Caricature Assassination

June 28, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

When former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted this spring that the Vietnam War had been a mistake, editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman went after him with pens blazing.

Mr. Ohman, cartoonist for The Oregonian in Portland, drew a grim-faced Mr. McNamara crying bomb-shaped tears.

Cartoons like these have been helping to shape political debate in this country for more than two centuries. Designed to enrage and provoke, they've skewered everyone from King George III to Bill Clinton, targeting hypocrisy and making politicians squirm whenever possible.

But today, as more than 100 political cartoonists gather in Baltimore for their annual convention, some fear it is an art form falling out of fashion, victimized by declining newspaper revenues and the growing reluctance of news organizations to offend anyone.

"I don't like the health of it at all," says Pat Oliphant, whose cartoons have been deflating political egos for four decades. "I think it has to do with several things, one of them being that dreaded political correctness, which is killing us all, and which has to go."

Political cartoons have the power to do in a glance what even the best newspaper columnist needs a few hundred words to accomplish.

Cartoons take a stand. Prick the public sensibility. Stir controversy.

But in the past year, seven editorial cartoonist positions have been lost nationwide. That doesn't seem like much until you consider that there are fewer than 200 such jobs in the country.

Smaller newspapers, especially, are finding it far cheaper to use syndicated cartoonists, at only a few dollars a pop, than to hire their own. And nothing seems to tick off newspaper readers more than seeing an editorial cartoon they disagree with -- an unenviable position to be in, especially when newspapers are fighting to retain every subscriber they have.

"There are a lot of newspapers which are feeling the financial pinch, and increasingly the editorial page editors are feeling the editorial cartoonists are expendable," says Rich West, political cartoon editor for Inks magazine, a publication of Ohio State University. "In a few cases, that is because the cartoonist is a lightning rod for controversy, and [the editors] figure, who needs that?"

Of course, cartoonists are lightning rods for controversy, and they wear that label with pride. "Tears of Robert McNamara," for instance, on display at the Walters Art Gallery through Jan. 21 as part of an exhibit on editorial cartooning titled "Worth a Thousand Words," leaves no doubt where Mr. Ohman's sympathies lie.

"This was clearly a graphic stop sign on the editorial page," says Robert Landauer, editorial page editor of the Oregonian. "Jack does his cartoons on controversies; he isn't a house pet. [The reaction] was supportive, angry at McNamara, angry at the government, and not angry at the cartoonist. The calls came in and said, 'How could our government not have been honest with us?' "

The cartoon conveys that message almost instantly, with a force rarely wielded by the written word.

That power has been obvious from the very start of American political cartooning. Benjamin Franklin used cartoons to rally support for the Revolution. And Thomas Nast, a 19th-century cartoonist so effective at skewering his targets that his name became an adjective (nasty), played a major role in bringing down the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine that once ruled New York City.

"I don't care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read," the legendary William "Boss" Tweed is said to have roared as he watched Tammany Hall crumble around him. "But damn it, they can see pictures."

Many cartoonists wonder why newspapers would be willing to do without such an effective resource.

"A good cartoonist is like a drawn columnist," says Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, president of the

Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, "and papers think they can have lots of columnists."

During this week's four-day convention, cartoonists will wrestle with the future of the profession. Round- table discussions are planned on censorship, cartooning in cyberspace and working just for syndication, without a home newspaper.

The cartoonist's job, Ms. Wilkinson says, is to take a stand. Not to make a reasoned argument, not to give the other side its due, not to persuade by logic. But to get the fur flying.

'The soul of the newspaper'

"I like to think of [cartooning] as the soul of the newspaper," she says. "I like that it's not a yard of dense type you have to wade through. A cartoonist, if he's doing his job, can't equivocate. You've got to take a stand every day, you've got to decide what you feel about something. That's the fun of being a cartoonist. It's like voting every day."

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