Mike Peters takes a felt-tip pen and starts drawing. "Reagan has this frozen smile. He's got this hair that never made it through the '60s. His hair always has Brylcreem dripping from it." More pen strokes. "You know when Carter lost, we didn't lose a set of teeth. We gained a pompadour."
The pompadour is growing. "I like to think of it as a growth," he says. "Nixon was always fun because you always start with the nose. It looks like a duck's bill. And he has no neck. And Watt just looks like a big light bulb."
Mike Peters is having too much fun lately. He knows the end is near.
He rakes in more than six figures a year as one of America's premier editorial cartoonists, syndicated in 280 papers from Pasadena to Perth Amboy. He won the Pulitzer Prize last year and appears regularly on the "Today" show. He lives in Dayton, Ohio, with his wife and three children. He hasn't even been robbed yet.
"I'm always expecting this huge thumb to come down and squash me because I'm having a ball," he says.
The sandy-haired man wearing blue jeans flashes a toothy smile wider than an ear of DeKalb corn. He is sipping a cup of tea before his speech at the Smithsonian last night.
As a cartoonist, Peters aims for the funny bone, not the jugular.
"It's true. I don't have enough malice," he says, grabbing your arm for emphasis. He grabs your arm a lot. Gosh, golly-gee-willikers, the Dayton Daily News' own Dobie Gillis says he just knows he'd win more Pulitzer Prizes if his pen were dipped in acid, not Ovaltine.
"I'm not a mean person. That's my downfall," he says, half seriously. "Other cartoonists wake up angry. They get out of bed, walk over to their front door, look down at the newspaper on their front steps, read the headline on top and say, "THOSE SONS OF -------' and immediately get mad. I wake up and say, 'Oh boy, it's going to be a gorgeous day.' "
Such Pollyanna-like Peterisms have drawn criticism from other cartoonists, most notably Pat Oliphant, who once described Peters as "a disaster . . . a lightweight joker."
Peters says the criticism doesn't bother him. He's made a fortune not taking himself--or his work--too seriously.
"I'm sure I'm serious in some areas," he says. He's serious about the Equal Rights Amendment. The environment. Gun control. On the other hand, he couldn't care less about the budget. Or Watergate. "And I'll never do anything about Tip O'Neill and Reagan. It bores me." His cartoons borrow heavily from the fractured fairy-tale school of humor. Like Prince Charles turning into a frog on his wedding night. Like Mickey Mouse turning up at a sperm bank. "I'm probably not smart enough to get mad at lots of things I should be getting mad about," he says. "I'd much rather do something about sperm banks.
"I tried to be very heavy when I first started out," he says. That was 13 years ago when he joined the Dayton Daily News after a stint in the Army. "I wanted to be bitter. I felt that that's what editorial cartoonists should strive for. Being very angry. I tried for a good 10 years. I was very hurt when I couldn't be like that."
Maybe Mike Peters needs to suffer more. He guffaws at the suggestion.
"You can't suffer that much in Dayton, Ohio."
So it's true. Peters is a lightweight joker.
"Wellllll," he smiles, shrugging his shoulders in agreement. "If I can't affect people by hitting them over the head, maybe I can get them by making them laugh."
Born in St. Louis, Peters was the youngest of two children. His father was a traveling salesman. His mother had a local television show for 25 years, "The Charlotte Peters Show." Mike Peters was not a scholar. "I was an awful student. People put me in the vegetable class. I was always vegetating." So he began drawing cartoons. After four years at Washington University, he was drafted and worked as an Army illustrator. "You know, I was the one who drew those signs, 'Please wash your hands after flushing.' But I was really lucky. I cartooned my way around Vietnam."
Back in America in 1969, Peters landed a job with the Dayton Daily News and has toiled there ever since. Sure, he's gotten offers from other papers. Big money. Fame. But it's a four-letter word to Peters.
"When I first started doing the Today show, I was going to New York every week to show my cartoons and the producers would say, 'Hey, Mike, that's GREAT. G--R--E--A--T. You're numero uno.' I'd come back to Dayton and say, 'These people don't know what a gem I am.' "
But the glitter faded the night of the 1980 presidential election when Peters watched the returns in the NBC studio. He sat in the waiting room, known as the Green Room, with David Brinkley, who was recovering from a recent operation and was not anchoring the returns. "Every 30 minutes, Brinkley would leave the room to give a commentary." Peters hunches his shoulders and does a David Brinkley imitation. "He would go out there and say, 'It's in-teresting to me, even though so many people made so much com-motion over John An-der-son, how little ef-fect Johnnn An-derson is having on this elect-ion."
Brinkley's commentaries, Peters says, "Were nothings. But each time he would come back in, the producers would say, 'David, that was GREAT. G--R--E--A--T. That's when I realized it was all --------."
That's also when he realized he would never leave Dayton. "It's safe," he says. "It's very safe."
He says he'll know when his career is over. "When I stop chuckling halfway through my cartoons."
Peters says he gets dropped from papers occasionally. When one longtime subscriber dropped his cartoon recently, he made the mistake of disguising his voice as a United Features Syndicate official and calling the newspaper editor to ask why. The editor said they dropped the cartoon because they didn't think Peters was any good.
Now he doesn't ask.
Maybe he should be like Oliphant, he muses. "Oliphant's not nice. He's been a curmudgeon all his life." Mr. Nice Guy flashes a smile. "I'd like to be a curmudgeon," he says. "But I'm still gonna do sperm bank cartoons."