In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton “still focused on governing and unlike in the case of Trump, there weren’t daily bombshells of additional wrongdoing,” says Mike Luckovich, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cartoonist who won his first Pulitzer while satirizing Clinton, who was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice after his affair with aide Monica Lewinsky was investigated.
When reached Thursday, Luckovich was sketching an artwork to run this weekend. “My cartoon for Sunday,” he says, “shows Batman on a building rooftop, looking up at the Bat signal in the sky and he’s saying, ‘Sheesh, what’s Trump done now?’ ”
Given the nature of the allegations against Clinton, lampooning his impeachment felt “a lot less like a national existential crisis,” says Newsday cartoonist Matt Davies, who drew for the Journal News (N.Y.) in the ’90s.
Two decades ago, there were “lots of immature, innuendo-filled drawings of ‘the blue dress’ ” — famously worn by Lewinsky during a sexual encounter with the president — “and of President Clinton in his underwear,” says the Pulitzer-winning Davies, who himself riffed off Y2K at the time with a Clinton cartoon captioned, “The YKK Problem,” referring to the zipper brand.
“As poor as Clinton’s behavior in office was, his lying about it never felt like a genuinely impeachable offense, so my own cartoons mocked the process, too,” says the left-leaning Davies, who received the Herblock Prize last year for a portfolio that included his sendups of Trump.
Political hypocrisy marks both impeachment proceedings, Davies says, but this time the process is definitely more difficult to ridicule.
“The charges are far more serious,” he says, “the stakes much higher and the threat to our hallowed institutions of governance graver. I think they call it gallows humor.”
Steve Breen, the right-leaning cartoonist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, aims his satiric arrows at more than President Trump.
“The Trump pals and apologists in the Senate are much more indignant and certain of his innocence than the Clinton Senate defenders, so they themselves can be targets for cartoonists,” says Breen, who won his first Pulitzer partly for cartoons mocking the Clinton administration.
Plus, the political polarization is much more intense now, Breen says, noting: “When I did cartoons critical of Clinton’s misdeeds in the ’90s, I would never get readers telling me I hated America — as I do now.”
Not only has the polarization increased, say some visual satirists — but so has the complexity around the trial.
“There’s much more of a fog about the Trump impeachment,” says Matt Wuerker, Politico’s Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, noting that Trump’s actions are not only more “consequential” but they are also more “complicated and confusing than Clinton’s, which were really simple and salacious. It’s a lot easier for cartoonists to offer commentary on simple and salacious scandal than a convoluted and confusing international conspiracy.”
Wuerker does note, though, that the current impeachment is more of a boon to cartoonists in one respect: “The characters in Trump’s scandal are way more cartoonish. It feels like we’re living through a Coen brothers movie.”
Crucially different, too, is the media landscape, which Wuerker says is much more crowded.
“Most of the nation was tuning in to one story line with Clinton: It was sleazy and sordid, and people were following it on their TVs and in their newspapers,” Wuerker says. “Now, with Trump, there’s so much more noise and the narrative is messy, international and confused. The public is following it on the cable channels of their choosing and in the mud-pit fights on social media.
“Cartoons work well in this new-media circus,” he adds, “but I’m not sure we’re helping the nation get much clarity in all the fog and fury.”
For all the fun that cartoonists had drawing a president in his boxers in the ’90s, “drawing about his affairs got old after a while,” Rob Rogers says. “The cartoons began to feel one-dimensional — I had to move on to covering more substantive issues.”
“Trump, on the other hand, commits a new offense with every tweet,” continues Rogers, who was fired by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2018 over his Trump-themed cartoons.
“It is hard to illustrate all of his chaos,” Rogers says, “but as a cartoonist, I can’t help but try.”
Rogers is also struck by how reactions differ between the two eras, recalling how his Clinton cartoons riled some liberal readers who were “upset that a lefty cartoonist like me was criticizing Bubba.”
After Rogers drew a cartoon of Clinton standing naked at the State of the Union amid the ’90s scandal, the cartoonist recalls that one reader wrote: “How could you draw him like that? He’s the president of the United States. Have some respect for the office!”
“Times have changed,” Rogers says. “Nobody says that about my Trump cartoons.”