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For Cartoonists Who Cover Obama: Four More Ears

Jan 18, 2013

Four years ago, when the nation's first African-American president was inaugurated, even conservative editorial cartoonists marked the moment with reverence.

As Scott Stantis, now of the Chicago Tribune, tells All Things Considered host Audie Cornish: "There are times in our history where we can just take half a step back from our partisanship and revel in the history and wonder of something."

Stantis' left-leaning peer, Matt Wuerker of Politico, concurs. "It was a very epic moment. I think that everybody was really suddenly embracing this moment of idealism."

But, says Wuerker: "Four years later, so much of that is gone."

President Obama would not be the first president to suffer a diminishment of his cartoon image over eight years in office. Jimmy Carter, says Stantis, "was diminished to about — he was standing about 3 1/2 feet tall. You had Bill Clinton, who just became this big, doughy, sensualist character." George W. Bush, he adds, "devolved into a demonic Keebler elf."

So what's happened to Obama's image?

Cartoonists were careful at first in their depictions of the president, fearful of racial sensitivities, Wuerker explains. But "Obama is now just another goofy guy that we get to have fun with and play with his big smile and make his ears bigger."

So what to do for Obama's second inaugural?

"I'm still flummoxed," says Wuerker, who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his work. "What was extraordinary four years ago is ordinary."

This weekend and Monday, when the president is inaugurated again, editorial cartoonists will be sketching and scribbling, trying to decide what story to tell and what symbolism to use, as a president besieged by critics on both sides begins his second four years in the White House.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Four years ago, a group of people known for being irreverent created some unusually reverent drawings. Editorial cartoonists, the jokes and critiques on hold as they mark the inauguration of the first African-American president. Now, four years later, those same cartoonists are figuring out how to depict Barack Obama's second inauguration. And we asked two of them to join us. Matt Wuerker is editorial cartoonist for Politico, and he's the 2012 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. Matt, welcome.


CORNISH: And Scott Stantis comes to us from the president's adopted hometown, Chicago, where he is editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT STANTIS: Hey. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So to start, I'm going to ask you both to describe your drawings from four years ago. And, Scott, starting with you, you described yourself as a conservative, not exactly an Obama supporter, but you did draw a cartoon - I have the image here - that is honoring the moment. Describe it to me.

STANTIS: Well, I think there are times in our history where we can just take half a step back from our partisanship and revel in the history and the wonder of something. And this was a cartoon - I actually drawn for USA Today. And it's Uncle Sam looking at a big screen TV, and there is President Obama being sworn in, and Uncle Sam is simply saying wow.

CORNISH: And he has his hat off, and the drawing is still pretty, you know, it's still kind of a caricature image of President Obama.

STANTIS: Yeah. That...

CORNISH: The ears are very prominent.


STANTIS: That's as close as I can come to reverence. I'm sorry. It comes with the territory.

CORNISH: And, Matt, for you, you drew something that is sort of, in a way, depicting the inaugural scene outside the Capitol.

WUERKER: Yes. It's the swearing-in, and it was, again, sort of, you know, it was a very epic moment. I think it's interesting how quickly we moved on from it. But I depicted the swearing-in, and Obama is standing there on the platform and is a cutaway, and you can see inside the platform. And he's literally standing on the shoulders of MLK, the civil rights workers, Abraham Lincoln, abolitionists and all of the people who sort of led to that historic moment.

CORNISH: Though as you kind of look back on your art from that period, what most strikes you about the evolution of the Obama image because his image was such a big part of the pop culture feeling around him? I mean, Matt, what's different this time around?

WUERKER: Oh, boy, it's so entirely different. I mean, four years ago, I think the country was sort of stunned. We are coming out, frankly, from eight years of Bush-Cheney. You know, we forget. The economy was cratering. It was a moment where I think that everybody was really suddenly embracing this moment of idealism. And I think four years later, so much of that is gone for different reasons. And there's just this drumbeat of hysteria, and I think that politically it boxes Obama in, in a way.

CORNISH: But at the same time, if you look at this - and I don't know. Scott, if you want to jump in here, you know...


CORNISH: ...the Obama campaign courted this. You know, there was Obama kind of iconography.

WUERKER: Oh, yeah.

CORNISH: There's lots of images and the art of Obama and the pop stars and...

STANTIS: Well, the first...

CORNISH: ...there was a lot of...

STANTIS: He has a logo.

CORNISH: Right. Exactly.


STANTIS: He has a logo, a registered trademark. What I find interesting, as a cartoonist, is the evolution or lack thereof of his images over the last four years. I mean, you look at four years of, well, Jimmy Carter would be one example, where he, you know, was diminished to about - he was standing like three and a half feet tall. You had Bill Clinton who just became this big, doughy, sort of, you know, sensualist kind of character. You had, you know Richard Nixon, of course. And you had George W. Bush devolved into, like, a demonic Keebler elf.


STANTIS: This caricature has not - what's interesting to me looking at my work, looking at Matt's work and looking at work of other cartoonists over the last four years, the caricature - and, Matt, tell me if you disagree with me - I don't think the caricature has changed dramatically from four years ago, has it?

WUERKER: I think it's changed a little bit. I think that one of the changes that happened in the beginning I think the first years of the administration, a lot of cartoonists were very careful about dealing with the caricature of an African-American.

STANTIS: Absolutely.

WUERKER: And it was a minefield that people were tiptoeing across in a lot of ways. And a couple of people stepped on some mines and some - one of our boneheaded brethren drew him as a monkey for Rupert Murdoch or something. And people began to have to sort of, you know, you had to deal with the legacy of some really virulent racist imagery in American cartoons going back centuries. But we got over it. And the cartoon gods work in mysterious ways, just as we're having to grapple with drawing the first black president. The cartoon gods gave us the first orange house speaker so...


WUERKER: And so...

CORNISH: I'm sure John Boehner would quibble with that description.


WUERKER: Well - but it was suddenly, you know, it was like, OK, we're drawing people of color here, so this is fun and...


WUERKER: ...everyone has been having a good time, and I think actually there's this evolution in the Obama caricature that I think is all perfectly healthy and gets back to the significance of the second inaugural in some ways. And what was extraordinary four years ago is ordinary, and I think that the caricature has actually sort of evolved. And Obama is now just another goofy guy that we get to have fun with and, you know, play with his big smile and make his ears bigger and all that kind of stuff.

CORNISH: Yeah. I have to say the ears on Scott's alone in each of his drawings...


CORNISH: ...the ears are a little bit bigger. I'm looking at one where in your art, Scott, it's Obama smoking like four, five cigarettes at once, and he's holding a box of cigarettes that says unfiltered spending, and he thinks to himself I can't seem to quit. But his ears...


CORNISH: ...take up I think fully 40 percent of his head in this picture.


STANTIS: Well, you know, here's the thing. Here's - let me give you a quick...


STANTIS: ...a quick lesson on caricature is what human beings find attractive in each other and this crosses ethnic lines, preference - sexual preference lines, all lines is that we like symmetry. And the fact of the matter is this president is actually a pretty good-looking fellow, except for those big jug handles on either side of his head. And so I can talk to grade schools. I could talk to colleges or rotary clubs. I draw just an outline of his head and if you put those ears on, instantaneously, people know who he is. So, of course, yeah, we're going to jump all over that.

WUERKER: I think that cartoonists have gotten lazy, too, because I mean, in all fairness or in our defense a little bit, I mean, we did the same thing to George W. Bush. I mean, by the end of his administration, he was just Dumbo.


WUERKER: I mean, his ears were just immense.

CORNISH: Now, going into the inauguration then, can you guys give us a preview of what you're thinking of drawing? I know actually on the way in here, Matt, you were doing some sketching in the studio.

WUERKER: I'm still flummoxed. I don't quite know what to do. I'm playing with an idea of everybody on the inaugural standing extremely well-armed with assault rifles and whatnot, and it's something about the way the NRA would like to see the inauguration. But my wife actually had a good idea. I should probably do something ripping off of - remember Aretha's hat at the last inauguration?

CORNISH: Yes, yeah.


WUERKER: I think that there's something about inaugural bonnets out there that would be really fun to do, but I've got to figure that out this afternoon.

CORNISH: And, Scott, for you?

STANTIS: Oh, my gosh, it's not 20 minutes before deadline, so I really don't have anything solid.


STANTIS: But I would go, you know, some of the stuff - I love drawing critters. I mean - so - and just innocuous, almost non sequitur, so I would have like a rhinoceros or a hippopotamus, and, you know, it could be - I think he is still facing - frankly, still facing the same issues he did four years ago. Unemployment is still unacceptably high even though it's going down slightly. We've got debt. We've got war. We've got Guantanamo. We've got civil liberties. We've got all those things, and they were, you know, I'd love having them in the stands, and they're saying, yeah, we're here four years ago.


WUERKER: That's good. I'm going to steal that.


WUERKER: Dang it.


CORNISH: Well, Scott Stantis, thank you so much for speaking with me.

STANTIS: Well, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: And, Matt Wuerker, thank you for coming in to talk to us.

WUERKER: Thanks, Audie.


CORNISH: Editorial cartoonists Matt Wuerker of Politico and Scott Stantis of the Chicago Tribune. You can see drawings by both of them at npr.org, including their cartoons from the inauguration four years ago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.