Where to draw the line

With competition fierce and Clinton scandal jokes easy, cartoonists say there's pressure to choose cheap gags over insightful commentary.

February 04, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Signe Wilkinson despised the cartoon. The editorial cartoonist drew it in the spring, during the controversy over news leaks in the Monica Lewinsky story, spinning off that theme by picturing reporters chasing Clinton's dog, Buddy. The cartoon warned of "another White House leak" as Buddy relieved himself in the bushes. Wilkinson thought the idea was stupid, hardly befitting her paper, the Philadelphia Daily News.

The day the cartoon ran she waited for the critics. Instead, her editors backslapped her and offered more praise than ever. The more she drew cartoons that seemed like late-night talk-show jokes, not political commentary, the more her audience seemed to lap it up.

"I just felt last spring that I had completely lost my compass and I really shouldn't be in this business," said Wilkinson.

The absurd news of the past year has revealed as much about the changing field of political cartooning as it has about cigars and stained Gap dresses. It exposed a growing divide between gag-a-day cartoonists who spin off the scandal's most outrageous material for laughs and those who would rather make serious political statements.

In a news story that was often ridiculed, funny was sometimes a bad word for the more serious-minded.

"The fact is you could write a Clinton and Monica sex joke every day all year and put it in your space, but if you did it to make people laugh, then you're not doing your job," said Joel Pett, editorial cartoonist for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and head of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. "Your job is to be provocative. We live in an era where a lot of editorial cartooning is missing the editorial part of it."

The Lewinsky scandal has seemed to encourage that impulse.

"It is so easy to come up with the one-liners -- it's much more difficult to have the insight," said Kevin Kallaugher, best known as Kal, one of the editorial cartoonists for The Sun. "Some people use humor as the end and others use it as a vehicle. And that's where the difference is. It comes up on a subject like this."

While the story gives cartoonists such as Wilkinson an identity crisis at times, it has been impossible to resist.

"It's more impressive to do a funny cartoon about Social Security than Monica Lewinsky, but you can't avoid the Lewinsky cartoons," said Jack Ohman, the Portland Oregonian's political cartoonist. "Everybody's talking about it, so how do you say, `For the good of the country, I'm not going to comment on it.' For the good of your career, you are going to comment on it."

Not everyone is so torn over the quick jokery.

Many cartoonists celebrate the Lewinsky scandal as a unique opportunity to cover politics with epic silliness. After all, how many political stories feature a Supreme Court justice whose black robes are decorated with gold stripes, inspired by a Gilbert and Sullivan musical?

"Everyone has become a caricature," said Mike Lukavitch, editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Chief Justice William Rehnquist "is wearing that stupid robe with the epaulets or whatever those things are called -- everything this scandal touches, it demeans. I wish it would go until the year 2000, speaking as a selfish cartoonist."

Lukavitch added, however, that without hard-hitting cartoons mixed in, the fun of the Clinton satire begins to sour. "It's like cotton candy when you're a kid," he said. "You're eating it and boy it's great, but you eat too much of it and you just get sick."

By now, most people know the stock cartoon images: Clinton sporting heart-covered boxer shorts, Washington with zippers running down official buildings, Linda Tripp looking not unlike a cross-dresser bedecked with complicated electrical equipment. Historically, editorial cartoons have not always gone for such knee-slappers.

World War II sparked the punchline craze in editorial cartoons, with the success of postwar comics such as "Peanuts" and "Beetle Bailey." Before then, political cartoons were far more sober.

In the first impeachment scandal in 1868, cartoonist Thomas Nast drew President Andrew Johnson with irony but stayed away from pithy thought bubbles. Instead, Nast drew powerful images that all argued for the removal of Johnson. In one, he depicted a gnomish-looking "King Andy" dressed in ermine with farm boots, staring down a white-hot poker labeled "impeachment." In another, he drew King Andy getting dumped off his throne by an indignant female Columbia, the national symbol.

These days, funny ideas often see more rewards than stern-faced commentary. National newspapers and magazines often pick up and rerun the cartoons that go for the hardest yuks. One-liners have become even more attractive to rising cartoonists eager for the exposure.

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