The Power of Political Cartoons

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Political cartoonists distill their opinions on power and culture into art and commentary with the sharp points of their pens. They can make readers gleeful -- or angry. Readers deserve to know more about this breed for whom being fair is not a virtue.

The timing is apropos because a Pat Oliphant cartoon posted on Sept. 9 is still generating angry e-mails. The cartoon showed Sarah Palin speaking in tongues, John McCain saying she has a "direct line" to God and God saying that he couldn't understand her "dam' right wing . . . gibberish."

More than 750 readers from around the country -- more than I heard from about the financial crisis -- told me they were mightily offended. Many were Pentecostals, whose worship can include speaking in tongues; complaints also came from mainline Christians and from Charles Martin, a Buddhist in Boulder, Colo., who said "it offends me."

McCain and Palin are certainly fair game, but most of those offended by the cartoon felt it mocked all Pentecostals. Most cartoonists don't go out of their way to lambaste religion. But the pope is a frequent editorial cartoon character, as are God and St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

Many of Oliphant's peers think that he is the best political cartoonist in the country and the most profound contemporary influence on other cartoonists. Before Oliphant, an Australian, came to work in the United States in 1964, most cartoons were vertical and serious; his were horizontal and funny.

Oliphant's cartoons are sold by Universal Press Syndicate, whose sales materials say: "No one is safe from the acid brush of Pat Oliphant. . . . A master of what he calls 'confrontational art,' Oliphant spares neither the liberal nor conservative, sinner nor saint."

Oliphant, 73, delights in controversy and told me that he draws only about what annoys him or "gets my blood boiling. That's the point in cartooning -- to draw attention to situations you don't agree with. It's kept me alive," he said from his home in Santa Fe, N.M.

He's a political liberal, as are many, though not all, of the better-known political cartoonists. "Cartooning should challenge the status quo," Oliphant said. "Whoever is in power draws the antagonism of editorial cartoonists." So what happens when a new set of politicians takes power? "Then you search for their feet of clay."

Jack Ohman, editorial cartoonist at the Oregonian, said that cartoonists are "iconoclasts. You're looking at a profession barely within journalism, let alone any other profession. They're people who are distrustful of those in power and powerful institutions. We have an obligation to be explicable; we don't have an obligation to be fair."

Ohman thinks that The Post's Tom Toles is "the most original cartoonist working by far. His drawing looks so different from everyone else. He has his own style, great tone, and he draws deceptively dead-on caricatures. He's not screaming at you all the time."

Toles said that his best ideas come from "a point that needs to be made. I try to see what is out of whack, what's not right, and attack that. Not every cartoon can be fair. I don't expect readers to see them as fair." However, it's "not my agenda to run up against taste issues, especially if it's not germane or it's a hot-button issue that generates more heat than light."

He has three or four ideas every day and runs them past Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. Hiatt gives him some guidance, but Toles decides what he will draw, which is true of most of the best cartoonists. Hiatt hasn't vetoed a cartoon since Toles came to The Post in 2002, replacing the venerable Herblock.

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