Legendary Cartoonist Pat Oliphant: 'We Are in a Forest Fire of Ignorance'

Oliphant: Reagan had a reception for a few cartoonists in the Roosevelt Room in the White House. He walked in and it was all very comfortable, until he reached into his pocket for a set of 3-by-5 talking-point cards and said, “I always start every day by reading the comics.” We all thought, “No, please, no.” He fancied himself a cartoonist, but when he drew something for us no one knew what the hell it was and we never asked him. He looked very pleased with himself. The only time I ever met “Junior” Bush was when he was still governor of Texas, at a book event arranged by Mrs. Bush. He was affable, friendly, and a likeable person. I thought, here we go again. What I’m trying to say is you can’t tell.

Daly: When you look at politics over the half-century, what do you see?

Oliphant: I see a history lesson. The country is working in circles. I do a lot of reading of history, and find out they’re doing the same things. Every administration is circular and gives the same way of doing things to the next administration and the next generation, and the next. There’s the corruption and the frustration, but nothing ever seems to get done. But for a cartoonist that’s okay. We just have to change their names.

Drawing faces in the first year is difficult, because nobody really knows what these people look like and their caricature has not been formed. Once they establish familiarity and you establish the caricature, then you’re okay. Then they turn out to be like the caricature. Look at Obama and Easter Island today.

Daly: Do you vote for the best potential presidential caricature?

Oliphant: What might be good for the republic might not be good for cartoonists. And vice versa.

Daly: You have some favorite subjects that you return to from time to time, don’t you?

Oliphant: The Catholic Church has been good to me over the years. They hit a high point for me that sort of steamrolled into a big global event when the priests were being nabbed everywhere for abusing altar boys. It was terrible. It made for lovely cartoons. The cartoons caused a bit of a stir in Catholic Church publications.

March 20, 2002 (Pat Oliphant/Universal Uclick)

Another opportunity to return to a theme of mine came when Hans Blix was the UN’s inspector trying to find WMDs hidden in Iraq. I had a staff guy rush in to Bush telling him Blix had evidence of a vast secret stockpile of bastards in Washington. It echoed my opinion of Washington perfectly: It is full of bastards.

June 17, 2003 (Pat Oliphant/Universal Uclick)

Daly: Didn’t you shrink George W. Bush in office?

Oliphant: He was already shrinking. And he stayed shrunk.

Daly: That’s what happened to Carter, isn’t it?

Oliphant: The way I drew him, he got smaller and smaller and smaller. His feet didn’t touch the floor. But he had a huge array of teeth. He will be remembered for that great array of Chiclets.

June 15, 2004 (Pat Oliphant/Universal Uclick)

Daly: You seem to use lots of ink, to draw details furiously; sometimes almost everywhere you can fit it all in the frame. Aren’t you working harder than might be necessary to make the point?

Oliphant: I love drawing and maybe I get lost in it sometimes. I enjoy it so much that I just keep drawing and drawing, and as the drawing develops you see other chances and places you can take it. When you get into some cartoons like that, you can see this is going to be a long day, but what the hell?

Daly: You tend to gather a crowd in your cartoons whenever you can.

Oliphant: Yes, and that always seems to happen when I’m in a hurry, too. I’m a captive to my own idiocy sometimes. The more people I put in, the happier I am. Except when I’m in a hurry, and then my enthusiasm runs up against the deadline. You have to keep up your enthusiasm. It mustn’t show in the cartoon that you’re in a hurry. It adds to the spontaneity if you’re working fast.

August 20, 2014 (Pat Oliphant/Universal Uclick)

Daly: Another quickly recognizable element of an Oliphant cartoon is your friend Punk, a smart aleck little penguin with a punch line. Aren’t you a ventriloquist with Punk as your sidekick to say what’s really on your mind?

Oliphant: I never heard it put that way before, but, yes, he’s sort of my alter ego. If I had any additional thoughts I could float them again in his words, just to expand the idea. Sometimes penguins arrive in southern Australia from Antarctica, so I introduced him in weather cartoons I was doing there at the time. Let him be the smart-ass; I’m not the smart-ass. He got a good reaction, so I kept him and brought him with me to America. I never really thought much about what I was trying to do with him here. I just enjoyed doing it.

December 7, 1988 (Pat Oliphant/Universal Uclick)

Daly: Is what you do work, or is it fun?

OIiphant: I’ve been doing it for 60 years, 50 years in this country. I don’t intend to die doing this. I like drawing, but I have a lot of other things that I haven’t done as much of as I want to—sculpting, lithography, monotypes. Things that I also enjoy doing, without having to hit a deadline.

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Les Daly is a writer based in New Mexico. His work has appeared in The AtlanticSmithsonian, and The New York Times.

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