PAUL CONRAD: Drawing Fire


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The State of Political Cartooning


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A cartoon of Ronald Reagan sadly holding a hand up to his ear. Text reads: “Deaficit”.


A cartoon of Richard Nixon looking sinister and wearing a crown
Nixon as Richard II
Paul Conrad
Los Angeles Times (1973)


A cartoon of a snake severed into pieces representing the 13 U.S. colonies with the slogan Join, or Die
"Join, or Die"
Benjamin Franklin
Pennsylvania Gazette (1754)


A cartoon of a large hand with a thumb pressing into a houses labeled New York and New Jersey. The captions read: “Under the Thumb” and “The Boss—“Well, what are you going to do about it!”
"Under the Thumb"
Thomas Nast
Harper's Weekly (1871)


A cartoon of a man climbing a ladder while holding a bucket full of liquid up to the torch of the Statue of Liberty
"Fire!"
Herbert Block
Washington Post (1954)

America has a long history of political cartooning. But the job ain’t what it used to be. Chris Lamb, associate professor of communication at South Carolina’s College of Charleston and the author of Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons, was invited by Independent Lens to share his views on why he thinks this political art form with a literally illustrious past might have an endangered future.

An Opinion Piece by Chris Lamb

If President Richard M. Nixon had not already existed, editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad might have invented him. Nixon was not only easy to draw—with his sagging jowls, ski-jump nose, five o’clock shadow, hunched shoulders and fingers waggling in the air in a double V—but he also inspired such distrust and contempt that satire jumped off the editorial page and danced irreverently on cartoonists’ drawing boards.

Conrad, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist of the Los Angeles Times, satirized the life and times of the paranoid Nixon from his days as a Communist-hunting U.S. senator through his Watergate scandal-doomed presidency. In one drawing, Conrad drew Nixon, in the last days of his presidency, nailing himself to a cross. In another, a morose Nixon quotes Shakespeare’s King Richard II: “O that I were as great as my grief, or lesser than my name. Or that I could forget what I have been. Or not remember what I must be now.”

After Nixon’s resignation, Americans learned that he had kept lists of his enemies and directed the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and other government agencies to harass them. When Conrad learned that a Los Angeles Times editor was on one of the lists, he said he “offered to trade him two Pulitzers.” But Conrad’s name was on the next list. Conrad determined that was why the IRS had audited him for four years.

Them Damn Pictures!

By starkly uncovering the naked truths of our emperors, cartoonists have contributed to the political and social fabric of America since Benjamin Franklin urged colonists to unite in the drawing “Join, or Die.” Conrad and the best of his profession are among America’s greatest patriots, taking seriously the role of social critic in a democracy. They are as irreverent as the Boston Tea Party and as American as the U.S. Constitution.

During the 1870s, the corrupt New York City political boss William Tweed captured the simple potency of the editorial cartoon by saying: “I don’t care what they say about me. Most of my constituents can’t read. But them damn pictures!” Tweed was referring to the work of Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly, who once satirized Tweed’s control over New York City with the cartoon, “Under the Thumb,” which depicted the politician’s thumb pressing down on the city. In another cartoon, Nast drew the corpulent Tweed with a bag of money for a head.

In the 1930s Edmund Duffy of the Baltimore Sun was credited in part for Maryland toughening the state’s lynching law. After one Ku Klux Klan lynching, Duffy drew a black man dangling from a rope. The drawing includes only the title of the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland!” The Washington Post’s Herbert Block, or Herblock as he signed his cartoons, captured the anti-Communist hysteria of the Red Scare by creating the word “McCarthyism.” Later, after Herblock drew a stubbly-faced Nixon climbing out of a sewer, Nixon complained: “I have to erase the Herblock image.”

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Conrad, who is now in his 80s, retired from the Los Angeles Times in 1993 but continues to have his work syndicated. He continues to take on the high and mighty without fear or favor, revealing the naked truths behind the high-minded rhetoric. In one Conrad drawing, the “W” bumper sticker for President W. Bush stands for “War.”

Social critics have critics of their own. When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he would call the Los Angeles Times’ publisher so often to complain that the publisher quit taking the governor’s calls. At which point, Reagan’s wife, Nancy, began calling to complain.

Political Cartooning Today

The Los Angeles Times respected Conrad enough to do his job with as little editorial interference as possible. Behind every great editorial cartoonist lies an editor or a publisher who gives the cartoonist the freedom to draw his or her own conclusions. For Conrad, that was publisher Otis Chandler. H.L. Mencken, the venerable editor of the Baltimore Sun, recognized the value of editorial cartooning by saying: “Give me a good cartoonist and I can throw out half the editorial staff.”

During the 1960s, James Squires, the editor of the Chicago Tribune, had on his staff two Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonists, Jeff MacNelly and Dick Locher. Squires said that editorial cartoonists “represent the most incisive and effective form of commentary known to man and one as vital to the exercise of free speech and open debate as any words that have ever appeared on such pages…. To censor them would be a definite disservice to art, and probably a danger to democracy.”

But Squires is long gone from the Chicago Tribune and so, too, is the newspaper’s support for editorial cartooning. The newspaper has not had a staff cartoonist for several years.

In a healthy democracy, newspapers challenge the government; too often today, they simply publish government press releases.

As the newspaper industry has declined in both readership and influence, many newspapers have surrendered their responsibility to act as watchdogs of the public trust. Today, too many newspapers are unduly influenced by corporate interests. Pressured by corporate owners for higher profit margins, newspapers continue to cut budgets and staffs. In a healthy democracy, newspapers challenge the government; too often today, they simply publish government press releases.

The state of editorial cartooning is a direct result of the current economics of the newspaper industry and of editors who have little appreciation for satire. Too many editors want editorial cartoons to be objective, like news stories. But that’s not what editorial cartoons are supposed to do.

A century ago, newspaper editors, in an attempt to increase circulation and to create a sense of identity, hired cartoonists and put their work on page one. Today, as newspapers desperately search for readers and an identity, they are getting rid of cartoonists. Newspapers who say they can’t afford a staff editorial cartoonist have it wrong. They can’t afford not to have an editorial cartoonist.

Newspaper editors should be looking for ways to bring readers to newspapers. Editorial cartoons do that. But too many editors self-censor themselves from running cartoons that challenge politicians to live up to their obligations. And too many cartoonists fail to be provocative; they instead rely on banal gags and unoriginal ideas.

The Future of Political Cartooning

The future of cartooning is tied to the future of newspapers. If either is going to survive, they’ll need to successfully make the transition to new media. The Internet makes it possible to see dozens of editorial cartoons every day on sites such as PoliticalCartoons.com, EditorialCartoonists.com and CagleCartoons.com. The Internet gives newspapers the opportunity to embrace television’s traditional strengths of strong graphics and instantaneous news, but the Internet is still a loss leader for newspapers.

Editorial cartooning will continue to be an endangered species unless publishers and editors believe that they are worth saving. Joel Pett, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist of the Lexington Herald-Leader, said that publishers and editors can hire cartoonists without sacrificing the bottom line: “If they take seriously the journalistic side of their obligation, if they sign on to the quaint but true notion that journalism ought to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, there’s no better way to afflict the comfortable than with editorial cartoons.”

Chris Lamb is an associate professor of communication at South Carolina’s College of Charleston and the author of Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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