CNN logo
Message Boards 

CNN Networks 

Quick News 
Video Vault 
News Quiz 

Pathfinder/Warner Bros

Barnes and Noble

Main banner

The outspoken Oliphant
Pat Oliphant

By CNN Interactive writer Kat Yancey

In this story:

ATLANTA (CNN) -- It was 1964, the year of the "British invasion." For the first time in history, 27 songs by British artists made it into Billboard's top 100, and, coincidentally, an Australian editorial cartoonist named Pat Oliphant took up residence in the United States.

"When Oliphant hit our shores, it was like the Normandy invasion, but to America," said Mike Peters, creator of "Mother Goose and Grimm."

"They said the Beatles were the British invasion. The British invasion was happening because of Pat Oliphant. When he started doing cartoons, he blew everybody out of the water."

Oliphant was an instant hit. He became nationally syndicated within a year of his 1964 debut at the Denver Post, and in 1967, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize -- an honor he's still cynical about.

Punch after punch, president after president, his popularity continued to swell.

He joined the Universal Press Syndicate in 1980, while working for the Washington Star. When the newspaper folded a year later, he became the nation's first 20th century editorial cartoonist who wasn't based at a newspaper.

Today, at 62, his editorial cartoons are published in more than 450 magazines and newspapers worldwide. He is considered one of the most influential editorial cartoonists of this century.

Colleagues and scholars say Oliphant's staying power is his willingness to change.

Since the 1980s, he has branched into the fine arts, including paintings and sculptures of political leaders.

Originals of his daily cartoons, sold only to museums and the serious collector, run about $2,000 each. And his sculptures can fetch as much as $30,000, says his agent, Susan Conway.

"I like to be thought of as an artist who draws cartoons," Oliphant modestly told CNN Interactive during a recent chat at the Museum of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. The museum is exhibiting a collection of his work, which chronicles seven U.S. presidencies, timed for President's Day.

Working in 'heaven'

Timing can be everything. It certainly was for Oliphant, when he landed in the United States.

Johnson cartoon
Struggling with a troubled economy, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed a surtax through Congress just a few months before the 1968 election. He left the political and economic ramifications to Richard Nixon, the successor he bitterly opposed.  

President Lyndon B. Johnson was fighting on two fronts -- an escalating war in Vietnam, and a battle to retain the Oval Office.

"The biggest opinion you could have in Australia was on the weather, and I'd been drawing weather cartoons for a long time. And to come into the middle of the Johnson-(Barry) Goldwater campaign of 1964 was (like having) died and gone to heaven. There I was."

In "heaven" he has stayed.

Oliphant doesn't like to meet politicians, fearing he'll like them. And, he says, politics itself is very boring, until you consider those associated with it.

"What a magnet it is for every crook in creation," he exclaims with a gleam in his eye. "It's like the Mafia in Vegas. They just won't go away. It's a natural attraction."

Whether at his home in Washington, D.C., or his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Oliphant routinely rises about 6 a.m. to scour the headlines, pick a topic and execute the 'toon du jour by his self-imposed noon deadline.

After that, it's time to dive into his moonlighting gig -- painting, sculpting and doing lithographs and monotypes of some of the biggest figures of modern history.

For Oliphant, there are no sacred cows.

He's done a bronze of George Bush, stripped bare. Another, of Johnson as a centaur. And one of his favorite punching bag, Richard M. Nixon, clothed in a Napoleonic cape and cap, weary from battle -- Watergate, not Waterloo.

"I don't think there's too much of a good thing as far as freedom of thought is concerned. I think this country is marvelous in that you can indeed criticize, without fear of libel, public figures."

His unshakable belief in freedom of the press drives Oliphant to push his cartooning to the limit. It also drove him to align himself with Hustler publisher Larry Flynt when Flynt was sued by fundamentalist clergyman Jerry Falwell over a parody.

Oliphant admits that offending a public figure is, to him, a "badge of honor."

Bush and Quayle
Vice President Dan Quayle, speaks out for the first time since taking office. Quayle accused opponents of John Tower, nominated for secretary of defense, of using McCarthy-like tactics.  

When Bush first sought the presidency, he took off his glasses so "he wouldn't appear like a wimp," Oliphant recalls.

"I gave him glasses in every cartoon. And, added the purse."

He put Bush's vice president, Dan Quayle, in a baby carriage.

Caricatures "take a long time to settle down before people know who you are drawing," Oliphant says. "I hate changes of administrations, because you have all your villains in place and they take them all away."

"Shoe" creator Jeff MacNelly, who also does political cartoons for his home paper, the Chicago Tribune, says Oliphant is "more courageous ... and more outrageous" than any other political cartoonist working today.

"You do a cartoon you think is outrageous, then you see what Pat's done. I always feel like I'm in the dust," MacNelly said.

It's the realism that Oliphant weaves into his cartoons that help make him, as Peters says, a "giant."

"He's a great noticer," says Draper Hill, cartoonist for The Detroit News. "It's so worthwhile to go wandering in the backgrounds of his cartoons looking at subsidiary figures."

Hill not only is a longtime Oliphant friend, but five of his books on the history of editorial cartooning have been published.

Watergate vs. Lewinskygate

Ronald Reagan
An overwhelmed President Reagan longs for his Hollywood roots.  

Oliphant says, from a source material standpoint, after Nixon resigned from office, the rest of the 1970s were pretty dull, except for President Gerald Ford's penchant for bumping into things.

The Hollywood president, Ronald Reagan, was so popular that Oliphant says he had a "difficult time trying to interest people in the adverse side of Reagan."

Nonetheless, the challenge was appealing. Oliphant, who calls himself a "reasoning liberal" and claims to have no loyalty to Democrats or Republicans, says he voted for Reagan's re-election in 1984. Why?

On Clinton

"I thought (Clinton's) first term was boring, even his scandals were boring, and the whole thing was going to be terrible in the second term. How wrong I was. I wish it would tone back a bit so we get time to catch up."

iconMore comments on Clinton
AIFF or WAV (337 K / 30 sec. sound)

"Who wants to draw (Walter) Mondale for four years?"

But while Nixon "wrote his own stuff," Oliphant says even the Watergate years appear tame compared to President Clinton's "Lewinskygate."

"We've gotten to the stage now where parody and satire have been overtaken by reality. This is a very uncomfortable time as far as I'm concerned. What do we do?" he asks seriously. "It's funny enough itself, I suppose. But it's sort of tragic too, at the same time. ... I'm being leapfrogged by events all the time."

Trademark wit

Oliphant's desire to push commentary to the edge stems from his Australian roots.

After two years in the newspaper business, as a copy boy and a press artist, Oliphant became the editorial cartoonist for The Advertiser, in his native Adelaide, in 1955.

Watch Oliphant draw Punk the Penguin
video icon 1.5 MB / 30 sec. / 240x180
1 MB / 30 sec. / 160x120
QuickTime movie

"Every day at about 3 o'clock, we'd have our editorial meeting," he recalled. "Four or five editors would gather: a managing editor, an assistant managing editor, and a chief of staff, and elevator operator. And they'd all have a part in hammering out on the anvil this cartoon I was to draw the next day. It was an awful, awful way to work."

Fed up with oppressive British press laws and paranoid editors, Oliphant developed a device that enabled him to get his opinion into his cartoons, and became his trademark.

The editors didn't notice Punk the Penguin, at first. By the time they did, the penguin had grown too popular to oust, Oliphant says.

The idea grew out of a colleague's assignment on Australia's south coast. The reporter brought a penguin back to the paper in a bag.

"They smell bad, like old fish," Oliphant recalled. "(The penguin) went to the zoo, and I put him in a cartoon. It was a good foil for these awful people who were making me draw these awful cartoons."

More about the work of Pat Oliphant

  • CNN's Newsroom/Worldview airs Monday (February 16) at 4:30 a.m. EST/0930 GMT.

  • "Seven Presidents: The Art of Oliphant" is on display in Atlanta through March 29 at the Museum of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

  • "Oliphant's Anthem: Pat Oliphant at the Library of Congress" is an exhibit that opens in Washington, D.C., on April 2 and runs through July 6.
  • His innovations, like Punk, have been mimicked in the industry. And his beliefs in freedom, and his independence, have helped set him apart and made him a force for change.

    Oliphant's ability to stir controversy led Jim Bellows to lure him from Denver in 1975 to work for the Washington Star.

    "I wanted to get somebody who could make a mark for us," the former editor, Bellows, recalls. "We ran his cartoon on the front page."

    "Many, many, many" readers complained about Oliphant's commentary, Bellows says. "But that's par for the course. In the process we got them talking about the Washington Star. ... They buy the paper because of that."

    Gorby and Yeltsin
    Russian leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.  

    Some colleagues note that Oliphant's style got even edgier after the Star folded, because he no longer had to answer to editors. Now, if editors don't like his work, they just don't publish it.

    "He shows cartoonists ... that you don't have to be afraid to change in midstream," says Harry Katz, the curator of popular and applied graphic art for the Library of Congress. "Right now he's doing his best work, and that's because he wasn't afraid to look at himself closely and decide where he wanted to go with his work ... he began to sculpt and began to paint."

    "The body of his work that he has created really transcends political cartooning and speaks to the importance of commentary in the country," Katz added.

    Because Oliphant has, since the 1980s, expanded his work beyond caricature, some scholars, including Katz, compare him to Honore' Daumier (1808-1879), the famous French caricaturist and artist. Daumier spent six months in prison during the 1830s, after offending Louis Philippe by depicting the king as the monster Gargantua swallowing up taxes and excreting on the people.

    The Library of Congress has chosen nearly 500 pieces of Oliphant's work for its permanent collection.

    The competition, on Oliphant

    "I think the real mark of Oliphant is that he's continued to improve himself, stretch his abilities as a caricaturist, as a draftsman ... he is one of those wonderful talents that just keeps on growing." -- Draper Hill, The Detroit News

    "There wasn't a sense of fun in editorial cartooning, I think, before Oliphant." -- Mike Luckovich, The Atlanta Constitution

    "I think he's a little more courageous than the rest of us. And, more outrageous." -- Jeff MacNelly, Chicago Tribune ("Shoe")

    "He exploded on the scene ... was impossible to ignore ... like this black hole of influence. Even cartoonists who were trying to develop their own style were sucked into this black hole of influence. A lot of great cartoonists have never escaped his influence." -- Bill Mitchell, syndicated through Tribune Media Services, publishing exclusively online

    "I think he influenced cartooning in editorial cartoons as much as 'Saturday Night Live' influenced black humor, that sarcastic dark kind of humor, to our country's middle-America." -- Mike Peters, The Dayton (Ohio) Daily News ("Mother Goose and Grimm")

    "Editorial cartoonists are supposed to be social critics. They can be left or right ... but there should be some sort of definite stance that they take. For example, you can never confuse (The Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Lock) 'Herblock' with conservative. He has been consistent in his more than 50-year career. So you know where he stands on issues. You don't have that same stance with Oliphant's work." -- Tom Engelhardt, retired January 1998 from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

    'A living legend'

    Mike Luckovich, editorial cartoonist for The Atlanta Constitution, says Oliphant's work influenced him greatly when he was growing up in Seattle during the 1970s.

    "He was everywhere. Oliphant was THE cartoonist," Luckovich recalls.

    Before Oliphant's arrival, U.S. cartoonists were still stuck on the symbols left as a legacy by the famed Thomas Nast. Oliphant brought back the humor, Luckovich says.

    "I would much prefer to be sarcastic and humorous and make a point than to be glum and hit someone on the head with a sledgehammer. That kind of cartooning was pre-Oliphant," he said. "He's one of the legends. A living legend."

    Peters agrees.

    "Oliphant is a giant. He's the reason why my whole generation draws the way we draw," Peters says. "What Oliphant brought was a certain type of humor, a certain satire ... that we did not have as a country."

    Now a comic giant in his own right, Peters admits being star-struck the first time he met his hero at Kennedy International Airport in 1970.

    "I could not believe I was standing in front of Pat Oliphant! This guy was so big ... such a big presence in cartooning at that time ... I think I knelt down and kissed his hand. He looked at me like I was nuts."

    Peters has repeated the ritual over three decades, because he loves Oliphant's response.

    "He only looks at me with utter disgust. We've got a wonderful relationship. I idolize him, and he sort of tolerates me."

    A friend to the profession

    Peters says he and Oliphant only have a professional relationship, because "you don't strike up a friendship with Mount Rushmore. You only stand there observing from a distance."

    But cartoonist Bill Mitchell, who publishes his work exclusively online, found in Oliphant not only a treasured friend, but a valued mentor when Mitchell was launching his career in the early 1980s.

    Mitchell had just moved to Washington when he read that Oliphant would be at one of the district's museums. The budding artist ditched a planned evening at the theater with his wife so he could hear Oliphant speak.

    He even got there more than an hour early, to get a good seat. Four people entered the auditorium and sat in the front row, and Mitchell recognized one of them as Oliphant.

    El Niño

    "I guess I was staring at him. He looked at me a couple of times and said, 'Do I know you?' and in my mind I said, 'This is it, get up right now and introduce yourself.'"

    Mitchell did. They've been pals ever since. One of the first things Oliphant did was to encourage Mitchell to enroll in art classes.

    "You get to look at naked women and learn to draw. There are two benefits to this," Mitchell says Oliphant told him.

    Oliphant complains about the decline of competition in the newspaper industry, and says that has led to the decline of controversy in editorial cartoons. Too many editorial cartoonists today aren't doing their jobs, he says, and there are too many "jokesters" in the industry.

    Mitchell says the complaints stem from Oliphant's love for the art.

    "He wants it held to a higher standard than many in the business hold it to," Mitchell said. "He desires to see the best work come out of these other cartoonists."

    The Pulitzer pundit

    Pulitzer Prize winner
    Oliphant's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon  

    In recognition of Oliphant's excellence, the cartoonist was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. And he's downright irreverent about it.

    "It's a fraudulent award," he says. (icon Oliphant comments on Pulitzer Prize - 312 K / 28 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

    Oliphant believes the Pulitzer is political. He even notes, correctly, that the prize was not awarded to an editorial cartoonist in 1973.

    "Right in the middle of Watergate. Everybody, even bad cartoonists, had been doing good cartoons," he says.

    For his own submission, Oliphant said he chose a batch of cartoons he liked, and inserted "a pretty bad cartoon" he hated. The Pulitzer was awarded for that very cartoon.

    He's never made a submission to the committee since. But why did he deliberately seek an award he didn't believe in?

    "You only need one Pulitzer to be able to criticize a Pulitzer. I never went back."

    What critics say

    While it's difficult to find Oliphant critics, they do exist.

    Tom Engelhardt, who just retired from the St. Louis Post- Dispatch, has never liked Oliphant's work because, he says, Oliphant is all over the map with his opinion.

    "Editorial cartoonists are supposed to be social critics. They can be left or right ... but there should be some sort of definite stance that they take."

    Englehardt also admits he hasn't followed Oliphant's work since the early 1980s, with one recent exception: a series of advertisements Oliphant drew for Northwest Airlines. The ads ran in national newspapers within the last few months, as Northwest sought landing rights in Japan.

    On political correctness

    "It drives me crazy ... We have the death of controversy. Controversy is not welcomed or accepted in all these one-newspaper towns where there is no competition. They're just printing money. ... It used to be the hard-hitting cartoon was a staple. It's just a bunch of jokesters now."

    "I just don't think it's right for a cartoonist to take money from a commercial outlet like that."

    Other journalists voiced similar complaints, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently dropped Oliphant because of the ads.

    Oliphant says he agreed with the airline, and has no regrets about doing the cartoons for the campaign. The issue, in fact, boils down to his fundamental belief in the freedom to express his opinion.

    "We actually influenced the case and actually won it. So I enjoyed that immensely," he said, adding, half-jokingly, "so if you want to get controversial things into newspapers, you have to buy your way in!"

    Infoseek search  

    Message Boards Sound off on our
    message boards & chat

    Back to the top

    © 1998 Cable News Network, Inc.
    A Time Warner Company
    All Rights Reserved.

    Terms under which this service is provided to you.
    Read our privacy guidelines.