Look, says Pulitzer prize-winning political cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, there are some deliciously nasty cartoons that never see printers' ink. Here's one:
Jimmy Carter is a Independence, Mo., as he really was recently, and he's laying a wreath on Harry S Truman's grave, like he really did. But in the drawing, while the president is thinking "RIP" in beautiful letters enclosed in a balloon, and as he stoops over the "HST" gravestone, another thought balloon comes wafting upward from below the ground. "S.O.B.," it says.
"I didn't publish it," says MacNelly sheepishly. "I just drew it. I really do have a self-censorship oproblem, which isn't the way you should be if you're a cartoonist. You should be an assassin."
The non-assassin had an opening of some of these cartoons, along with the work of cartoonist Tony Auth, at the Jane Haslem gallery last night. MacNelly and his wife, Rita, were in town for the festivities.
In a new cartoon only halfway hatched in macNelly's head, Ronald Reagan is gleefully shooting bows and arrows at Jimmy Carter's peanut warehouse. "the bull's-eye is just huge," giggles MacNelly, "but there are arrows sticking all over Reagan's head, body, even his feet."
Today, as on every weekday of his life, cartoonist Jeff MacNelly has to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to draw politics on deadline. He's enormously funny at 6 feet, 5 inches. He has thick hands that took like bear paws, thick glasses, thick ear lobes, a jutting jaw. If he were in high school, you'd expect him to wear a pocket calculator on his belt.
"I'm kind of a nerd," he apologizes. "A square. And I'm terrible at telling jokes. I always forget the punch line."
Maybe not always. At 32, he has already won two Pulitzers for his political punch lines, and is considered a big star among the new generation of American cartoonists. He works at the Richmond News Leader, scratching out the comic strip "Shoe" as well as the conservative political cartoons that have gained him a national following, syndication in more than 200 newspapers and a six-figure income.
Not too many years back, he flunked college studio art. "Yeah," he says, "I didn't go very much."
Matters of fact, he didn't go very much to lots of others courses. So he flunked them, too.
"Oh, he didn't exactly flunk out," says his wife, who got a nice degree in political science. "He just gave up."
"Failed to graduate," says MacNelly sweetly. This was at the University of North Carolina, where he was a lot more interested in a $120-a-week job as a cartoonist for a weekly newspaper than he was in campus academic activity.
At a late-summer lunch on a Georgetown sidewalk, just before his opening, he is trying to explain how he gets ideas for the cartoons he has to draw five obscenely early mornings a week. A business suit walks by, a beer truck rumbles along, a bee attacks his wife's salad. Are ideas squirming in his head, soon to be born on newsprint?
"Nah," he says. "My mind works from about 5 in the morning until 8, then it shuts down."
An absolutely sensational blond woman walks by. Really. MacNelly's wife stops eating her salad; he stops eating his crab cake. Nobody is talking. A group stare.
"I just got an idea," says MacNeally. "Can't use it, though."
The way he gets the other ones is by reading newspapers and subscribing to a whole slew of what he calls "silly magazines": Popular Mechanics, National Lampoon, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated. He gets out of bed at 5:30, makes it to the office by 6:15 draws for a 9:30 deadline, has lunch around 10, then heads for his farm, where he tries to make a tractor run or something.
In the afternoons, there's "Shoe," his strip about a curmudgeon newbird. He writes in solitude, but illustrates it while he's watching television or talking to his kids. "It's a portable situation," he explains. "It's not like being a novelist, where you have to tell everybody to go to hell and slam the door and sit by yourself for three weeks."
But it prompts the questions: How does he handle a wife, the political cartoons, the comic strip and the kids?
"Well," he says, "the kids we gotta get rid of.
"But really," he amends, "it's a local situation. I can do it in Richmond. I don't think I could in Washington."
In washington, he would come face-to-face with the folks he creams daily. "You know," MacNelly says, "I'll meet somebody from some regulatory agency that i've made a career of lambasting, and he turns out be a real nice guy. Kind of tempers you a little."
A pause. "For about a week," he laughs.