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

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.

Daly: Has the influence of political cartoons changed while you’ve been doing it?

Oliphant: The influence of cartoonists has diminished greatly, even in the past 10 years. It’s a great disappointment really. It’s a noble and vital sort of art that took about 600 years to develop, going back to Leonardo, and the grotesque figures of Goya. In part, it’s been sabotaged by the newspapers themselves. They’re giving their content away on the Internet and haven’t figured out how to stay in business. Editors and publishers are a great disappointment. You’ve got editors who don’t read now. I once did a cartoon of Reagan as Johnny Appleseed for a national magazine. Reagan was striding along spreading his seeds and waves of pollution were growing up behind him. The editor didn’t know who Johnny Appleseed was. Everybody used to freely use Shakespearean quotes and apply them to a current problem like, say, indecision. You know, “Alas, poor Yorick.” You can’t do that anymore. You’ll get, “What’s with this guy with the skull?”

August 13, 2014 (Pat Oliphant/Universal Uclick)

Publishers of newspapers don’t want to offend anybody and the editors, their lackeys, are only too happy to play along. Controversy is not welcome in newspapers. Bill Mauldin—along with Herblock and Paul Conrad, he was the pick of the bunch of American cartoonists when I was starting out—saw this coming about 10 or 15 years ago and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” It turned out he was right.

There’s another important factor: education. The frames of reference have disappeared. You have to have a frame of reference to appreciate a cartoon, to know what is being caricatured. People don’t do the reading of news anymore that would give them the background to know what the cartoon is about; you can’t refer to accepted wisdom or variations of accepted wisdom. We are in a forest fire of ignorance.

July 25, 2014 (Pat Oliphant/Universal Uclick)

Daly: You sometimes sound like you live somewhere between amused, frustrated, and angry.

Oliphant: And appalled. Don’t forget appalled.


As we parted, Pat Oliphant stood by the wooden gate to his home and, before I could come back one last time to an earlier lingering question, he laughed, “I’m thinking … I’m thinking.”

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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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