Cartoon commentary

Political cartoonists draw attention to candidates’ physique and foibles
Sunday, March 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

During this stormy season of campaigns, caucuses and primaries, political cartoonists have been whipping the political winds into tornadoes. These artists dissect the issues to find the comedy and turn human-looking candidates into unattractive mistake-makers who don’t deserve to be elected.

The political fervor that takes over the country during the winter primaries and leads up to the November general election gives cartoonists even more fuel for their fires. With all the issues to sort through and candidates to lampoon, the work of a political cartoonist can be more challenging, but also more fun.

Dissent among Democratic presidential candidates as they competed for the party nomination produced several opportunities for comic relief. Perhaps the most striking was Howard Dean’s screaming rant after the Iowa primary, which sparked a flurry of cartoons depicting the former governor of Vermont as some sort of a lunatic. The episode might well have contributed to Dean’s eventual fall from the race.

Tom Toles, a political cartoonist who works at the Washington Post and whose work is nationally syndicated, has had plenty of fun with the primaries. One Toles cartoon, drawn a couple days after the Wisconsin primary, depicts North Carolina Sen. John Edwards celebrating a “surprisingly strong” second-place victory, while Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the winner, walked away toward a throne.

Ed Stein, a political cartoonist with The Rocky Mountain News, used the controversy over President Bush’s military record for a cartoon. He drew a hulking Kerry, decorated with three medals, next to an exaggeratedly small Bush sporting only a silver filling in his tooth.


Tom Toles, a political cartoonist who works at the Washington Post, said President Bush doesn’t make an interesting caricature. He and other artists, who rely on the exaggeration of a body part, have picked on President Bush’s ears.

As president, Bush is an obvious and favorite target of most political cartoonists. Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star said Bush is his favorite politician to lampoon.

“I usually draw him not looking bright,” he said of his Bush caricature, which depicts the president with a small body, small face and gigantic ears. “That represents my feelings for him.”

Pat Oliphant, a cartoonist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his work, depicts a childlike Bush who wears a cowboy hat and boots and jumps around his father’s armchair yelling “Daddy, Daddy!” He often tells his father what he’s done to get himself into trouble. Oliphant depicts a patient George Bush Sr. explaining to his son how to get himself out of his current conundrum.

Toles said he, too, has been focusing on Bush recently.

“Bush is a bit of a problem because he doesn’t make an interesting caricature,” Toles said. “I and others have picked the ears (to exaggerate).”

Khalil Bendib, a North African native who now lives in California and whose cartoons appear on the Web site, said that some situations involving Bush are so ridiculous on their face that he doesn’t know how to improve on them for his cartoons.


The long face of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is the facial feature most exaggerated by political cartoonists, as shown in this drawing by Tom Toles.

“At least Clinton was able to look good; he was much more capable of fooling people,” said Bendib. “This guy (Bush) doesn’t even try.”

Bendib said it’s easy to draw Bush because he has a “great goofy face.” He draws Bush with a hooked nose, gigantic ears and a small body. He said he also likes to draw members of the president's top-level administration.

“Dick Cheney was the perfect villain, Mr. Darkness,” Bendib said . “He already looks like a classic cartoon bandit.”

While cartoonists will make fun of nearly anyone in politics, they all have their favorite issues and candidates.

Judge said he is inclined to support Kerry for president because he has “a laundry list” of things Bush has done that leave him dissatisfied.

Although Judge describes himself as a liberal Democrat, he said he would not hesitate to come down on a Democrat who makes a mistake.

“I voted for Clinton twice,” Judge said. “If he screws up, it’s where you find material for the cartoon.”

Toles said that while he is often labeled a liberal Democrat, he doesn’t see himself that way.

“I’m more skeptical. I don’t just buy into something just because it’s liberal,” he said. “I don’t like to think of myself as partisan.”

Bendib said the inspiration for his cartoons comes from his desire to counter injustices.

“Social injustice is the most important issue to me, meaning the mighty trying to have everything and trying to take away things from those who are voiceless,” said Bendib. One of his biggest concerns is the environment because it affects everyone.

“The same types of greedy corporations that have bought the whole political system are doing the same damage to people, animals and plants,” he said.


Howard Dean’s screaming

rant after the Iowa primary, drawn here by Stuart Carlson

of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was a favorite topic of cartoonists.

Toles said he focuses on environmental issues, war and peace, and social justice. Although the environment is not at the top of his personal concerns, he said he draws cartoons on the topic because other media fail to cover it adequately.

John Darkow, a political cartoonist at the Columbia Daily Tribune, enjoys doing parodies of local and state politicians. He spends more time drawing Gov. Bob Holden than he does on Bush or Kerry.

“Gov. Holden kinda looks different,” said Darkow. “He seems oblivious to facts, and he keeps doing what he wants to do, and he sticks to his guns.”

Darkow likes to pair Holden with House Speaker Catherine Hanaway to create a team he likens to old-time comedians Laurel and Hardy.

Henry Lane, who is making his sixth bid for a seat on the Columbia school board, is another local figure Darkow enjoys using in his cartoons.

“Lane lends himself to the things I do,” said Darkow, adding that his most controversial cartoon involved Lane wearing a bondage outfit and holding a whip after he advocated bringing spanking back as a disciplinary option in school. Lane sued the paper after the cartoon ran, and the paper eventually settled by printing an apology.

Darkow said he likes many of the people he depicts in his cartoons. “There are quite a few times you like a person, and they do something stupid, and you are obligated to lampoon them,” said Darkow.

Bendib said it is unfortunate that cartoons almost inherently emerge from negative reactions. Judge agreed.

“The last person a cartoonist needs is someone efficient who doesn’t make mistakes,” said Judge. “If it’s good for the country, it’s bad for cartoonists.”

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