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."
"You have a following and an impact that you can not get in any other medium," says Dick Wright, who was told recently that his position at the Providence (R.I.) Journal was being eliminated at the end of the year. "It's very unique to newspapers, and it's probably under-utilized by newspapers."
Like many newspapers, the Journal will continue publishing cartoons but will rely on syndicated material rather than have someone on staff (which means Mr. Wright may still end up in its pages, since he'll continue in syndication). The cost savings are substantial -- tens of thousands of dollars a year in salary and benefits vs. a few hundred dollars for a syndication.
"It's expensive to have a full-time editorial cartoonist," says Bob Whitcomb, editor of the editorial pages for the Providence Journal. "It was not a decision that came easily. I think [the newspaper's management] felt they could use the money better elsewhere."
But cartoonists contend there is more at stake than just money.
A newspaper will say, "This hiring a cartoonist costs us 74 times what it costs for us to run 'Doonesbury'," says Ms. Wilkinson. "Yeah, that's true, but the local cartoonist did cartoons about local issues, as opposed to what's going on in New York City. There's nothing the matter with 'Doonesbury,' but extending that logic would mean we need only one cartoonist for the entire world."
Even more worrisome, however, is what some cartoonists see as newspapers' growing timidity. Rare is the cartoonist who has not had some of his or her work turned down for publication. Even Mr. Oliphant, possibly the nation's premier political satirist, is represented in the Walters exhibit by a cartoon of Marion Barry that the Washington Post decided not to run. The cartoon showed Mr. Barry being turned away at the city's doorstep, falling victim to Washington's get-tough-on-crime policy.
"I've had the terrible situation over the past few years of people running my cartoons and then the next day, when they catch a lot of flak, apologizing for it in print," says Mr. Oliphant, who is syndicated in 450 papers. "This is horrendous, it's a horrible situation.
"They just don't have the courage of their convictions," he says of newspaper editors and publishers not willing to take the heat of unpopular positions. "They don't have any convictions."
Not all cartoonists are convinced that the end of their world is at hand. Editorial cartoonists, Inks' Mr. West suspects, are not in trouble. Rather, it's editorial cartooning as we know it that may be in jeopardy.
The growth in popularity of computers and on-line services, he says, will force the medium to adapt -- possibly into something more closely resembling animation than the traditional single-panel cartoon.
"The way it's presented now is definitely at risk," he says. "It's very odd that it's so graphic in its nature, but it doesn't convert well to a graphic medium, because it is usually a single frame of action and it just sits there on the screen. When it sits there on the page, that's what people have come to expect, but when it's there on the computer screen, people expect to see some action."
Walt Handelsman, a Baltimore native in his sixth year doing cartoons for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, believes "the quality of political cartooning today is better than it ever has been."
Cartoonists can be just as hard-hitting as ever, he says. The trick is not to be consistently heavy-handed. Draw a pointed cartoon one day, then lighten up a little the next with one more likely to produce a chuckle than a sneer.
"I don't think you can beat your audience over the head with hard- hitting cartoons day after day after day," Mr. Handelsman says. "I think some days you should do a cartoon that is absolutely just for the laugh, and some days you should do a cartoon that just punches the reader right in the stomach. It's kind of nice to mix it up."
But Mr. Oliphant disagrees. Editorial cartoonists should not be comedians, he says, and if lightening their tone is the only way to survive, why bother?
"What's the point of it then? The thing is to stir things up, to start dialogue, yes, to upset people. It's not a comfortable profession, and should never be."
MEET THE CARTOONISTS
If you'd like to mingle with cartoonists, members of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists will hold an exhibition and book signing from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Stouffer's Harborplace Hotel.
A related exhibit on political cartooning, "Worth a Thousand Words: A Picture of Contemporary Political Satire" runs through Jan. 21 at the Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St., open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.