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.


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.

In this climate, cartoonists have leveled at least one suggestion of plagiarism. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel cartoonist Gary Markstein is the subject of an American Journalism Review article this month reporting how several of his cartoons -- including a few on the Lewinsky scandal -- have looked like earlier cartoons at rival newspapers.

Cartoonists from around the country sent the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists 15 examples of repeat images in Markstein's work, and the group's board of directors gathered to explore the matter.

Markstein denies trying to lift other cartoonists' ideas and said a certain amount of overlap is inevitable, particularly with a story as big as this one. "You've got cartoonists around the country all keying in on the same topic, and you want to pick familiar images that resonate with people," Markstein said. "How can you know if an idea has been done previously? You can't call every single cartoonist and say, 'Hey, did you do this?' "

Cartoonists question a pattern of repeated overlap, but say the occasional recurring image is hard to avoid. Several have offered many of the same pictures: Truth and Liberty as babes performing for Clinton and Starr, presidential neckties with long messages to Monica, and lots and lots of "the Fat Lady Sings" during Monica Lewinsky's 23 depositions.

The trick is to find an original spin on an old idea.

Dan Perkins, whose cartoons run under the pseudonym "Tom Tomorrow," is working on a cartoon riff on Rehnquist's appearance, elaborating on the chief justice's striped robe by putting him in a Star Trek uniform. (The idea started with Wilkinson in the Philadelphia Daily News, who put Rehnquist in a Pirates of Penzance outfit). Now Perkins covets his new piece of the joke. "I still might use that," Perkins warned, "if other cartoonists read this."

Another pitfall: the unpredictability of the evolving scandal.

In December, as pundits predicted that the impeachment case would be dismissed, Perkins drew a long multipanel cartoon showing how the hearings had run out of steam. But by the time the piece ran, the predictions had proved wrong -- Clinton had been impeached.

"I kind of got egg on my face with that one," said Perkins, a free-lancer who prepares his cartoons one to two weeks in advance. "The conventional wisdom after [Independent Counsel] Ken Starr testified was that it was clearly over. It's just stupid to predict that stuff."

As the Senate trial winds down, cartoonists are facing the prospect of a life without Monica. The story has converted even its toughest critics. Wilkinson, who initially recoiled from the tabloid nature of the scandal, said her feelings changed when the story moved from rumor to a political showdown.

These days, she said, she revels in the spectacle.

"Once things got in gear toward the impeachment it wasn't actually just funny, there were many ramifications from it," Wilkinson said.

"Now I am completely and totally into it."

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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