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

For 50 years, the Australian-born artist has been a mainstay of America's politics and opinion pages. Here's why he's not optimistic about the future.

Oliphant's cartoon from September 13, 2001 (Pat Oliphant/Universal Uclick)

Pat Oliphant is perhaps the most influential political cartoonist in the world. He has drawn—and quartered, some might add—10 American presidents, and assorted political figures and events that have caught his attention since he arrived in the United States from his native Australia 50 years ago.

The full collection of more than 10,000 Oliphant cartoons, sculptures, paintings, and other works comprises a priceless historical and often hysterical review of a half-century of America’s leaders and the misadventures through which the country has followed them. The dose of humor is what makes political cartoons powerful, Oliphant says: “Humor makes things palatable and induces people to look at things they wouldn’t otherwise want to think about without the humor.”

With a Pulitzer Prize and a thick volume of other awards and honors behind him, he still produces three cartoons a week for the Universal Uclick. Among its roster of cartoonists, the syndicate casts Oliphant “in the middle,” favoring neither liberals nor conservatives. Both Democrats and Republicans regularly dispute that. His drawings are distributed to some 250 publications in the United States and more internationally in the Republic of Korea, Japan, Brazil, France, and places in between. His lectures on political cartooning, producing large drawings on-stage all the while, have taken him to university campuses and to audiences from Eastern Europe to Turkey to Davos.

Oliphant, now 79, still delights with a boyish sense of disbelief at what he sees as the absurdity (at best) of most political figures and the things they say and do. Exploding happily at his good fortune, he says, “They create this stuff; all I have to do is illustrate it. I just sit back and it comes at me.”

He is less good-humored about the fate of newspapers and magazines; the educational breadth, or lack of it, of the people who read them, whether in print or online; the people who publish and edit them; and the politicians who “keep the country going in circles.” He reads a lot of history, he says, “to find out if they’re doing it again.”

Oliphant could be called cantankerous if he were not so funny and ever ready to laugh at a joke or at some bizarre ripe new situation that his sharp-nibbed pens and inkbottle find irresistible. I met with him in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he and art-gallery owner Susan Conway, his wife, manager, muse, and bemused supporter of his heavy Diogenes lamp, have lived for some 20 years. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Les Daly: Five years ago, and only 35 days after he was inaugurated, you drew President Obama as an enigmatic, inscrutable, and distant Easter Island statue, above a crowd of people pleading and praying for answers to their problems. That is the Obama everyone is talking about today. Wasn’t that extraordinarily incisive and prescient?

Pat Oliphant: I’ll take that. I just had that feeling about him, that maybe he thought he shouldn’t be there. We were looking for and imbued him with qualities which he never had and still doesn’t have, inflated expectations. I must say I had those expectations, too.

February 24, 2009 (Pat Oliphant/Universal Uclick)

Daly: Eight months later, you located him again in Easter Island, still stonily opaque. You depicted him being asked how angry he was about a particular issue, to which he replied “rather very.” Is Easter Island your distant standby location for him?

Oliphant: He was waffling even at that stage. He’ll be back there if I need him there.

October 26, 2009 (Pat Oliphant/Universal Uclick)

Daly: Let’s talk about other politicians you’ve pinned to your drawing board.

Oliphant: I arrived here in the middle of the [1964] Johnson-Goldwater campaign. I came from Australia, a country where nothing happens. Here, the place was polarized, as it tends to be all the time. And this is a happy hunting ground for cartoonists, if you’re that minded. I think politics itself is the most boring thing you could possibly engage in. The study of the charlatans that practice it is what is enjoyable. The machinations of politics is not what is fascinating to me. It’s the crookedness of the people. Politicians are disgusting people, with some exceptions.

Daly: Name some exceptions today.

Oliphant: (A long pause. Followed by a very long pause.) Stewart Udall, Kennedy’s secretary of the interior, was a good man. He lived nearby. So is his son Tom Udall, the current senator from New Mexico. He lives nearby too.

Daly: Nice neighborhood, but do any other exceptions to disgusting politicians living or dead come to mind?

Oliphant: (Another very long pause.) I’m thinking ... I’m thinking.

Daly: Have you liked any of the presidents you have met?

Oliphant: I like to stay away from politicians. The first lesson I had in that was meeting Goldwater, although it was after the election. I liked him immensely. I realized I mustn’t let this happen again. And I’ve tried not to. I met Johnson in a reception line. You know what he said to me? “Haddya-doo.” That was it. Move on. Jerry Ford was a good guy. After he left office, he called me to come to a gathering in Palm Springs. He called on the phone himself, didn’t have some underling do it. Remembering his ability to “fall upstairs,” I went up to him and drew a Band-Aid on his forehead. It wasn’t fair, but he took it well. The Secret Service was not amused. “You’ll never draw in this town again.”

Daly: How about Ronald Reagan? Didn’t everyone like him?

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.

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.”