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Posted at 04:30 PM ET, 09/05/2010

IN MEMORIAM: RIP Paul Conrad, Pulitzer-winning giant of political cartooning

(File photo/Associated Press)

Paul Conrad must have known his words would surprise me. "I shouldn't have become a cartoonist -- I should have been a novelist," he said like a tossed-off regret. "People don't remember political cartoons -- I didn't write the next 'Moby-Dick.' "

Call me astonished. The year was 1996, and the legendary cartoonist who had won three Pulitzer Prizes, made Nixon's Enemies List (an inclusion of which Conrad was actually most proud) and wielded his thick, authoritative brushstrokes against a half-century of presidential administrations was offering advice on my dual passions at the newspaper: writing and cartooning. And here was this cartooning giant -- a man in the 20th-century pantheon alongside Pat Oliphant, Herblock and Jeff MacNelly -- saying he should have tossed it all overboard to chase becoming the next Melville.

After some days' reflection, I didn't think Conrad fully meant it. As he and I discussed his latest project, a Southern California exhibit of his cartoons and bronze sculptures, he was simply weighing his legacy, and -- as with his art -- he liked to paint life's pictures with unmistakably bold strokes. Perhaps, more than anything else, he wanted to see my reaction. Paul Conrad the cartoonist embraced, loved, seemed to live for prompting his audience's immediate, visceral reaction.

Which is precisely why Conrad's cartoons, to the contrary of his own quote, will be remembered and celebrated. Whether concerning a president or governor, war or Wall Street, so many of Conrad's cartoons still have the undeniable power to incite strong reaction.

When discussing writing and cartooning, I recounted that quote just last week -- several days before Paul Conrad died Saturday at his Rancho Palos Verdes home, reported his longtime home newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. He was 86.

I'm reminded of what former Times Editor William F. Thomas wrote in a foreword to the Conrad collection "Drawn and Quartered": Because his cartoon art is so visceral, "You feel it, you don't rationalize it. In fact, as he and I have sometimes agreed, if you have to explain a cartoon the thing didn't work."

Conrad, a son of Iowa, told me he was influenced early on by Grant Wood, and there was a Midwestern directness to his cartoons that lent them their bull's-eye poignancy. (I remember hearing nearby readers actually expel air when reading a Conrad -- as if absorbing the full force of his direct-hit haymakers.)

Perhaps also because of that Midwestern approach, Conrad did not like to "clutter" his cartoons with verbosity, which only diluted the graphic message. His surgical approach to satire valued incision by concision. "I saw a cartoon on the op-ed page today," he lectured me at that time. "I counted -- it had 180 words. That person shouldn't be a cartoonist -- he should be a novelist!"

A-ha. We had come full circle. In his own way, Conrad was acknowledging that though he wanted his work to have the longevity of a "Moby-Dick," he himself was -- right down to his ink-stained core -- a searingly pithy political cartoonist, through and through.

And one of the best I've ever seen, hands down.

RIP, Paul Conrad. We will long remember not only your generous self, but also your brilliant, lasting work.

By  |  04:30 PM ET, 09/05/2010

Categories:  General, General | Tags:  Los Angeles Times, Paul Conrad

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