Editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, just two years after leaving his native Australia. "Today he is recognized as one of America's foremost political cartoonists and among the most gifted practitioners of this genre," wrote Dr. Billington in his preface to Oliphant's Anthem: Pat Oliphant at the Library of Congress, a catalog for the Library exhibition of the same name. The exhibition commemorates the recent acquisition of 60 original cartoons and sketchbooks spanning the artist's American career and 30 years of world history. The Caroline and Erwin Swann National Fund for Caricature and Cartoon supported the exhibition. View the exhibition online.
Following is an excerpt from an interview published in the catalog, which was conducted by Harry Katz, curator of applied and graphic art in the Prints and Photographs Division. Over the course of two days, Oct. 20 and 21, 1997, Mr. Oliphant discussed his career, attitudes and art with Mr. Katz.
Harry Katz: Pat, let's start talking about some of your early influences. Where did you grow up?
Pat Oliphant: I grew up in a city called Adelaide in Australia, a city of about half a million, I suppose. Born in 1935. Went to work at a newspaper when I got out of high school and started with total immersion on what I was supposed to do with my life, which I had no idea about, actually, because I didn't have any direction. I knew I could draw, I knew what I was interested in, but I didn't know what I was gonna do with it.
So I went to work as a copyboy for Rupert Murdoch's first newspaper, The Adelaide News, at a mere pittance, in 1953, late 1952. And then I moved across town after about three months to a newspaper called The Adelaide Advertiser, which was the competition, and copy-boyed there for a while -- we called it copyboy then, not editorial facilitating assistant or whatever it's called now. I was intending to become a journalist. I don't know why, but I liked to write and I liked to draw. I couldn't see how you could make a living drawing, actually, so I was gonna be a journalist.
I decided there were too many journalists and so I went to work in the art department of that newspaper; I think they must have despaired of me actually becoming a journalist and from there I "sprang-boarded," if that's the word, into the cartoonist slot when our then cartoonist left to join the News. So I happened to be in the right spot at the right time.
Mr. Katz: Did your father teach you perspective, or did it just come naturally?
Mr. Oliphant: I don't know if you come to the world with a full-blown ability to observe things, or whether you learn to observe things, or whether it's just curiosity, or circumstances. But it was necessary in my training, anyway, to grow up the way I did. My father could draw a bit, so he would draw things and I'd copy them, and then, too, I was copying things out of books. He also had an interest in politics and political cartooning, so he in his own way guided me toward Australian cartoonists. There has always been quite a strong black and white art tradition in Australia, with quite a large contingent of cartoonists, given the size of the population. Some of the best have come from there.
Mr. Katz: Pat, when did you first become politicized? Were there political discussions in the family?
Mr. Oliphant: No. There were never any political discussions. My father believed that you never discussed sex, politics or money with anybody, and that meant anybody, so that didn't help. I had my own thoughts about things. Of course he always voted Labour all his life. There were two parties in Australia. The Liberal Party is actually the conservatives -- everything's upside down in Australia -- and the Labour Party was sort of the lefties, and he always voted that way. And I guess that's where I got my liberal attitude, you might say -- liberal as we understand it here, not there. And I've always tried to adhere to that although it's getting harder and harder as I get older. I've always looked upon politics as a very boring thing. Politics itself, the nuts and bolts of politics, never interested me as much as the people involved in it.
Mr. Katz: When you went into journalism, was there any sort of a seeking after truth or a desire to uncover deception or dishonesty? Was there any impulse in that way?
Mr. Oliphant: I suppose so. We're all idealistic when young. Those were the days when journalism was looked upon as a more noble thing than it is now. I don't know if it carries the same cachet that it did then. It was looked upon as a profession which you could be reasonably proud of. And I could see it maybe as a way I could combine what I could do, which was an interest in writing with an ability to draw.
Mr. Katz: Were there local people during your apprenticeship or early years on the newspaper who served you as a model of how to be an editorial cartoonist?
Mr. Oliphant: I was like a sponge soaking up everything, good and bad. And then you've gotta sift it out, put it through a filter and see what comes out that can be yours. You take what you need from all of these influences. There was a very good cartoonist who worked for the Adelaide News, named Norm Mitchell. He had a very dynamic way of drawing. When I look back on it now, his ideas were middling, I suppose, but the drawing was very dynamic. It looked as if he had just dipped the brush in an ink bottle and slung it on the paper, and there was a drawing. And it's wonderful if you can convey an air of spontaneity to the drawing itself because it only strengthens what you have to say. That's why I like to wed the two things. The drawing and the idea should fit and one should help the other. The drawing mostly should help the idea. I despaired for many years of being able to crack this and get it right.
Mr. Katz: Let's move on ... You're looking for a new situation. Were you looking in Australia or England?
Mr. Oliphant: No, everybody went to England. ... No, I wanted to come here. I could see all sorts of possibilities in this country. And, to my mind, everything was happening in the '60s here, and naturally I wanted to be where it was happening. All of the civil rights upheavals were going on. And in Australia nothing was happening.
Mr. Katz: Did your Australian background give you an outsider's advantage?
Mr. Oliphant: I think an outsider's point of view is always handy. But I've been here 33 years now and I have to be careful to maintain an outsider's point of view. I'm a citizen. I like living here. I feel like part of the country. It wasn't a big culture shock to come here because of all the reading and TV material we were exposed to in Australia. Most of the magazines -- Time, Life, Newsweek, Look, etc. -- everything originated in this country. Even if you go to Australia today it's very much like visiting a state you haven't been to.
Mr. Katz: Well, you were at the Denver Post for, what, eleven or twelve years?
Mr. Oliphant: Eleven years, and then I got a call one afternoon from Jim Bellows, who had just been appointed editor of the Washington [Evening] Star, which had just recently been bought by Joe L. Albritton. And so he made me an offer I couldn't refuse, and I joined the Washington Star and looked out the window there on the first morning, and had much the same feeling I had had on that first morning at the Denver Post all those years before. What in the hell am I doing here? The Star was down in Southeast D.C., amongst the projects, and next to a freeway, and didn't have much to do with the Washington I had in mind at all. It was in a hulking cinder block building which I was told had won an award of some kind some time in the '60s. It was one of those buildings they sold by the yard. How many floors of this one would you like? It was mostly lit by fluorescent light and the inside walls were tiled half way up, so that the effect was of an enormous public toilet. We had to be escorted to and from our cars every day, and it was -- it was not what you'd call a prime move, as far as I was concerned. Except that I was doing something different. I was working with the underdog, which was the Washington Star against the Post, which every chance it got would refer to us as the "financiallytroubledStar." One word. And we struggled on with that for six years, until 1981, when Time Inc. bought the place, and they, having no idea how to run a newspaper, folded it in '81, and I've been in Washington ever since, trying to get out!
Mr. Katz: What about your experience with the editor there at the Star?
Mr. Oliphant: Oh, it was just completely open, so open I had no problem at all. We got along well, became friends, and we were working to stir things up. Trying to stir up the animals, as he called it, and ...
Mr. Katz: Well, you were pretty much in agreement. ...
Mr. Oliphant: Yeah. He just wanted to stir things up. He really wanted to get a momentum going, and get attention to the newspaper to show that, after all these years as a conservative newspaper, it would now be a feisty contender. And he brought in all sorts of good names as writers in residence. He brought in Lawrence King, he brought in Willie Morris, Jimmy Breslin, George Higgins, and a lot of other people of that caliber. And so it was immense fun to be in such a situation for that length of time. We had a lot of excellent people putting out an excellent newspaper. But it just didn't have the local support. Newspapers were starting to go under. Afternoon newspapers were starting to fold up and die, because there was just not the readership and advertising support for them.
Mr. Katz: When the Washington Star folded, did you try to go to another newspaper, or did you decide deliberately to go on your own?
Mr. Oliphant: I thought about it, and then I thought, here's a chance. I had always wanted to be independent. ... So I've been on my own for sixteen years now. And I don't know if I could work for anybody anymore.
Mr. Katz: You say you can live anywhere, but you do live in Washington. You do live close to where all the politicians live.
Mr. Oliphant: Well, I joined the Washington Star in 1975, and it went belly up in '81, and I've been here ever since. I'm shipwrecked. I've been trying to get off this island for a long time. But at least it's close to New York.
Mr. Katz: After the Star went under you stayed with the syndicate, declining to join a newspaper. Do you miss working for a particular newspaper?
Mr. Oliphant: I think there's a downside to it. This independence is good and great and lovely. And with today's technology, I can work anywhere. There are two things on the down side. One is that you're running your own business, buying your own materials, your own health insurance, there are no sweetheart deals. The other one is the lack of a daily reaction. It may get a bit better because, in syndication, we're now sending the cartoons out electronically. I scan them from my desk, and they go straight to my syndicate, and my syndicate scans them again and sends them out to the newspapers. And so they're used the next day in a lot of newspapers now. So it could be said that I've got lots of daily newspapers. If it were not for the fact that editors have become so timorous in these politically correct times, I would probably have a greater readership than I have. I expect we all would. But what we have in this country now is more and more one-newspaper towns. One-newspaper towns are not good because all the surviving newspaper does is print money. It's not printing newspapers at all, it's not serving the public. They make 25 percent on their money every year, and if they go down to 22 percent, then they start laying people off. So this is the sort of background we're drawing against.
Mr. Katz: Now it seems as if special interest groups wield a great deal of power.
Mr. Oliphant: That's right. I chafe about it all the time, because this is why I'm getting edited out. My audience isn't as big as it could be because of these timorous editors and the greedy publishers, and the flabby state of newspapers in general. And I wonder about the future of the business if this keeps up, and, ultimately, what is the point of it? Maybe we've seen our best days.
Mr. Katz: Do you sometimes regret that maybe a point of your message may be lost because somebody is going to respond negatively to what they see?
Mr. Oliphant: You have to be careful of that. But you have to stick with it. I mean, Herblock really earned his stripes back in the '50s, in the McCarthy era. He stuck to what he believed, right through that thing. He was more than instrumental in bringing down McCarthy. I mean, he really had a big part in it. And he's the only cartoonist I know who's had a whole newspaper built around him, because of that. There were dragons to slay in those days. And there hasn't been anything like that since, except for Nixon. Nixon was a good dragon.
Mr. Katz: You really miss the atmosphere of the '60s and '70s, don't you?
Mr. Oliphant: Newspaper cartoons still had some strength as forums for ideas then. I think it was the last period when we could just rely on the medium to carry it. I think most of the editorial boards were behind us at that time, against the war. That quickening feeling of everything being united for this common cause, get rid of this damn war, nobody wants it. And that was a uniting feeling. On the other hand, I think we were fairly competitive about who could do the best job of getting the message across. But the '60s and '70s sort of cheapened the language somewhere. It used to be fun to cuss, swearing was fun. Still is a handy emphasis, but somewhere along the way, the kids, the hippie generation, to be more precise, devalued the currency. Now it seems you can use any word you want publicly, it will appear anywhere you look -- T-shirts to bumper stickers. The powers of subtlety have been weakened by the fact that you can say anything. Condom cartoons, for instance, would never have been done in those days. This does not, of course, mean that one must stand rooted in the past. But so much of what was provocative has been cheapened, taken away or deadened by overuse. The currency has been devalued. So that's another weakening of this business.
Mr. Katz: So we've discussed a little bit the tough shape that the profession is in, with dwindling newspapers, dwindling markets, political correctness, all the things that really make it difficult for editorial cartoonists these days. What keeps you motivated and keeps you coming back?
Mr. Oliphant: Oh, I think it's a compulsion. After 40 years of doing it, I love to do it. I think I know how to do it now.
Mr. Katz: What is consistent? What's going to be the same in an Oliphant cartoon from day to day?
Mr. Oliphant: A general feeling of fair play, I hope. A feeling of distrust for lawyers, politicians, and the running dogs of that ilk. Just the dislike of banality and greed, and those people who are in a position to do good and instead do the opposite.
Mr. Katz: When did you decide to take another look at your working practices?
Mr. Oliphant: Around 1980 I experienced a renaissance of sorts. I looked at my drawing and I wasn't pleased with it. I didn't like the way it was going, I didn't like this paper, I thought I should be getting more into my drawing than I'm getting, acknowledging that when you cartoon it's easy to get into bad habits. Then you tend to start drawing by code and you'll just get sloppy unless you review what you're doing every so often and go back over a year's work and say, well, this was better than that, I should have kept this, I should throw that out, how can I improve this, and so forth. So I went through one of those periods of reassessment.
Mr. Katz: During the '60s and '70s, you were just moving ahead?
Mr. Oliphant: Moving ahead, headlong, and not paying too much attention, or enough attention, to what we are talking about. I find that drawing is an ongoing study. If you're an artist, it's a thing you devote yourself to for the rest of your life and you're always learning something, always changing. Or you should be always changing. I find that I'll work in a certain manner for a while and then I'll reassess myself and then go start something else. So that's the fun of it, really. There are voyages of self-discovery to find out what you can do and what you've forgotten to do, and surprising yourself all the time with different things.
Mr. Katz: Were there any reassessments earlier in your career?
Mr. Oliphant: I think so, yeah. But I think that, up until that time in the '80s, I was not paying enough attention to the other things I could have been doing, or should have been doing.
Mr. Katz: Artistically?
Mr. Oliphant: Artistically, being painting, for one thing, and drawing from life, something which is tremendously important, I think.
Mr. Katz: These are things that you had done in your youth but you had let go for a couple of decades?
Mr. Oliphant: Yeah, for a long time. And, you know, I thought it was about time to stage a renaissance here and see what I had been reflecting and what should I be getting out of it. So, later into the '80s, around '84, '85, I was asked to address a class at the Corcoran School [in Washington] by a teacher who is a friend of mine, Bill Christenberry, and I liked the feeling of things. It reminded me so strongly of what I hadn't been doing that I enrolled with Bill's group there, drawing from the model, and worked at it twice weekly for two or three years. It was a wonderful thing to do, to go back to drawing from the actual human form.
Mr. Katz: So you were drawing from a model in those classes?
Mr. Oliphant: Yeah, a model. And, of course, there's nothing wrong with going a couple of times a week to look at a naked lady. Christenberry still laughs about this: I would get to the door and, if it was a male model, I'd go home. I told him if I wanted to draw a naked man I could look in the mirror! He still tells that story, and, believe me, it loses nothing in the telling!
Mr. Katz: Well, do you see yourself as an artist or as a cartoonist?
Mr. Oliphant: I try to see myself as an artist who happens to do cartoons. I want to bring that element to it.
Mr. Katz: It seems like you've really developed a broad range of styles over the past fifteen years.
Mr. Oliphant: It's a vocabulary. So many cartoonists draw the same year after year. When they find a style, they stick with it. They don't mess with success and try innovation, don't take a risk, and they become boring. So I like to do just exactly that, try and get different effects and use different styles to suit the drawing itself. The more you can vary your vocabulary, the better.
Mr. Katz: So what makes a great cartoon? What are the characteristics that make you say, "This is a great drawing."
Mr. Oliphant: Just a feeling of satisfaction with it, knowing you've done the best you can, you can't think of anything you'd change. That doesn't happen very often. You can see it immediately when it happens. These are all done with a fair amount of speed. I'm looking for the magic combination of the message and the drawing just melding perfectly. And maybe once every few years that happens to my satisfaction. I can always see what I've done wrong. I'm always learning. I'm the perennial student. And I don't think there's more than half-a-dozen cartoons that I've been really truly happy with in all the time I've been doing it. Some days you feel like this is really going well. You can tell. Other days, you're just drawing like a farmer and you don't know why. So it's a day-to-day thing, and you never know how it's going to turn out because you've got to do it on deadline. You can't do it on a whim. I can't take a day off. I have to get it done.
Mr. Katz: Is it important for the Library of Congress to be collecting this material? What does it mean to you to see your work included in the collections?
Mr. Oliphant: Now, you talk about awards, this is the award I like. And you were asking what would be a good alternative to Pulitzers and the like. The greatest award is to be part of a great collection such as this at the Library of Congress. I mean, this is the center of things. And to be in these collections is, to me, every award I could possibly want.
Mr. Katz: These collections, as you know, are quite comprehensive, and have a lot of the great masters from past times. For me, one of the things that I get out of this job is the idea of developing these collections of political, and often controversial, art in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. The Library functions as both the national library and a symbol of democracy. There are a lot of countries where political cartoonists don't enjoy the freedom of expression you do, would never have access to a public institution like this one, and certainly their work would never be shown on its walls.
Mr. Oliphant: Those are the reasons I'm so happy to be here. The fact that there is a Constitution, and we're protected under that Constitution in exercising the right of free speech. It's a wonderful thing. You've got to come from somewhere else to realize how valuable it is.
Mr. Katz: I chose the title for the exhibition when I saw your oil painting Anthem. It's a very positive image of everybody working or singing together, different voices but the same voice. You've got thousands of drawings and 30 years of American history, Reagan and Clinton, all these Americans and all these themes played out in your work -- and you're the conductor. It seems that there's at once an embrace of American culture and society and, at the same time, you're maintaining your own critical sense and perspective. Can you talk about that?
Mr. Oliphant: You make the painting sound like an old Soviet poster exhorting the Omsk Farmers Collective to produce more. It's an affectionate thing. To feel part of the country, to give back to the country for being so welcomed and accepted, for America being able to realize what I was trying to do with my early work. I didn't realize it at the time because I was just drawing cartoons. I thought, looking back, "This is a bit cheeky, coming into a new country and criticizing it." But people didn't mind. It gave them a fresh look at things, and I don't know if there's another country in the world where you'd find that. People in those other countries would be up in arms and want to throw you back to where you came from.
Mr. Katz: There are a lot of people who would say that your body of work is overwhelmingly negative.
Mr. Oliphant: And a lot of good people would call me cantankerous!
Mr. Katz: I can't imagine whom! But, to my mind, and I think this is part of the nature of your profession -- at least for some of the best people in your profession -- you're getting up every day, yes, you do produce negative commentary on issues but, in essence, you're feeling very positive that you can make a difference, that you can educate people, that you can, in a positive way, point out when we might be going down the wrong road.
Mr. Oliphant: You say this very well. I mean, you're saying everything that I think about in the dead of night. Just say it that way. It's hard for an artist to just come out and say these things. It's a nice thing to say and I agree with it wholeheartedly. And I'm glad you picked up on that painting, because, you know, I just started painting their faces, letting the paint lead me, and then I had a canvas full of open-mouthed faces who seemed to be singing. For some reason, I put the flag in afterwards, removing some faces to do so, because I thought it needed some other element. And then, when that was done, I wrote "Anthem" across the bottom. It was one of those paintings that grows, as a painting should, until it's finished. Maybe it's finished.