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
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
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.
Timing can be everything. It certainly was for Oliphant, when
he landed in the United States.
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
President Lyndon B. Johnson was fighting on two fronts -- an
escalating war in Vietnam, and a battle to retain the Oval
"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
Oliphant admits that offending a public figure is, to him, a
"badge of honor."
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
When Bush first sought the presidency, he took off his
glasses so "he wouldn't appear like a wimp," Oliphant
"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
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
An overwhelmed President Reagan longs for his Hollywood
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
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?
"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."
More 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
"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."
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.
"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,
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
"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
"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."
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
"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
"I think he's a little more courageous than the rest of us.
And, more outrageous." -- Jeff MacNelly, Chicago Tribune
"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.
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
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."
"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
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
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.
"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
"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."
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.
( 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."
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!"