Drawing on Politics
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Steve Kelley, is the year off to a good start for you?
STEVE KELLEY, San Diego Union Tribune: (San Diego) Oh, absolutely. I mean, it’s been terrific. We started the year out with scandals everywhere, and I think one of the first cartoons that I drew was of Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton taking a trip to the ethics principal’s office, and Gingrich has just come out holding his little behind, the principal’s holding a ruler, and Clinton is going in, is passing him on the way into the office, saying, “I feel your pain.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Steve, why is one coming in while the other goes out? Is there any significance in that?
STEVE KELLEY: Well, just that Newt Gingrich has sort of been to the woodshed now and taken his lumps, and Clinton is on the way in. Gingrich, of course, was–had to pay a $300,000 penalty. A lot of people say, well, that’s not enough, but, you know, for that kind of dough you could get a night in the Lincoln Bedroom.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ann, how did you deal with the ethics issue?
ANN TELNAES, North America Syndicate: Well, I think like most Americans I have pretty much had it with everything because things are happening so quickly. I mean, we had what Steve just described, and we had an inaugural in there somewhere, we also had the Paula Jones case, and we had all the Republicans, you know, gathering forces around Gingrich, and, of course, we ended with Gingrich basically blaming everyone, you know, liberals, the media, lawyers, everyone, except of course the guy that actually had the $300,000 fine. So I just got sick of everything, and I just put ‘em all into an elevator and labeled it “ethics,” and had the elevator operator saying, you know, “Is everybody going down?”.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And it’s full of elephants and donkeys.
ANN TELNAES: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How about you, Michael? How did you deal with all of this?
MICHAEL RAMIREZ, Memphis Commercial Appeal: I’ll tell you, if this first month is any indication of the year for editorial cartoonists, it’s going to be a bumper crop year for cartoons. We’ve had continuing scandals going on. We’ve got the campaign finance–
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me just interrupt one minute. Are scandals just your favorite thing to be dealing with?
MICHAEL RAMIREZ: Oh, yes. I mean, it’s unfortunate for the American public but for editorial cartoons, it’s like opening up birthday presents every day. We’ve had this computer database scandal that’s going on right now. I dealt with campaign financing in the cartoon that I’ve done, and it kind of deals with the idea that our politicians seem to be selling their souls so that they can finance these huge, enormously expensive campaigns. I think Ann had a good point. I think the American people, they’re tired. They’re tired of the politicians not living up to the standard, and, of course, as editorial cartoonists we’ll gleefully engage the politicians in behalf of the citizens.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, you actually made them hookers in a family newspaper.
MICHAEL RAMIREZ: Well, you know, I kind of took the little term of “selling out,” so to speak, and the emphasis on the hookers is really to show that the margin of morality and ethics has really dropped in Washington, D.C.. And I think this cartoon kind of reflects that with the characters that are represented, and also that both sides are really responsible for kind of bad things that are going on. There isn’t just one side or the other. They have kind of equal blame. And, you know, hopefully, it’s not going to continue. And maybe if they see some cartoons, it won’t, but it’ll get me to my golf tee times earlier if it does, so that’s good.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doug, did you also see that both sides were equally sinning here?
DOUG MARLETTE, Newsday: (Chapel Hill, N.C.) Oh, yeah. You know, when you’re drawing hookers in January, you know it’s going to be a great year for cartoonists. That’s my standard. I tried to not do that until September or October. So we’re really–we’re really rolling, but, no, there’s a basic rule that bad times for the republic are good times for cartoons. We look at national crisis trauma and humiliation as the way that the plastic surgeon looks at cellulite and crow’s feet. You know, it’s unfortunate; it’s too bad; but it’s a living.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So tell us about your cartoon. You’ve got ‘em as two peas in a pod.
DOUG MARLETTE: Yeah. I’ve been struck from the earliest days of how similar Gingrich and Clinton are. You know, they’re both Republicans, and they–but, no, I think of Newt Gingrich as Bill Clinton’s evil twin. And I’ve always wanted to draw them as two peas in a pod. And then when I–when they’ve both been suffering black eyes in the image department, so being able to draw black-eyed peas in a pod was kind of a dream for me as a southerner.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you also got to deal with them separately. You have a cartoon about Newt Gingrich that’s pretty interesting.
DOUG MARLETTE: Oh, yes. This is Gingrich looking in a mirror and saying, “Newt means never having to mean you’re sorry. I’ve always been struck–one of the similarities between Clinton and Gingrich. And this seems to be a trait of the boomer generation, of that kind of narcissism, of adolescent not taking responsibility and always shifting the blame and turning it over to the spin doctors. There’s not that element of contrition, or of–you know–there’s an owning up, but it’s like giving an image of owning up and then sliding off. And I remember doing that when I was a teenager, but, you know, I had an excuse. I was a teenager.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you also dealt with it separately?
ANN TELNAES: Yes. Now we have the little coffee get-togethers in the White House. First we started with the Lincoln Bedroom, as everybody mentioned, and now, of course, we’re selling time, access to the White House. And the–the President just recently had a press conference where he said, oh, you know, that that’s not what it’s really all about. You know, it’s basically just so I can listen to them. Well, you know, it doesn’t look that good, and I just thought I’d stick ‘em in a little coffee shop there and have a nice big tip jar on the side, and have ‘em asking the little business people there if they’d like some cinnamon on their coffee.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The tip jar is the really significant element in this, isn’t it?
ANN TELNAES: Yeah. I mean, you know, when you go in and get a cup of coffee, you, you know, you don’t have to tip but it’s sitting right there, and it’s kind of like going into the White House. You know, I’m sure that they feel compelled that they should, you know, do a donation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael you said that it was–you’ve made–I can’t remember exactly your words, but you said, this is more than usual, the scandal, and that sort of thing, is that right?
MICHAEL RAMIREZ: I think so, and I think part of it is there is a heightened sense of partisanship politics that’s going on that’s fueling this. For instance, with Newt’s trials and tribulations, I think most often in Congress that kind of stuff may go on but it’s not brought to the prominence that it was in his case. $300,000 is a lot of money. And with this administration for some reason it seems like it’s one problem after another. It’s sort of one misleading statement after another, and then it is piling up. So I think, you know, this year–for instance, yesterday I did a cartoon where I had Bill Clinton in the Lincoln Bedroom with a Thai businessman, and he’s got a tank top on, and the–Bill Clinton is going, “Well, would you believe that it’s part of the White House tour?”. I mean, these kind of scandals really set themselves up for cartooning, and it just seems that because there’s this partisanship that’s fueling these kind of really close, a close look at what each candidate is going, what each politician is doing, that they’re finding more and more things. And I hope the frequency of it doesn’t disrupt the agenda that hopefully Congress will put through.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Steve, do you agree that it’s different than it has been? And this is just some general conversation here.
STEVE KELLEY: Oh, absolutely. And it’s getting to the point where you wonder if the people’s business is really getting done; that the only people in Congress who really are earning their pay are the ones on the Ethics Committee because they’re the ones who are working.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But your glee, all of your glee at having this material to work with, do you just have material every day, or is this just richer than usual? I mean, last year and the year before and the year before, was there this kind of material?
STEVE KELLEY: Well, in the history of my career the best–the best year we ever had was when all of the televangelists went down, because they were–that was the height of hypocrisy for people who were thumping the bible to be out, you know, consorting with, with hookers–Jimmy Swaggart and the Jim Bakkers. But this is getting very close. I mean, it’s a new scandal every day just about. They don’t even get done with one before there’s another one brewing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Doug, it’s really hypocrisy in some ways that you all are getting at the most.
DOUG MARLETTE: Yeah. And it’s kind of, you know, it’s finally 10 years later. Now it’s a kind of yuppie revivalism that Clinton and Gingrich represent, but you still get the same hypocrisy. It’s always–we’re always looking for, you know, cartoons are never short on fodder, but whenever things get vivid and extreme like this and when there’s a lot of indictments flowing, we get good material.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Now we’re going to look at other subjects. We’re going to move beyond the scandals in Washington. What other subjects that we all took pretty seriously did you not, Michael?
MICHAEL RAMIREZ: Well, I think I tackled the issue of Ebonics is the next cartoon that’s coming up, and that in itself I thought was kind of humorous because just the dialogue that was engaged in it, something that I don’t think was that serious. I think the Oakland school board probably was after one, money, and two, probably trying to cover up the lack of having a high standard in education in that area. And it just was a great subject for cartooning, and the way I did it was I had the rural Appalachia and the guy sitting on the porch. And he’s going, “Hot dog, Ma. We’s bilingual.” And, you know, Ebonics is something that sort of lends itself to cartooning. It’s not a language. I haven’t seen any Ebonics dictionary to speak of yet. And so, therefore, it’s kind of the irony of what goes on in daily life, of how things are brought up to a heightened level of credibility that don’t deserve. And I think Ebonics is one of those things that did it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Steve Kelley, another issue you took on was Paula Jones.
STEVE KELLEY: Yes. I was actually reading one of our editorials, and the phrase was used by the editorial writer that Clinton was hoping that Paula Jones would drop her suit, and, you know, I suppose most people just read that and when right on finishing the editorial. For me, it was like, bingo, you know, that’s the cartoon, so I drew Clinton at a press conference saying that he’d like to see Paula Jones drop her suit. And then he catches himself, and the next panelist says, I’ll rephrase that. You know, again, this is the very best kind of scandal for a political cartoonist because it’s something that everyone can understand, and there’s immediate interest in it just because it’s a sex scandal.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, I have a question about this and other ongoing trials. Is there ever something you don’t do a cartoon on, Steve, that you have any rules about, no, I won’t cover this kind of thing?
STEVE KELLEY: No.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Does anybody? Michael, you do, don’t you?
MICHAEL RAMIREZ: Well, yeah. I think there’s a certain level of good taste that you can’t go beyond. I mean, there’s cartoons that–we’re essentially, we’re inherently evil people, political cartoonists–and although we just mirror events, and we’re not the actual participants in the events, there’s a certain level good taste that you don’t want to go past. And so–and you don’t want to do a cartoon that’s going to take away from the focus of the cartoon, something that you may do that may be so outrageous that people point to that element within the cartoon and miss the point entirely. So I think there–we have a high threshold for, for the obnoxious element in the cartoon, but you don’t want to cross that border of good taste.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ann, do you have any sort of self-imposed rules?
ANN TELNAES: I haven’t found one yet.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How about you, Doug, do you have any?
DOUG MARLETTE: No. I’ve just been fascinated to listen to the discussion. I have–you know, we do have lines–but I just can’t find them–that we won’t cross. I can’t–
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have yet to find a line you won’t cross?
DOUG MARLETTE: I have yet to find them. No, I think the best cartoons come from those that are grazing the North 40 and pushing the envelope, and whenever you start thinking like good taste, you’re thinking like an editor and the cartoons are going to get boring.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doug, you’ve got–for another issue you’ve got a cartoon about Al Gore. Tell us about that one.
DOUG MARLETTE: Yes. With him sitting in Clinton’s seat and saying, “Chill Al.” I mean, that was what was interesting to me after the inauguration was Al Gore kind of waiting in the wings, hovering around, you know, the outside, how he’s going to position himself, and his–you know, already the commentators are talking about the Gore run. So just drawing that–showing that and the idea of Al Gore chilling seems redundant to me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Ann, you’ve been covering–you said at the end of last year you wanted to cover some foreign policy, and you have.
ANN TELNAES: Yeah. On China. A lot of things have been happening with China. It’s actually more of a serious subject, and we have all been sitting here laughing. They–recently a Chinese panel has been talking about revoking civil liberties in Hong Kong, as well as perhaps curtailing some demonstrations, and they’ve also been pressuring the journalism people to cut back a little bit on what they’ve been reporting on. So I just–I just see it as China, you know, really kind of tightening the screws, and basically the world is standing there, and, you know, holding their breath and waiting to see what will happen. And we’re getting very close now to the handover of Hong King to China. So, you know, it will be very interesting to see.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is foreign policy harder to cover for political cartoonists here, do you think?
MICHAEL RAMIREZ: In some ways, in some respects it is because we’re not actually there participating in it, so we don’t have the exposure that they have, but, you know, we’re in a modern world with modern means of communication. You can find out what’s going on. The question is whether the American public is going to have an interest in what’s going on in foreign policy. Things like China, the Soviet Union–countries that have direct effects on domestic, what’s happening here in the United States, but then again you want to cover injustices no matter where they lie, whether they be here or abroad. So in some sense we’re kind of equal opportunity offenders. We will get anybody who’s doing anything wrong beyond our borders, but it has to be something that at least my readership is able to understand.
DOUG MARLETTE: That’s the challenge.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Very briefly because we have to go, Doug.
DOUG MARLETTE: Figuring out how to bring it home and make it personal, make it like it happened in your own backyard.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Well, thanks to all of you. I hope we’ll see you again soon.