Pursuit of Publicity'; now we have Benson doing an editorial cartoon tomorrow, Montini is doing an article on it, we're going to be in every fucking paper in the state like the jackasses of Arizona. . . ."
Two days after the story appeared, an airline pilot, who'd just landed in Japan, phoned his wife in Phoenix to tell her he'd seen the story in the Asian edition of USA Today.
Sure, admitted Tseffos, his boss is known for his fondness of publicity. But this, this was an "outright lie."
What's more, Grant Woods has an outstanding sense of humor, said Tseffos.
The press secretary pointed out to Pasztor that when Woods did his recent fund-raising movie, it was called The Hound of Publicityville. "We have been one to kind of break the mold and just say, 'Look, nobody else will poke fun at themselves . . . we'll do some self-deprecating humor, just poking fun at ourselves.'"
As long as Grant Woods cracks wise, it's a stitch, but if anyone else makes a joke, it's too depressing for Woods and Tseffos to bear. "You kind of look at it and say, 'You know what, this job isn't worth it. Maybe we ought to go do something else with our time.'"
Pasztor did not contradict the press secretary.
Tseffos reminded the reporter that when Grant Woods agreed to pose for the cover photograph that would appear on 140,000 copies of New Times, he was doing the newspaper a favor.
"Let's go help them out.' That's exactly the attitude that they came down there with. 'Let's go help them out.' You know, nobody really likes to do a lot with them [the paper]," said Tseffos, describing the strategic thinking that went into helping New Times.
On the morning the paper was distributed, Attorney General Grant Woods was helping to prop up one of Arizona's most popular radio stations, KTAR.
Every Wednesday morning, Arizona's top law enforcement officer does an hourlong live broadcast. The show is not burdened with talk of dry legal issues facing Arizona.
At the top of the program, Woods informed listeners that the New Times issue that day was not funny. At all. The attorney general said it was his turn to walk around all day with a sign that said, "Kick me." He said it was like grade school. Woods then moved the discussion to a more adult plane. He introduced Johnny Carson's ex-sidekick, Ed McMahon, who had phoned the show to tell the audience that the attorney general was "one of my dearest and closest friends."
Woods and McMahon discussed Ed's family recipe for mayonnaise. They reviewed the military history of Ed's ancestors. They revived Ed's memories of the "You May Already Be a Winner" promotion by Publisher's Clearing House. They talked about the remarkable entertainment value of Star Search.
Woods plugged McMahon's upcoming visit to a Phoenix mall.
The attorney general's day was not entirely given over to show business. On the evening news, Woods charged that we were despicable scum, which wasn't very nice. There was vague talk that we had somehow aided and abetted a criminal, though Channel 3's Michael Hagerty said his legal sources had told him that in order for that charge to stick, we would have had to actually shelter the convict, not simply introduce him to the attorney general.
Apparently noticing parallels between his career and that of the slain Kennedy brothers, Woods assumed the attitude of a martyr about to be struck down by the assassin's hand. He told the press that New Times had endangered his life by posing him with an escaped convict.
People were seeing a side of Grant Woods never revealed in public.
The next day, the former publisher of the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette, Pat Murphy, went on the air and needled the attorney general.
Murphy ticked off the numerous times Woods has shed his dignity in the presence of popping flash bulbs. He reminded the attorney general of the time an aide to Senator John McCain had pimped Woods by claiming that 60 Minutes wanted to interview the prosecutor.
"You nearly scorched a path in the Capitol concrete rushing to the nonexistent cameras," chided Murphy. "Public officials who can't laugh at themselves eventually become the easiest of targets for ridicule."
The attorney general's press spokesman, Steve Tseffos, must have missed Murphy's toast.
Last Friday, an agitated Tseffos called the newspaper's attorney, David Bodney. The story about the lampoon had gone out on the Associated Press wire with a photograph and was popping up in papers around the country. Television producers from shows like Inside Edition were phoning the Attorney General's Office.
Tseffos informed Bodney that the attorney general and his staff had just about dropped the idea of suing the newspaper. However, this latest wave of national attention was simply too much. If anyone at New Times was caught fanning this publicity, then Grant Woods had no choice but to haul us before a judge.
And as far as Steve Tseffos was concerned, he would personally advise Grant Woods to sue us.
Just in case Bodney mistook the seriousness of their resolve, Tseffos pointed out that the attorney general would have nothing to lose by instituting litigation against New Times.
Woods had already taken a public relations hit, said Tseffos. Why not sue and recover damages?
"Woods can use the money," Tseffos told a rather astonished Bodney.
For Grant Woods, and noted First Amendment authority Steve Tseffos, the question of suing New Times was not a matter of libel, or law, or ethics, or morals. It was a matter of publicity, with wounded vanity and the chance for a fast buck driving the decision.
As Woods carved out new legal theory, New Times staffers continued to fill requests, mostly from lawyers, for souvenir photographs of the attorney general posing with the escaped convict.
While the fugitive felon has taken off for parts unknown, he could just as easily have been working at the paper mailing out photos of the attorney general. As reporter Pasztor pointed out, there was not a single call to New Times from the sheriff, the county attorney, the Phoenix police or the attorney general checking to see if we knew where the convict was. They were all too busy with serious law enforcement matters.
Tomorrow, for example, Attorney General Grant Woods is booked to be a disc jockey and play rock music on
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