Political Cartoonists Impact Presidential Races

Throughout history cartoonists' influence has varied, but the enduring trade lives on.

Depictions of McKinley during his presidential race inspired legislation to make suing cartoonists easier.

Depictions of McKinley during his presidential race inspired legislation to make suing cartoonists easier.

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Populist cartoons were used again by William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, this time to oppose presidential candidate William McKinley in 1896. The Journal latched onto his campaign manager, Mark Hanna, a wealthy Midwestern industrialist. Artist Homer Davenport drew, over and over again, a grossly overweight Hanna in a suit covered with dollar signs.

The spots reportedly brought Hanna to tears, but McKinley still won, partly because rival William Jennings Bryan was even more widely caricatured by cartoonists as a backward Bible thumper. Cartoons from the McKinley-Bryan race caused enough of a stir to inspire legislation in New York and other states to make it easier to sue cartoonists and their bosses for libel. The legislation failed, but it underscored the potency of these singular drawings.

In the early 20th century, the advent of photographs pushed cartoons off front pages to the editorial pages—and cartoonists watched their sway slip. With their future uncertain, many of them opted for less-offensive images. For example, the most popular cartoonist of the era, the Washington Star's Clifford Berryman—the subject of a current National Archives exhibit called "Running for Office"—invented the teddy bear as a tribute to Theodore Roosevelt.

The birth of television in the 1950s and the spread of color photographs in newspapers and magazines gave political cartoons even more competition. This time, artists struck back with bolder, angrier, and more-irreverent work. Leading the fledgling movement was Herbert L. Block—better known by his pen name, Herblock—who was so out front in combating Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunt that he coined the term "McCarthyism" in a cartoon that showed a reluctant GOP elephant being pushed toward a "McCarthyism" platform.

The brash new cartoonists questioned Richard Nixon's ethics and John F. Kennedy's youth in the 1960 election. Even with Kennedy's assassination still fresh during the 1964 race, they refused to hold back on Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. "I wanted to be humorous without being lightweight," says Pat Oliphant, who arrived in the United States from Australia during the Johnson-Goldwater race and joined the new breed of hard-edged cartoonists. "A legitimate political cartoon has to draw blood."

During Nixon's 1968 and 1972 races, cartoonists drew plenty of his blood. "He was an absolute gift," says cartoonist Draper Hill. "He was stylized in a way that epitomized evil." Long before Nixon became president, Herblock began drawing him with a house burglar's five o'clock shadow. "It's more enjoyable to deal with people you don't like, because it's a critical medium," says Tony Auth, a Philadelphia Inquirer cartoonist who joined the paper during the Nixon administration. "Nice cartoons aren't very good."

Limited influence. But Nixon's landslide re-election was a stark reminder of the form's limits. "Watergate had already slipped out, and the cartoons were having a field day with him," says Northrop of Nixon's 1972 race. "People loved those cartoons, and Nixon still won 49 states."

And yet the avalanche of brilliant anti-Nixon cartoons—one of Auth's pictured National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger carrying the world on his back, while the president himself struggled under an equally large tape reel—ushered in a new golden age. Former President Gerald Ford once remarked that the three ways for Americans to keep abreast of the news out of Washington were through "the electronic media, the print media, and Doonesbury, and not necessarily in that order."

The mostly liberal cartoonist corps had a field day with Ronald Reagan, but his immense likability made him harder to caricature than Nixon. "Editors said to just draw Reagan as a wrinkled prune," recalls Hill. "But it was a much subtler operation to deal with his charisma, individuality, and toughness." Reagan was the last president to invite political cartoonists to dinner at the White House. Oliphant sat far from the president to avoid being charmed by him. He continued his avoidance in the '90s with Bill Clinton because "he can apparently seduce anyone." Despite Clinton's charm, Kallaugher drew one of the most prescient cartoons of the 1992 race when he showed a woman's silky legs and a martini glass emerging from Clinton's blow-dried hair.