Berkeley Cartoonist Takes Presidential Race to La Peña

By Judith Scherr
Friday December 07, 2007

You won’t have to remove your shoes when you enter Khalil Bendib’s White House. 

“I will not bring the mosque into the oval office,” promised the Algerian-Berkeleyan cartoonist, who’s mounting a run for the presidency. 

“I want to be top dog in a top-dog country—master of the universe,” he told the Planet in an exclusive one-on-one interview in his light-filled north Berkeley home, surrounded by his sculptures, paintings and campaign signs. It would be unthinkable to run for a lesser office, such as mayor or governor, he said. 

Unfazed by what might be seen as a technical lack of eligibility as a naturalized citizen—“I’ll ride Schwarzenegger’s coattails. After he has the law changed for him, I’ll pass him up,” Bendib said, ignoring the timing problem that may present for the 2008 election cycle. And undaunted by the lack of funds and a heightened prejudice against Arabs since 9/11, Bendib’s taking his “Pres in the Fez” campaign—inspired he says by Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat—to the people. 

He has a campaign stop Dec. 13, 7:30 p.m., at La Pena, 3105 Shattuck Ave. Bendib will bring along copies of his newest book: Mission Accomplished: Wicked Cartoons by America’s Most Wanted Political Cartoonist, Interlink Publishing Group, $17.95. 

Cynthia McKinney and Howard Zinn’s accolades appear on the book cover. The forward is written by Norman Solomon. “This book refuses to accept … false choices. Bendib’s cartoons scramble a deck that has been stacked by the demagogues and crusaders who feel that they must diminish the humanity of others to exalt their own,” Solomon writes. 

Unabashedly, Bendib admits marketing the book is behind the idea to run for president. When he saw photos of huge lines of people snaking around city blocks to buy Jimmy Carter’s and Bill Clinton’s books, “I thought—I have a book, too. I have got to become an ex-president. Unfortunately—and I’ve researched it—in order to become an ex-president, you have to be President first,” he said. 

The first thing Bendib would do as president is get rid of the influence of money, which, he says, has corrupted politics and “so-called public education” along with academic freedom.  

“You see it right here in Berkeley,” he said, flipping open Mission Accomplished to a cartoon depicting a man giving directions to a freshman. The man was pointing the way to the university president’s office on a campus map dotted with corporate logos and saying: “Go towards the McDonald’s Nutritional Science Building, past the Monsanto Sustainable Agriculture Department, down to the Lockheed-Martin World Peace Hall, turn right at the Enron School of Business Ethics, and you’ll see it there: Doctor Faust’s office….”  

Born to parents seeking refuge in France during the Algerian war for independence, and having spent his youngest years in Morocco, Bendib became keenly aware of politics as a small child. 

His earliest memories were of his parents sitting in their Rabat, Morocco living room listening intently to the radio for every scrap of news from Algeria. Politics permeated every conversation. Friends were killed; an uncle working for the resistance—an artist—was captured and tortured. “It was a very popular war. Everyone was involved in it in one capacity or another,” he says. Of 10 million Algerians, 1.5 million died. “It was an incredibly bloody war; we call it a genocide,” he said. 

Bendib says he uses humor as a way to speak to those who may not otherwise listen to what he has to say.  

“To reach people, I have to sugar-coat my argument, otherwise I run into a wall in the face of a huge propaganda machine on the other side,” he said. 

For example, he often uses cartoons to show the hypocrisy he sees in George Bush’s politics. In the Mission Accomplished cartoon, labeled “Habeas Corpus Suspended,” the statue of liberty has been hung; the U.S. House and Senate are saying, “You’re guilty until proven innocent,” and G.W. Bush is saying to the hung Statue of Liberty, “Sorry, Ma’am, but in times of war…” Then the little bird Bendib calls his alter ego reminds the reader what Bush has said about the cause of 9/11: “Because the terrorists hate our freedom,” the little bird says. 

A call for justice runs through Bendib’s work, with special consideration for the rights of the Palestinian people. “Nobody else in this country does cartoons about Palestine from a fair perspective,” Bendib said. “There’s incredible censorship when it comes to Palestine. I feel it’s my special mission to bring a little bit of the alternative view.” 

He brings this perspective to all of his work, as he is also a serious sculptor, painter and radio show host of KPFA’s Voices of the Middle East and North Africa. 

One of his best-known sculptures is a 1994 statue, which stands in Santa Ana Civic Center, of Alex Odeh, once regional head of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, killed by a pipe bomb in his office. Bendib describes the work as a tribute to Odeh’s “courageous defense of the maligned Arab-American community.” 

Bendib’s sculptures and paintings can be seen at www.studiobendib.com and his cartoons at www.bendib.com. His campaign website is not up yet.