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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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
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