By YVONNE FRENCH
Editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad made the audience laugh at presidents, politics and himself as he brought his bold humor to the Library on Sept. 8 for a "Books & Beyond" program.
The program marked the official acceptance by the Library of a gift of 21 original editorial cartoons from Mr. Conrad. In 1994 Mr. Conrad had donated to the Library 52 drawings dating from 1969 to 1993 and covering such topics as the Vietnam War, the presidency and foreign relations.
Harry Katz, curator of applied and graphic art in the Prints and Photographs Division, displayed the 21 newly donated drawings in the Mumford Room, where the lecture was held. Said Mr. Katz: "We collect what we feel are the best graphic artists of the current generation and past generations."
The Books and Beyond lecture series, sponsored by the Center for the Book, features authors of recent books that have a connection to the Library's collections or programs. Mr. Conrad's new book, Drawing the Line (Los Angeles Times, 1999), presents 200 black-and-white drawings ranging from the 1960s to President Clinton's administration.
The lecture was cosponsored by the Swann Foundation for Caricature and Cartoon.
Mr. Conrad, a tall Midwesterner with long hair swept straight back from his forehead, displayed a trait that he said he often wished for in his subjects: the ability to laugh at oneself.
In a slide show following his talk, he showed responses mailed by his readers to the Los Angeles Times. Many were scrawled over his cartoons, and some included artwork. Some were complimentary. Some were not appropriate for reprinting in this publication. However, one written on a Los Angeles Times bill said, "Please deduct the portion that goes to Conrad." Another, written on a veterinarian's reminder postcard, said, "Our records show that it is time for Conrad to receive the immunization listed below: rabies." One handwritten note that blasted Conrad and was signed "no name -- I'm a friend of your wife's."
Mr. Conrad called these missives "hilarious." He poked fun at the foibles of presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton, begging, in a rare self-portrait on Nov. 7, 1984, for four more years for Ronald Reagan, whom he had also lambasted as governor of California, so much so that Mr. and Mrs. Reagan regularly called the Times to complain, according to an introductory account in Conartist: 30 Years with the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times, 1993).
One of Mr. Conrad's personal favorites was a cartoon of Nixon nailing himself to the cross. Mr. Conrad said he was proud to be added in 1973 to Nixon's enemies list. Former Los Angeles Times editor and executive vice president Shelby Coffey III wrote in the introduction to Conartist that Mr. Conrad had "afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted" since he was hired in 1964.
Mr. Conrad said the worst times for him as an editorial cartoonist were during the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. "I'll never forget those guys. I often wonder what the country would have been like if those men had not been erased from the American political scene."
Mr. Conrad was at the Denver Post for 14 years, until he won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1964. He then headed for the Los Angeles Times, where he was chief editorial cartoonist until 1993. He went into semiretirement on April 1 of that year -- April Fool's day, as some of his readers pointed out. He still draws four cartoons a week for the Times, "whether they use them or not."
Today Mr. Conrad's work is syndicated by the Los Angeles Times and appears in newspapers around the world. In addition to winning Pulitzer Prizes for a year of cartoons in 1964, 1971 and 1984, he has won many other professional accolades in his more than five decades as a political cartoonist.
He got his start drawing on the bathroom wall in St. Augustine's school in Des Moines, Iowa. He knew better than to write on the bathroom wall, he said. But he did illustrate someone else's editorial comment at age 8 and learned four lessons, he wrote in the introduction to the book.
"First I learned that one picture is worth a thousand words, and that when the establishment gets mad, they always go after the cartoonist, not the editorial writer!
"Second, I learned that it takes a big man to laugh at himself and that, tragically, many of the members of the establishment are not very big men.
"Third, I learned that I could draw cartoons better than any other kid at St. Augustine's, and that people got excited about my drawings.
"Last, I learned there was deep inside me an urge to say what I thought about life and the establishment to any and all who would look at my drawings. There's too much to be concerned about, and I am a concerned citizen."
Editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette of Newsday delivered a tribute to Conrad in 1993, saying: "In the objective, emotionally distant and often cold-blooded world of journalism, where values and passion are scorned, Conrad is our designated feeler."
Said Mr. Conrad: "I can't wait to open the paper in the morning. Sometimes I don't even have to go beyond Page 1 anymore." Mr. Conrad said that before sitting down to draw; he reads every story he can find on a subject in order to get all possible angles. "Then I decide who is right and who is wrong. It isn't drawing. It is an opinion."
How do the ideas come to him? He cannot explain it, he told one of the 80 or so lecture-goers during a question-and-answer session. They simply come in a flash from his subconscious, he said. "You have to be furious about it at the moment."
How did he get so furious? One formative moment, Mr. Katz speculated, might have been back at the University of Iowa, where Mr. Conrad attended on the G.I. bill after serving in World War II. He took some of his work to show conservative political cartoonist Ding Darling at the Des Moines Register, who said: "I don't think you have it in you," citing a lack of perspective and conviction, Mr. Conrad said.
Later his opinions became so strong that during Watergate, the Los Angeles Times moved his cartoons off of the editorial page and onto the op-ed page. He grumbled that editors today "don't want any ripples. The Los Angeles Times is beginning to look like a shopper. They have no fire in their bellies. We may be witnessing the death of a truly American icon. We are the only country with a First Amendment that gives us the right and privilege to say what is on our minds," he said.
He saved his worst invective for the yuppie generation, whom he said have "money but no character, sensibility but no sense, and nostalgia but no history." They talk about themselves and their perceptions. If this is what sensitivity means, I wish I'd taken up a life of crime."
He said he overhears them debating about balsamic vinegars and cold-pressed vs. warm-pressed olive oil in the aisles of his local supermarket in California, where they clog the streets with their sport-utility vehicles. "This is a self-absorbed group the like of which I really can't compare."
"People can be accountable and responsible for an entire career and that's what I've attempted to do," Conrad concluded.
The Center for the Book was established in 1977 to stimulate public interest in books, reading and libraries. For information about its activities, visit its Web site at www.loc.gov/loc/cfbook.
The Swann Foundation, administered by the Prints and Photographs Division, supports a continuing program at the Library of preservation, publication, exhibition, acquisition and scholarly research in the related fields of cartoon, caricature and illustrations. For more information, visit the Swann Foundation Web site at www.loc.gov/rr/print/swann/swannhome.html.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.Center for the Book.