By Michael Miner
Drawing on the Past
“Did you catch Jack Higgins’s cartoon in last Thursday’s Sun-Times?” a reader asked the other day. Higgins had drawn a PLO gunman in a Jewish graveyard wondering, “Why do you stay where you are not wanted?!” The cartoon ran May 24.
Said my reader, Charles McLaughlin, “It’s a carbon copy of a Bill Mauldin cartoon from the 1960s.”
What we might call the Mauldin original appeared in the Sun-Times in 1964. That’s a long time ago, but the past is never safely behind us. Mauldin’s cartoon–mocking Charles de Gaulle and honoring two generations of American soldiers buried on French soil–was reprinted in McLaughlin’s old junior high school history text. He’d liked it so much he’d cut it out and framed it.
McLaughlin pointed me to a second example of editorial-page deja vu. A Tom Toles cartoon in the Buffalo News last January showed a thin volume called The Clinton Legacy squeezed between bookends labeled “George Bush” and “George W. Bush.” In April of 1968 Mauldin had drawn a volume called The Johnson Years between the bookends “JFK” and “RFK.” Unlike Toles’s, Mauldin’s cartoon was pure speculation. He captioned it “Bookends?”
“These guys are unbelievable,” McLaughlin said.
I don’t think so. Higgins and Toles have both won Pulitzer Prizes, and Toles is in my view the best political cartoonist now at work. “I was in high school when the original drawing was done and I have no recollection of seeing it,” Toles told me, and added, “Certain themes recur in cartooning and Mauldin is certainly a pioneer in unearthing many of these themes.” Higgins said, “That stuff happens.” He said he “wasn’t aware that somebody else had drawn that before,” and I’m sure he wasn’t. But Mauldin’s 37-year-old cartoon was so perfectly conceived that if Higgins saw it even once there’s no way he could have totally forgotten it.
A case of theft from Bill Mauldin that probably wasn’t unconscious was committed by Mauldin himself. In 1960, when he was still at the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, he’d tackled racists in the south. “Let that one go,” says a club-wielding redneck. “He says he don’t wanna be mah equal.”
In 1975, during the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, he dusted off the old idea and applied it to a barfly describing his spouse: “My woman’s okay. She don’t wanna be my equal.” And what can be said about Toles’s and Higgins’s cartoons is also true of Mauldin’s second draft: the first one was better. It came to a sharper point. The 1960 and 1964 cartoons show Mauldin at his best.
Sad to say, Mauldin today is old and very sick, living in a motel in California. As soon as he dies he’ll be immortal. He won a Pulitzer during World War II for his Willie and Joe cartoons and a second Pulitzer at the Post-Dispatch, and his drawing of a weeping Lincoln for the Sun-Times is an icon of the Kennedy assassination as familiar as anything ever drawn. It’s hard to imagine an editorial cartoonist following him who didn’t study his work.
I spent hours in the library looking for Mauldin’s 1975 cartoon on the ERA. What I discovered–before finally discovering the cartoon itself–was the biggest reason the Sun-Times of those days is remembered as fiercely liberal. In fact its editorial page was wishy-washy and insignificant. Mauldin, however, was an angry, ironic sharpshooter. The editorials endorsed Richard J. Daley and Richard Nixon, but nobody read the editorials. Mauldin savaged them both, and everybody read him.
Cartoonist Creates a Stink
God does not break wind in the Tribune. Lifestyle editor Geoff Brown spiked the June 2 Non Sequitur panel, which was labeled “The Genesis big bang theory” and showed a mighty hand descending from the heavens, jabbing at an angel on a lower celestial tier. “Gabriel…pull my finger,” the voice commanded.
“It’s a different way of making thunder, I agree,” says Brown. “There have been some other gags in Non Sequitur where the hand of God is doing something, and they’ve been borderline, and I probably erred on the side of being liberal–but this one, I wasn’t comfortable with the notion being inflicted on our readers.
“Readers tend to look to us to have some dignity, even on the comics page and in our stories,” says Brown. “We do have style guidelines that encourage us to err on the side of not offending readers needlessly with our humor.”
At my request he breaks out the guidelines and reads: “Obscenities, profanities, and vulgarities should not appear in the Tribune unless they are part of direct quotations, whether from spoken or written sources, and there is a compelling reason for using them.”
Brown offers, “We rarely find compelling reasons.”
Cartoonist Wiley Miller created a circumstance the guidelines do not precisely cover, but Brown is confident that he hewed to the spirit of Tribune conservatism. A mark against the cartoon was the fact that Brown laughed at it. “With my dirty mind,” he says, “if I think something is over the line chances are it is. I’m not paid to inflict my values on several thousand people.”
Says Wiley Miller, “This pretty much says it all. He personally thought it was funny and, guess what, so did the vast majority of readers with a measurable IQ. Do you think we would have sent it out otherwise?”
“A powerful statement,” said A.E. Eyre.
He was studying plans for the new national World War II memorial soon to rise on the Mall in our nation’s capital.
“It’s got all the elements,” said Eyre and read aloud. “‘Ceremonial steps…
bronze bas-relief panels along the ceremonial entrance balustrades…two 43-foot arches….Bronze baldachinos are an integral part of the arch design…'”
I hadn’t known about the bronze baldachinos.
“You can’t go wrong with bronze baldachinos,” said Eyre.
Until he opened my eyes I’d been mired in the conventional wisdom, which held that our World War II memorial was going to look a lot like what Albert Speer would have designed had Hitler won the war. Not that it ever occurred to me that the World War II generation needed any memorial at all.
For their monument, look around you, I told Eyre.
“You mean, at a land of peace and plenty in which American young people are free to clap on earphones and grow up in blissful ignorance?”
That’s the one, I said.
“But that’s why we finally need a memorial,” said Eyre. “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to commemorate it.”
“It’s just like the movie Pearl Harbor,” said Eyre. “A tourist-friendly salute to the folks who won the war that doesn’t offend anyone who lost it. To us Americans who know the code, these two weird arches with bronze baldachinos represent the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. And these even weirder 17-foot granite stelae in between symbolize the American states and territories that gave the flower of their youth to the cause.”
It struck me that an effective World War II memorial shouldn’t require a plaque that says “World War II memorial”–lest generations yet unborn jump to the conclusion that Julius Caesar won an important battle here.
“But that’s the beauty of off-the-shelf monumentality,” said Eyre. “To an unreconstructed old Nazi, the arches could just as easily stand for the Blitzkrieg and Barbarossa, and the granite stelae for the months the Germans held Paris. Or let’s say you’re Japanese. Maybe the arches remind you of Tojo and Hirohito. Maybe the stelae suggest the South Pacific atolls your boys defended to the last man. The motto of this design could easily be, ‘We’ll provide the symbolism. You provide the memories.'”
Eyre fell silent. “Or we could celebrate the war for the era of peace and plenty it ushered in,” he mused. “We could mount a ’55 Chevy on a pedestal.”
What about some actual graves? I said. A few rows of simple white crosses along the Mall, perhaps bordered by a low white picket fence.
Eyre stroked his chin. “So your idea is to remember the war by focusing on the 400,000 Americans who died in it?”
Just an idea, I said. And maybe a few lines from Ernie Pyle inscribed somewhere: “Medals and speeches and victories are nothing to them now. They died and others lived and nobody knows why it is so. They died and thereby the rest of us can go on and on.”
“The memorial people wisely decided differently,” said Eyre. “By this late date the dead are secondary.”
More news from the Tribune primness desk:
Page one Metro headline, June 8: “Judge denies he harassed lawyers.”
Headline over the balance of the same story back on page four: “Judge admits to sex with court worker.”