If one compares, in this time of national crisis, the years of the Bush presidency with those of the Nixon presidency, and if we make this comparison from the perspective of the political cartoon, one thing becomes apparent: the influence is missing.

It is only 30 years since the glory times of Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman and all the other stars of the supporting Watergate cast. There was drama, detective work, skullduggery, secret files, paranoia and (bless them both for humorous relief), Martha Mitchell and Al Haig. Cartoonists need villains and, in those happy times, there were villains galore. The political cartoon responded to this wonderful circumstance by producing satire of exceptional quality—as Bill Mauldin remarked soon after, “Even the bad cartoonists were drawing good cartoons.” It is no stretch to claim that the political cartoon had a distinct influence on the termination of the Nixon presidency. The Nixon years were, all things considered, bloody good fun.

Goodbye to all that. In retrospect it all seems like comic opera, for what we thought of as a national emergency in those days pales to an almost ghostly insignificance when compared with what we now face. The villains are all in place again, different villains, of course, but this time both foreign and homegrown, with the latter as scary and menacing as the former.

And where is the political cartoon when we need it? That once-potent galvanizer of opinion, the kick-starter of conversation and discussion, has been allowed to atrophy from disuse, and is, after several centuries of successful use as a castigator and common scold of the body politic, in great jeopardy of fading away altogether. How did it happen that such a confrontational art form (and that is what political cartooning is, when properly done) could be allowed to fall into disregard, disuse and ultimate dismissal?

There are manifold causes. Thirty years ago, the idea of a country full of one-newspaper towns was nothing more than a rumor; papers collapsed here and there, certainly, but these seemed to be isolated cases and were not cause for alarm. The idea of newspapers becoming corporate entities that existed to serve the stockholders rather than the public, while not an unheard-of possibility, was not seriously considered.

Demise of Cartoon Controversy

When the competition was removed and the once-proud and principled newspaper fell into the hands of greedy chains, or clueless cereal manufacturers and the like, bottom-line journalism was born. This heralded the beginning of the death of Controversy. Controversy, that life force behind the political cartoon, is of course completely anathema to those nursing the books: when you are making 20 to 30 percent on your investment annually, there’s no point in making waves.

Those whom we could refer to, with proper political correctness, as the graphically challenged, are firmly entrenched in newspapers now. A better term for them would be visual illiterates. Whatever, today they occupy the roles of editors and political cartoonists in too many papers. To see how little attention these worthies give these days to the actual structure of a cartoon, and the disregard they display for at least some semblance of accurate caricature and the fundamentals of design and drawing—the vital elements in this form of expression—one can simply turn to the weekend editorial pages of, for instance, The New York Times, and study the egregious collection of space-stuffers displayed there.

A cartoon graveyard, it illustrates how the true use and purpose of a political cartoon passes out of editorial memory in time and eventually disappears altogether, to be replaced by a frozen assemblage of sausage-fingered, big-nosed giggle panels that apparently pass for legitimate comment in the view of the editor who marshals this compilation of dreck. In my imagination, this person, a sandwich in one hand listlessly sifts through a pile of cartoons with the other, dripping mayonnaise and tossing aside anything that might give offense or distress, or threaten the world order with An Opinion. Parenthetically, this particular newspaper, long regarded by itself and others as “the
newspaper of record,” and that has for long ages avoided having a cartoonist of its own, sees nothing odd in turning loose a Maureen Dowd to delightfully lacerate the world with what can be accurately described as written political cartoons.

So one could say that The New York Times does, in fact, have a political cartoonist, but the dullards that be haven’t realized it yet.

So is this the future? Will political cartoons be replaced by invective crafted from words that, however brilliantly done, will always lack the extra thousand-word perspective a picture offers? Surely not. But I am a traditionalist who has always wanted to believe in newspapers, and believe still, despite the Internet and other diversions, that political cartoons belong in newspapers. But as long as newspapers themselves continue to lose influence (does anyone really care any more whom they endorse for President?) and through their loss of focus continue chasing after such illusions as youth readership, whatever that is, and continue to pander to the sinister influences of political correctness—another nail in Controversy’s cof-fin—or run a contentious cartoon one day and offer abject apologies for it the next, their influence and the influence of the political cartoon will commen-surately decrease, and we cartoonists and the ship we sail in will all slowly sink giggling into the sea.

Patrick Oliphant has caricatured eight U.S. presidents beginning with Lyndon Johnson. His cartoons have been distributed by Universal Press Syndicate since 1980. He won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1967 and has not entered his work since then.

                             © Patrick Oliphant.  Cartoons reproduced by permission.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment