George W. Bush has been good to me. To call him my savior would be overstating the case, but not by much. I was drifting, with little sense of direction or purpose, when he came to me and showed me the way. It will be difficult to vote against a man who has given me so much.
As a political cartoonist, it is my job to dwell on the negative, and President Bush has provided me with a seemingly bottomless well of negativity. All I have to do is reach down with cupped hands and drink my fill. A good cartoon channels the artist’s outrage over hypocrisy, arrogance, incompetence and injustice into a clear, simple image which indicts the perpetrators and calls them to account. And I can’t imagine a better muse than George Bush.
Not that John Kerry wouldn’t provide plenty of fodder, should he be elected. The man’s hair alone is worthy of satire. And with that elongated face and those sad hound-dog eyes, the man is a veritable anthology of caricature clichés.
And his politics, of course, would provide ample material; it is a testament to the extremism of Bush’s policies that Kerry is in many quarters considered liberal. The New Democrat mentality, once Republican Lite, has been redefined as leftist, and leftist redefined as radical. More troops in Iraq; a harder line against Palestine; a pandering “right into the camera” pledge of no new taxes on a middle class redefined as those making less than $200,000—if this is liberalism, perhaps it’s time I trade in my beard for a hammer and sickle.
So in a sense, I can’t lose; the field of candidates guarantees me some measure of job security. But George Bush is special. What’s bad for the country is good for the cartoonist, and Bush is evidently steadfast in his determination to revitalize the art of political cartooning.
When I began my post-collegiate cartooning career, the nation’s biggest scandal, speaking figuratively, was in Bill Clinton’s pants. And that wasn’t a topic I found particularly inspiring.
Otherwise, things were pretty dull—it was a time of relative peace and prosperity, with most of the public debate centered on an absurd and petty soap opera of sex, lies and Linda’s Tripp wire, designed to send the president stumbling into impeachment. This may sound like fertile ground for a cartoonist, and for many it was, but I did not get into this business to make penis jokes. That was, and remains, merely a personal hobby.
Political cartooning, already on a steady downward path from the heights of Watergate and the Reagan years, had taken another precipitous drop, reducing itself to a series of jokes and one-liners on current events, rather than statements of opinion and principle. Humor, once viewed as just one of many tools in the cartoonist’s toolbox, had become the objective, rendering the editorial cartoon nothing more than a humorous diversion from the serious topics otherwise discussed with sobriety on the editorial page. Editorial cartoonists across the country seemed content to play court jester, attempting to line their pockets with the meager reprint fees shelled out by a nation of editors hell-bent on not challenging their readers. It was difficult enough for me to make my way as a freelancer; I didn’t want to add to the cacophony of trite cartoons vying for the reader’s eye.
Then the 2000 election fiasco came along and gave me something worth drawing about: fraud, corruption, voter disenfranchisement, stolen elections, a deposed family dynasty on the march. Things were looking up.
And after the inauguration, the hits just kept on coming: the Healthy Forests Initiative that wasn’t; the Clear Skies Act that didn’t—the Orwellian turns of phrase were abundant, transparent, maddening and inspiring. These were good times.
Then 9/11 came along, and with it a brief period of national unity, during which many of the nation’s cartoonists embarrassed themselves with fawning portraits of Bush as a giant among men, a bold and statuesque leader who had grown in office—despite the fact that his administration had been caught with its pants down in a position far more compromising than any conceived in Bill Clinton’s naughtiest fantasies. But the love-fest would be short-lived.
The conventional wisdom was that the 9/11 attacks had changed everything, but its true effects were far more insidious than anyone could have predicted: It transformed the bumbling presidency of George W. Bush into a seemingly unstoppable neo-conservative juggernaut, a focused and determined political machine that would ruthlessly channel the confusion and anguish of 9/11 toward a radical conservative agenda. And it gave me–and political cartooning in general–a second wind.
The administration used 9/11 to justify a series of outrageous and egregious policies, steamrolling over the Democrats and the nation in pursuit of the neo-con wet dream that had lain dormant for more than a decade, and culminating in the attempt to establish Iraq as a bright shining example of laissez faire Utopia. They demanded the unfathomable and settled for the unthinkable, making Orwell’s nightmares seem like acceptable compromises by comparison. There is no more hospitable climate for a cartoonist.
And though I’m sure President Kerry could be depended upon to carry the torch and continue much of the ongoing circus of folly and hypocrisy, I’m not sure what will become of me if he doesn’t. If worse comes to worst and I’m left without material, I may just be forced to use my considerable salary to finance another California recall.
In the meantime, while the optimist in me hopes for change, the opportunist in me is cheering for President Bush. The man came to me in my time of need and he’s given me some good years. And it’s hard to turn your back on a friend like that.
Justin DeFreitas is the editorial cartoonist for the Berkeley Daily Planet. His work is reprinted in a dozen Northern California newspapers and magazines and online at www.jfdefreitas.com.