Political Lines, Sharply Drawn

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008

Politics may be getting dirtier by the minute, but the art of political cartooning has gotten really nasty.

That, at least, is the conclusion one might come to after visiting a trio of concurrent showcases of the work of Clifford Berryman, Herbert Block and Pat Oliphant. Representing successive generations of political cartooning, each artist embodies a different chapter (and a changing standard of increasingly delicious meanness) that, taken together, tell the story of a hundred years' worth of journalistic ankle-biting.

Let's start with Berryman (1869-1949): In "Running for Office: Candidates, Campaigns and the Cartoons of Clifford Berryman," on view at the National Archives, his relatively gentlemanly work harks back to a time when the phrase "my esteemed colleague from Idaho" was not necessarily a euphemism for "this little twerp over here." Don't get me wrong. In 50 years of cartooning, first at The Washington Post and later the Washington Evening Star, Berryman was capable of drawing blood, but he was never cruel. His political caricatures, if they can even be called that, are closer to bobblehead portraiture (big, realistic heads on tiny bodies) than to the mocking exaggerations of physical traits more often associated with the art form. As often as not, the artist chose to use stand-ins (goofy-looking donkeys and elephants) rather than actual political figures.

Take "Golfing Season" from 1924. The cocky elephant seen in the foreground is Republican Calvin Coolidge, who sailed through his party's primary unopposed. Off the fairway, a Democratic donkey wails futilely with his golf club -- shorthand for the Democratic Party infighting among multiple candidates, which was said to ultimately have allowed Coolidge to win. To be sure, Berryman's commentary is eerily applicable to the current presidential race, but it makes its point without attacking anyone personally.

The cartoonist known as Herblock (1909-2001) never worried about hurting anyone's feelings, especially not a sitting president. That much is clear from "Herblock's Presidents: 'Puncturing Pomposity,' " a National Portrait Gallery sampling of the artist's poison-pen presidential portraits. During a 55-year career at The Post, he counted Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan as his least favorite chief executives, and, boy, does it show. Jowly and often sweating, his Nixon still looks every inch the crook Herblock believed him to be, while his dead-eyed, prune-faced Reagan visually lives up to the artist's characterization of him as an "amiable dunce."

Looking at a 1954 cartoon from the heyday of McCarthyism ("Relax -- He Hasn't Got to You Yet"), it's hard to know who gets rougher treatment: the unshaven, anti-communist Sen. Joe McCarthy -- seen wielding a knife -- or a cluelessly vacant-eyed Dwight D. Eisenhower. With his bald pate and button-eyed stare, Ike resembles pioneering cartoonist Richard F. Outcault's famous Yellow Kid, and that's no compliment.

As unkind as Herblock could be, syndicated cartoonist Oliphant really takes the gloves off, in "Leadership: Oliphant Cartoons and Sculpture From the Bush Years," a roundup of the artist's wonderfully wicked political cartoons and sculpture from the past decade or so at the Stanford in Washington Art Gallery. Now 77, the artist shows no sign of mellowing, as evidenced by renderings of both President Bushes and many others.

It's treatment that can only be called vicious, whether he's depicting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a leather-clad dominatrix with a whip or as a squawking, toothy bird. But what's perhaps most interesting about Oliphant is that, despite his penchant for the ruthless, he loses nothing when, on rare occasion, he goes soft on us.

His Dec. 27, 2006, "Gerald Ford Remembered" is a case in point. Gone from this affectionate, and deeply poignant, memorial to the man who had died the day before is the bandage on the forehead Oliphant traditionally drew in to make fun of Ford's reputation for clumsiness.

Even with the barb removed, the sharp edge of true portraiture remains.

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