No laughing matter — cartoons shape our political history


“Stop them damn pictures,” Boss Tweed said of one appearing in Harper’s Weekly in 1871, the gist of which was his complicity in bilking millions from New York City’s coffers. “I don’t care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures.”

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The book American Political Cartoons, 1754-2010: The Evolution of a National Identity, by Stephen Hess and Sandy Northrop, offers all kinds of gems about an art that’s older than the nation itself. There are 345 illustrations, from before the time of the Founding Fathers (America’s first Renaissance Man, Benjamin Franklin, was also the first American cartoonist) through to the election of Barack Obama. There’s chronological commentary, but perusing the pictures is by far the best part.

Cartoons, of course, are more than just sketches. They spark, capture and shape political discourse. They editorialize and, often, indict. They depict an ethos, sometimes of the entire nation. One of the most famous, by Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times, came just after JFK’s assassination in November 1963. It shows the Lincoln Memorial statue, with Lincoln slumped forward in his chair, head in hands, weeping.

While they spoke out on the New Deal and Vietnam, cartoonists were far less vocal during the civil rights era. In the decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Hess and Northrop write, most cartoonists probed little and took no grand moral stand.

Interestingly, there are virtually no images of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and other black leaders to be found, because of acute sensitivities to caricaturing African-Americans. Northrop says it wasn’t until the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1980 that that changed. If you could have some fun with a former peanut farmer (Jimmy Carter) and a star of the silver screen (Ronald Reagan), Jackson was fair game too.

American Political Cartoons is an updated version of the 1996 original, and contains a new chapter taking readers through the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, including “the year of Monica”; the hanging chads of the 2000 recount; 9/11 and the civil liberties crackdown that followed; and the primary battle between then-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Obama. Skip right to this chapter if you’re at all unsure about the rest; chances are you’ll be intrigued enough to go back to the beginning.

One cartoon on the start of the Iraq war has former President George W. Bush standing behind a podium holding up a picture of a toilet that belongs to Saddam Hussein: “An Iraqi chemical weapons lab. What more proof do we need?!”

Another has Bush on the deck of an aircraft carrier in front of the “Mission Accomplished” banner, albeit with an asterisk: “If you don’t count not capturing Saddam, not finding weapons of mass destruction and not establishing a democracy.”

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, cartoonists were left artistically stumped. Humor was out. Satire had nothing on what had happened.

“It’s almost like you have to come up with cartoons using a different part of your brain,” Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution told the authors. For Sept. 12, he drew the Statue of Liberty with wide eyes, each reflecting one of the Twin Towers being struck by a plane. There is a single tear.

Cartoonist Doug Marlette of Newsday sums up his art this way: “A cartoon cannot say, ‘On the other hand,’ and it cannot defend itself. It is a frontal assault, a slam-dunk, a cluster bomb.”

A collection of political cluster bombs: In this town, what is better?