In one of Charles Schulz's Peanuts strips, Lucy announces that she's going to be a political cartoonist "lashing out with my crayon." Just as Charlie Brown asks the subject of her work, she strikes the paper with such a bold stroke that it snaps her crayon in half. "I'm lashing out," she says, "at the people who make these stupid crayons."
I don't believe in the Lucy method of deciding first to "lash out" and then picking a convenient target. But as a person with definite opinions, she might have done well to stick with cartooning anyhow.
A wide range of work comes under the heading of editorial or political cartooning today, including gag cartoons on current topics. I enjoy many of these and usually put some fun into my work. But I still feel that the political cartoon should have a view to express, that it should have some purpose beyond the chuckle. So what I'm talking about here is the cartoon as an opinion medium.
The political cartoon is not a news story and not an oil portrait. It's essentially a means for poking fun, for puncturing pomposity.
Cartooning is an irreverent form of expression, and one particularly suited to scoffing at the high and the mighty. If the prime role of a free press is to serve as critic of government, cartooning is often the cutting edge of that criticism.
We seldom do cartoons about public officials that say: "Congratulations on keeping your hands out of the public till," or "It was awfully nice of you to tell the truth yesterday." Public officials are supposed to keep their hands out of the till and to tell the truth. With only one shot a day, cartoons are generally drawn about officials we feel are not serving the public interest. And we usually support the "good guys" by directing our efforts at their opponents.
For people who think political cartoons are inclined to be negative, a good explanation is in the story of the school teacher who asked the children in her class to give examples of their kindness to birds and animals. One boy told of how he had taken in a kitten on a cold night and fed it. A girl told of how she had found an injured bird and cared for it. When the teacher asked the next boy if he could give an example of his kindness to nature's creatures, he said, "Yes ma'am. One time I kicked a boy for kicking a dog."
In our line of work, we frequently show our love for our fellow men by kicking big boys who kick underdogs. In opposing corruption, suppression of rights and abuse of government office, the political cartoon has always served as a special prod -- a reminder to public servants that they ARE public servants.
That is the relationship of the cartoonist to government, and I think the job is best performed by judging officials on their public records and not on the basis of their cozy confidences.
As for the cartoonist's relationship to the rest of the newspaper, that depends on the individual cartoonist and the paper. The editorial page cartoon in the Washington Post is a signed expression of personal opinion. In this respect, it is like a column or other signed article -- as distinguished from the editorials, which express the policy of the newspaper itself.
Other newspapers operate differently. On some, the cartoon is drawn to accompany an editorial. The cartoonist may sit in on a daily conference, where the content of editorials and cartoons is worked out. Or he may be given copies of the editorials before publication.
A completely different arrangement is followed when the cartoonist simply sends in his work, sometimes from another city. Still other variations include cartoonists submitting sketches (one or several) for editorial approval.
I draw my cartoons at the Washington Post, but don't submit sketches or sit in on editorial conferences. And I don't see the editorials in advance. This is for much the same reason that I don't read "idea letters." I like to start from scratch, thinking about what to say, without having to "unthink" other ideas first. That's something like the old business of trying not to think of an elephant for five minutes. It's easier if nobody has mentioned an elephant at all.
In my case, the actual work process is more methodical than inspirational -- despite the apparent aimlessness of strolls out of the office, chats with friends, shuffling papers, lining up drawing materials and other diversions that may or may not have to do with creativity. It's methodical compared to the popular impression that "getting an idea" consists of waiting for a cartoon light bulb to flash on overhead.
The day's work begins with reading the newspapers, usually starting the night before with the first edition of the Washington Post, and making notes on possible subjects. I also flip on the radio or TV for late news developments. This practice began when I was just about to turn in a finished cartoon one day, only to learn that a major story had broken and kept the newsroom people too busy to tell me about it. The quick return to the drawing board to produce a new cartoon in minutes was an experience I wouldn't want to repeat. And with broadcast reports on the hour or even the half hour, I now occasionally pass along late-breaking news to others.
Unless there is one subject of overriding importance or timeliness on a particular day, or some special outrage, I generally try to narrow down the list of subjects to two or three. Next comes the business of thinking about what it is that needs to be said -- and then getting the comment into graphic form, which involves drawing several rough sketches.
It is hard to say just when a thought turns into a cartoon. In writing or speaking, we all use phrases that lend themselves to visual images. Where you might say that a politician is in trouble up to his neck, a drawing might show him as a plumber in a flooded basement or a boy at the dike with his chin just above the water line. On one occasion when a public figure obviously was not telling the truth, I did a sketch of him speaking, with a tongue that was shaped exactly like a table fork. These are pretty simple examples, but they may provide some clue to how concepts develop into drawings.
It may not sound very exciting or "cartoony," but to me the basic idea is the same as it ought to be with a written opinion -- to try to say the right thing. Putting the thought into a picture comes second. Caricature also figures in the cartoons. But the total cartoon is more important than just fun with faces and figures.
I mention this because it is a common conversational gambit to ask cartoonists if they're having a good time with some well-known face. And when media people are doing articles on a new political personality, they often phone cartoonists to ask what it is about the politician's features that grabs them. Some even ask which candidate you would like to see elected on the basis of "drawability." That's like asking a writer what person he wants elected on the basis of whether the candidate's name lends itself to puns.
I have not yet yielded to the temptation to answer such questions by saying I liked Ronald Reagan's right ear lobe or Jimmy Carter's left nostril. Actually, anyone can be caricatured. And if a cartoonist needed a public figure with Dumbo-the-Elephant ears or a Jimmy Durante nose, he'd have to be pretty hard up for ideas and drawing.
From time to time the question of cartoon fairness comes up -- with some practitioners asserting that they are not supposed to be fair. This is a view I don't share. Caricature itself is sometimes cited as being unfair because it plays on physical characteristics. But like any form of satire, caricature employs exaggeration -- clearly recognized as such. Also the portrayal of a person is often part of the opinion. For example, President George Bush was associated with words like "Read my lips" and "The vision thing." Emphasizing his overhanging upper lip and squinty eyes expressed a view identifying him with his words. I think fairness depends on the cartoon -- on whether the view is based on actual statements, actions or inactions.
Questions of fairness are not confined to pictures. Some broadcasters and columnists regularly earn championship belts for fighting straw men. (Those "liberals" want the government to take all your money and run your lives in Washington. Those "conservatives" want to see your kids starve to death.) Incidentally I would like to see a better word than "conservative" for some who are not eager to conserve basic rights or the environment.
A columnist who opposes political campaign funding reform -- based on his interpretation of the First Amendment -- wrote a piece in which he pointed out that we spend more on potato chips than on political campaigns. But if true, the purchase and consumption of potato chips, whatever they do to our diets, can hardly be compared to the purchase and corruption of public offices. I'd guess the columnist who reached for that statistical irrelevance probably regards cartoons for campaign funding reform as "gross caricatures."
But back to the drawing board and the sketches -- a series of "roughs" may approach a subject from different angles or may be variations on a theme. This is where other people come into the picture -- or, more accurately, where I bring the pictures to other people. By showing sketches to a few colleagues on the paper, I often find out which sketch expresses a thought most clearly. The purpose of these trial runs is not only to get individual reactions, but also to get out any bugs that might be in the cartoon ideas.
One of the advantages of working at the Washington Post is the access to information about government and assorted news items. Reporters, researchers and other staff members are available -- with special knowledge about subjects they have dealt with. They also know where to find answers to questions about who said what or exactly what happened when. And computers now make it possible to recall statements and records of all kinds.
A sketch on arms programs or military costs, for example, is one I'd particularly want to discuss with the Pentagon correspondent. A writer covering the courts can tell me if I've missed anything in a decision. Capitol Hill writers, familiar with the exact status of congressional bills, can tell if a sketch on a piece of legislation is well-timed. Staff members may also have information that helps me decide which cartoon is the best bet for that day. Such help -- not "ideas for cartoons," but background information and relevant facts -- is of enormous value.
I'm a deadline pusher, and one reason the finished cartoon is usually a last-gasp down-to-the-wire effort is because of the time spent on sketches. I work on them as long as possible. And after deciding on one, I send a Xerox copy of it to the editor's office.
Other cartoonists -- as well as other papers -- prefer different arrangements. One cartoonist told me he had tried for years to get the kind of freedom I have on the Post. When he finally got it, he found the decision-making to be a burden. He went back to asking an editor to make the daily choice.
I enjoy the freedom to express my own ideas in my own way. And this is also consistent with the Washington Post policy expressed by the late publisher, Eugene Meyer, who said he believed in getting people who knew what they were doing and then letting them do it.
One of the things that has made the Washington Post great is the fact that it does provide for differing views instead of offering a set of written and drawn opinions all bearing the stamp of a single person. Over the years, there have been differences between the cartoons and the editorials on issues, on emphasis and on performances of individual public figures.
In 1952, for example, the Washington Post endorsed Gen. Dwight Eisenhower for president before either major party had made nominations. The cartoons expressed my unhappiness with the campaign conducted by Eisenhower and his choice for vice president, Richard Nixon -- and expressed my clear preference for candidate Adlai Stevenson.
About 1965, with a different editor and a different publisher, the cartoons focused more and more on President Johnson's "credibility gap" and his escalation of the war in Vietnam, while the editorials generally supported the president and his Vietnam policy. Even on this extremely divisive issue, the editor and I respected each other's views.
Later, the cartoons and editorials diverged on other subjects. For example, in the 1970s I did a series of cartoons opposing the confirmation of Clement Haynsworth to the Supreme Court -- a view not shared in the editorials. But we were in agreement in opposing the next nominee -- G. Harold Carswell.
During the Clinton administration I did not share in the Post's approval of the expansion of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And the cartoons hardly matched the editorials on Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr -- which acknowledged that he had made mistakes in the probe of President Clinton's relationships but saw him as a victim of a vicious organized attack.
On important issues involving civil rights and civil liberties the editorials and cartoons have been in general agreement. There was no possible doubt about the stands they shared on the attempted censorship involved in the publication of the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam or the culmination of the Nixon scandals in Watergate. And they have both been involved in the long continuous battles for campaign finance reform and gun controls and tobacco industry curbs.
But even where the general viewpoints have been the same, there have been times when I knew a publisher or editor would have preferred my using a different approach. During the Watergate disclosures, I did a "naked Nixon." This might have seemed like lèse majesté to an editor but was au naturel for a cartoonist.
I've often summed up the role of the cartoonist as that of the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story who says the emperor has no clothes on. And that seemed to be just what was called for during this phase of the "imperial presidency."
What a written piece can do more easily than a cartoon is to comment on a subject that requires giving background information. Wordiness can be awkward in a cartoon -- though sometimes needed to explain an issue or provide dialogue. But a cartoon at times can say something that might be harder to put into words. The one of Nixon hanging between the tapes comments not only on his situation at the time, but on his veracity and honesty -- without using any words other than his own.
As for a comparison of words and pictures -- each has its role. Each is capable of saying something necessary or something irrelevant -- of reaching a right conclusion or a wrong one.
A cartoon does not tell everything about a subject. It's not supposed to. No written piece tells everything either. As far as words are concerned, there is no safety in numbers. The test of a written or drawn commentary is whether it gets at an essential truth.
As for subject matter, I don't believe there should be any sacred cows. But there's no obligation for the cartoonist to deal with a topic unless he feels there is a point that needs to be made. Regardless of Lucy's view, the object is not to "lash out" just because the means is at hand.
There is no shortage of subjects for opinions. I don't long for public misfortunes or official crooks to provide "material for cartoons." Hard as it may be for some people to believe -- I don't miss malefactors when they are gone from public life. There are more things amiss than amiss than you can shake a crayon at.
If the time should come when political figures and all the rest of us sprout angel wings, there will still be different views on the proper whiteness and fluffiness of the wings, as well as flaps over their flapping, speed and altitude. And there will still be something funny about a halo that's worn slightly askew.
When that happy heaven-on-earth day comes, I'd still like to be drawing cartoons. I wouldn't want to see any head angel throwing his weight around.
© 1977, 2000 Herbert Block