What's Campaign Season Like for a Political Cartoonist?

Pulitzer-winner Tony Auth says Mitt's fun to draw but that his sketches usually lean pro-Obama.

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With the party national conventions this week and next, the true frenzy of presidential campaign season is here—candidates, staffers, volunteers, pollsters, and journalists now must kick into overdrive. Is it the same for political cartoonists? Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Auth, of the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1971 to this past April, says no: His pen is always moving, election season or not.

"There is no special preparation for the presidential campaign other than doing what I've been doing for so long," said Auth, who's currently at NewsWorks.org, the website of the NPR Philadelphia station WHYY where, as "digital artist in residence," he does two or three political cartoons a week. "I read the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, watch some cable news (but not much), watch a few favorite websites, and talk and listen to colleagues. A lot more time is spent doing all of that than drawing."

Transforming candidates into visual metaphors is the key to Auth's commentary. A witty, recognizable caricature can indelibly brand a subject—remember Herblock's 5-o'clock-shadow depictions Joseph McCarthy and of Richard Nixon? Often, it's creativity and cleverness that makes a cartoon great—not necessarily skill.

"I don't consider myself an excellent caricaturist," Auth said. "It usually takes more than a few attempts (and it's all on-the-job training) for a caricature to take on a life of its own and really take off." But Auth has already had more than four years with this president. "I've been drawing Obama long enough to have developed a serviceable caricature," he said. "Romney is fun to draw. A wide-eyed but vacant grin that says 'deer in the headlights' is what I'm after."

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The vice presidential candidates are also challenging. Auth said he's only drawn Biden once or twice. "Ryan, on the other hand, is a godsend, the personification of the policies Romney would pursue," he said. "His choice, in its own way, reflects a certain desperation. He's Romney's attempt to make the campaign all about Obama with little or no clarity about his own agenda."

Yes, newspaper cartoonists have opinions—that's the point. In Auth's early days at the Inquirer, his views and those of the editorial page editor who had hired him were not always in sync. "Our arrangement was that no one would tell me what to draw, but he had veto power," Auth said. "That led to some game-playing and arguments, some of which I won, some I lost." After a couple of years or so those rules disappeared and Auth was established as an independent commentator, "whose signed opinion was my own."

Auth summed up his current point of view this way: "The overriding issue of the campaign is, should Obama be rewarded with a second term in spite of the fact that he's run into a solid wall of opposition whose purpose from the very beginning has been to thwart his every attempt to deal with the catastrophic economic reality he inherited ... Or should the Republicans be rewarded for their demonization of Obama, returning the country to the very policies which created the mess we're in?"

He insists that this stance doesn't mean Obama always gets preferential treatment. But, he admits, "My cartoons will be overwhelmingly supportive because I believe it's important that he be reelected. In cartooning, a natural attack medium, I'll most likely be drawing Romney and Ryan much more than Obama."

After covering every presidential campaign since Humphrey versus Nixon in 1968, I asked if the election cycles were starting to blur together and become less interesting. "No!" he told me. "If I ever notice that I don't really care about these things, I'll have become a hack, and it will be time to quit."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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