Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist Paul Conrad dies at 86

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2010; B04

Paul Conrad, 86, a political cartoonist who won three Pulitzer Prizes by turning his outrage into journalistic art but who was even more proud of being named to the Nixon administration's enemies list during the Watergate era, died Sept. 4 at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. His family did not provide a cause of death.

Mr. Conrad spent most of his career at the Los Angeles Times, where he demanded and received the freedom to draw cartoons about any subjects he chose. Two of his favorite subjects were Californians who moved east to take up residence in the White House: Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Armed with superb drawing skills and a finely honed sense of moral indignation, Mr. Conrad took aim at pomposity, injustice and corruption. He had been merciless to President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, but after Nixon's election in 1968, Mr. Conrad became utterly scathing.

The day after the Watergate break-in came to light, Mr. Conrad drew Nixon, wearing a workman's belt, drilling a hole in the wall of the Democratic National Headquarters. "He says he's from the phone company," a bystander comments.

As the accusations against Nixon and his administration mounted, Mr. Conrad turned up the rhetorical heat, portraying the president as a shameless figure of arrogance and deceit. He drew a cartoon of a supine Nixon pinned down by audiotapes, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

While Nixon was president, Mr. Conrad's taxes were repeatedly audited, and he found himself on the notorious White House enemies list. Mr. Conrad responded with an illustration of Nixon glowering over his enemies list, above the title "His own worst enemy."

Mr. Conrad first shone a satiric light on Reagan in the 1960s, when the former actor was governor of California. He often showed Reagan as out of his depth, sometimes dressed as a clown.

Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler fielded many early-morning calls from Reagan or his wife, Nancy, objecting to Mr. Conrad's mocking portrayals.

Mr. Conrad ignored the criticism and the frequent death threats that he received.

"Don't ever accuse me of being objective," he often said.

When Reagan was elected president in 1980 and reelected four years later, Mr. Conrad was happy for one reason: He would never lack for ideas at the drawing board.

He cast the president in the role of "Reagan Hood," stealing from the poor to give to the rich. He summarized Reagan's foreign policy by depicting the president in a bathtub, with warships sailing behind a rubber ducky.

In a career of more than 50 years, Mr. Conrad took aim at 11 presidents, from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. One of the few who seemed amused by Mr. Conrad's pen-and-ink thrusts was Gerald R. Ford.

"Laugh and the whole world laughs with you," Ford said. "Cry, and you've been the subject of a Paul Conrad cartoon."

Paul Francis Conrad born June 27, 1924, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and grew up in Des Moines. He liked to say that his first drawings appeared on the bathroom stalls of his Catholic elementary school.

After high school, he and his twin brother went to Alaska, where Mr. Conrad drove a truck and played piano in a brothel. During World War II, he served in the Army and participated in the invasions of Guam and Okinawa, Japan.

He dropped out of Iowa State University to play bass in a dance band, then enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he began drawing cartoons for the student newspaper. After graduating in 1950, he moved to Denver and soon became recognized as one of the country's leading young political cartoonists.

He won his first Pulitzer in 1964, then left Denver for Los Angeles. Mr. Conrad's incisive cartoons, which he drew six days a week, helped raise the reputation of the once-moribund Times, which had parroted the Republican Party line for decades. Mr. Conrad won the Pultizer Prize in 1971 and 1984 and was an inspiration to a younger generation of political artists, including Doug Marlette, Mike Luckovich and Tony Auth.

As his influence grew, Mr. Conrad faced angry opposition from high-profile Californians, including Frank Sinatra, who once called him "a disgrace to responsible journalism."

In 1968, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty sued for libel over a cartoon suggesting that he had lost his mind. The suit was dismissed.

Mr. Conrad considered himself an unabashed political liberal, except for his long-held opposition to abortion. He changed his views in the 1980s, when he came to believe that it was a matter of private choice.

In 1993, Mr. Conrad accepted a buyout from his newspaper but continued to draw syndicated cartoons for more than 15 years. After the 2008 election, he depicted Sarah Palin with a smoking machine gun in one hand as she held up the trunk of a slain Republican Party elephant in the other.

Mr. Conrad published several books and was the subject of a 2006 PBS documentary, "Drawing Fire."

Survivors include his wife since 1953, Kay King Conrad, of Rancho Palos Verdes; four children, Jamie Conrad and Carol Conrad, both of Menlo Park, Calif., David Conrad of Lake Arrowhead, Calif., and Libby Conrad of Falls Church; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Conrad often maintained that his most important asset as a cartoonist was his wide reading in current events and history. He believed a cartoon could be beautifully drawn but was useless if it didn't illuminate the state of the world.

"A cartoonist should get out of bed mad and stay mad," he once told Time magazine. "The cartoonist's function is essentially a negative one, and the cartoon that advocates something usually says nothing."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company