Reporter's Notebook

Under the Cover
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We’re back. Welcome to the latest installment of Under the Cover.

Since last time, there are winners in the Republican and Democratic primaries for President, Senate Democrats wrapped up a 15-hour long filibuster on gun control, and the election is somehow crazier. For our new July/August cover story, Jonathan Rauch examines how American politics got to this point in the first place and how/if we can fix it.

Politics are inherently complicated and it’s tough to visualize the political system without resorting to symbols. Unfortunately for me, this is our second politics cover in less than a year, so I couldn’t use the trusty Elephant and Donkey symbols again.

I decided this time to use another symbol of America and democracy: Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam has shown up several times in The Atlantic’s cover history. The cover below on the left, illustrated by the legend Seymour Chwast, is for a 1995 piece about economic barometers. And in the 1997 cover on the right, also by Chwast, we see Uncle Sam in some sort of historical Conga line:

This next cover is from 2001. Uncle Sam is pulling double duty as a symbol of the might of “The Greatest Generation” as well as commemorating the Doonesbury comic strip at 40:

Artwork by Garry Trudeau

For our new July/August cover, the idea for the image started with the cover-line: “How American Politics Went Insane.” Then I started thinking about Jodeci … that’s right, Jodeci. They had a song called “Feenin’” in 1993, and the images of the band members in a padded cell are seared into my memory:

I watched a lot of MTV Jams. I loved this video for “Feenin.” Hype Williams is a genius.

So, how about Uncle Sam in a padded room wearing a straight-jacket?!

Here at The Atlantic, we like to do things … differently. The latest example is our Money issue, also known as “The Money Report.” We decided, of course, to do a cover story about not having money—more specifically, the shame that comes with financial stress in middle-class society.

A combination of poor decisions, as well as rising education and health care costs, have put the author, Neal Gabler, in a position where he would have trouble coming up with $400 cash in an emergency. “Financial impotence,” he calls it, “has many of the characteristics of sexual impotence, not least of which is the desperate need to mask it.” In other words, nobody wants to talk about their financial struggles.

When it came time to come up with the cover image, I started with ideas about financial struggle. One image I really liked was a guy in the hole. Literally. I wanted to stick a guy in a hole, holding his empty wallet:

Or what about using Gabler’s term “financial impotence”? Maybe a hand holding a tiny dollar?

While these would’ve been cool images, they didn’t convey the idea of “shame.” So I went back to the drawing board. I focused on the idea of shame and the “need to mask” oneself and then I thought about sports.

Let’s say you’re a fan of the New York Knicks … like me. And let’s say the Knicks are trash. You may decide as a fan to attend a game. You may also decide that rather than show your face, you would cover it up because you are too ashamed to be shown cheering for such a bad team. (C’mon Phil Jackson, get it together!)

(Jonathan Bachman / AP)

I wanted to apply that idea to our cover. I came up with a new sketch:

Creative Director’s log: January 26, 2016

11:45am: I’m on my way to the White House. We’re scheduled to photograph President Obama at 2:45. We have five minutes. FIVE minutes.

We’re not allowed in until 1:00pm but the photographer and crew want to get there early so we can get all of the equipment through security. Better to be early than late ...

I was told POTUS hates photo shoots. This needs to go smoothly.

54,000 miles. Three years. That’s how long Jim Fallows and his wife Deb had been working on this month’s cover story (coming soon). Their goal was to fly to every corner of this country and find out, first hand, what is “going right” with America so that maybe we can fix what was wrong.

As you can imagine, the results were … complicated. America’s a big place with different problems, different people, different resources. Kind of like … kind of like … a puzzle. Yeah! A puzzle!

America is like a puzzle that’s been pulled apart (or broken apart). The question is: Can America put the pieces back together? That’s the concept for our cover image. For the photo I reached out to the brilliant team of Adam Voorhes and Robin Finlay.

I told them the basic idea and sent over the piece. After reading a draft they sent over some sketches. First the sketches of the original concept:

Then, a few more iterations:

We settled on the puzzle with the hands. From there, some refined sketches:

“More hands?”

As The Atlantic’s creative director, I’m responsible for the most visible page in every month’s magazine: the cover.

Unlike most Atlantic covers, this month’s “Election 2016” issue isn’t illustrating one particular story. It is a combination of David Frum’s “The Great Republican Revolt” and Peter Beinart’s “Why America is Moving Left.” Each writer takes a look at what the insurgencies from both the right (Donald Trump, Tea Party) and the left (BLM, Occupy) will mean for the Republicans and Democrats in the upcoming election and into the future.

Every month, the editors and I have a meeting where we refine what we’re trying to say with the cover. What’s the idea? The term that kept coming up for this cover was “political seismic shift.” In other words, the political ground has shifted underneath each party’s feet, shaken by these outside forces. The establishment on both sides is losing its footing. After we figure out what the idea is, we then try to figure out how to illustrate it.

For starters, we wanted to use an elephant and a donkey. It’s a cliché, but sometimes clichés work. We talked about maybe having a split in the ground making its way towards the elephant and donkey, but that could be interpreted as a split between the parties, which is already, obviously, the case.

Then I started thinking about cartoons. More specifically, Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote. Take this classic scene, for example:

You know something terrible is going to happen, but the real beauty is in between bad things happening. The anticipation of the other shoe—or in this case, boulder—dropping is what makes this scene so funny. The goal was to capture some of that for the cover.