Scratch, scribble came from the felt-tipped pen and pretty soon, Zbigniew Brzezinski had acquired his familiar receding hairline. "We cannot continue to ignore the importance of American power," he was at that very moment telling 204 American cartoonists. Hardly anybody looked up.
But in the middle of the room, Paul Fell of the Omaha Sun was completing the left and pointy ear of the nation's National Security Affairs adviser. Roger Harvell of the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, meanwhile, had just finished off a sinister, Brzezinskian eyebrow.
America's editorial cartoonists got a close-up look yesterday at those peculiar Washington folks and institutions they draw for the country's newspapers. Pretty much, the consensus seemed to be that those government types are really almost human-looking.
Which can cause some problems among a breed famous not only for its oddballs but also its cynics.
"This way, it's too easy to like them," Tim Atseff of the Syracuse Herald-Journal explained. "If you stay away from them, you don't have to. Keeps up your objectivity."
The day, which was officially Day Three of five of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists' 1980 convention, began with sweet rolls at the Capital Hilton. Then came Brzezinski, State Department spokesman Hodding Carter and presidential adviser Stuart Eizenstat at the Executive Office Building, followed by Jody Powell and pork chops at the State Department, and Assistant Defense Secretary Thomas Reston and Vice Admiral Thor Hanson at the Pentagon.
Other items on the agenda include a "Women in Editorial Cartooning" lecture today, an appearance by comedian Mark Russell tonight and a dinner-dance tomorrow. It's all nicely printed on a neat little schedule that looks like it belongs more to a convention of computer programmers than a bunch of newspaper artists, two of whom yesterday said they do what they do because of either a "genetic defect" or "drugs."
The rest of the group, many of whom seemed to be polite political insurgents, was heavily composed of chronic lifelong doodlers who scrawled incessantly on napkins and page 87 of Basic Geometry when they were supposed to be doing something else, like page 87 of Basic Geometry.
That's all I ever could do" said Gary Brookins of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "I couldn't do math or sell shoes or anything else."
Brookins said this under chandeliers and oils at the State Department, which was the stop before the Pentagon. There, assistant secretary Reston pinch-hitted for the previously scheduled Harold Brown, who was instead explaining to Capitol Hill what went wrong at Desert One. So Reston, maybe thinking that the cartoonists would be peeved at secretary's absence and maybe also envisioning all sorts of distressing caricatures of Brown in newspapers next week, offered a tentative joke.
"Melvin Laird was probably better material for you," he explained. "But Secretary Brown is glad that he doesn't look like a reentry vehicle."
Joke or no, M. G. Lord of Newsday was vigorously sketching Reston's head, with scowling brow, on top of an eagle body that held three nasty-looking arrows and absolutely no olive branch. Earlier, she had drawn a cartoon of a cartoonist drawing Powell: Powell was looking deadly serious at the podium, but on the cartoonist's pad he emerged as a clown.
Powell, in truth, sort of acted like one. "Brzezinski had planned to be here for lunch," he told the lunch crowd of cartoonists, "but unfortunately, the people here won't let him come into the State Department." He was referring to Brzezinski's now-celebrated and much reported power clash with former secretary of state Cyrus Vance.
The cartoonists laughed and kept on drawing clowns as he drawled on about how the Carter administration hasn't ruled out any options for Iran, and how the clash between Brzezinski and Vance was more fiction than fact, and how he could easily be back in Georgia raising bird dogs. "You'd be more happy, I'd be more happy, and the bird dogs would be more happy," he said.
Then, during the question-and-answer session, Ken Alexander of the San Francisco Examiner leapt to his feet.
"Mr. Powell," he said, "given the fact that we cartoonists have pretty unrelentingly dumped on Jimmy Carter these past few years, would it be fair to assume that the president is less than fond of cartoonists and that is why he has scheduled so many events this week?"
(Jimmy Carter had told the cartoonists he might appear, but didn't make it. "The staff meeting ran on longer," Powell explained privately, "and then there was some group the domestic policy people talked him into meeting with.")
Anyway, Powell's response to the cartoonists went like this: "Actually," he said. "I don't see the fact that you all have been unfair, vicious and uninformed sets you apart from all the others we have to deal with at the White House." More laughter. And more Powell clowns.
The cartoonists' day generally went smoothly, although the morning started off as a giant mess. This was because there was some foul-up with security clearance at the Executive Office Building, in part because the EOB people didn't know so many cartoonists' spouses would want to hear Brzezinski and so on.
What happened was that everybody ended up squashed in a hallway for 20 minutes or so, but not before an EOB official asked all the wives, or "ladies," as he put it, to wait in another room upstairs. This set off several female editorial cartoonists standing within his reach. One actually threatened to go for his neck, but after reflecting for a moment, she didn't
"I'm no lady," announced M. B. Lord, 24. "I'm a cartoonist," She opened up a notebook of drawings. "Evidence," she pointed out. "My signature."
Aside from listening to Powell and Co., the cartoonists view their annual convention as a chance to schmooze with cohorts they see but once a year. After all, they point out, most papers have one measly editorial cartoonist. and it gets lonely.
"There's guys doing this all over the country," explained Kevin McVey of the Bergen (N.J.) Record, "and there's guys in places like Cincinnati doing their little things, with corn growing up around his ears, right? And he'll say, 'God, I gotta get to the convention this year to see what the hell the other guys are doing.'"
What they're doing, besides drawing pictures of Jody Powell with cigarettes in his ears or Brzezinski as an evil hawk, is universally complaining about editorial freedom in general and editors in particular.
After that, it gets slightly more hostile. As in: "I've gone to a couple of conventions of editors and managing editors and they're the worst drunken slobs that we never dreamed we'd be." This was from Bob Taylor, president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists.
Another aren't-editors-ogres conversation during the course of the day went like this:
"I've been fired from the San Diego Union for disagreeing with the editorial policies," Lee Judge was telling Kate Salley Palmer of the Greenville (S.C.) News.
"Lee, I didn't know," replied Palmer. "Fantastic."
"Yeah, I left the Detroit Free Press a couple of years ago for the same reason," Brian Basset of the Seattle Times chimed in.
"Now me," said M. G. Lord, 24, of Newsday, "I sort of operate like the Vichy government. Collaboration at this point seems expedient. At Newsday, I have two alternatives. Either I cannot commit a thought crime, or I cannot appear in the newspaper. They still think of me as a bomb-throwing activist with latent preppie tendencies."