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A conversation with Tom Engelhardt

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 21, 2010 - For 35 years, Tom Engelhardt drew editorial cartoons for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Some of the more than 8,000 cartoons that comprise his career will be on exhibit April 24 to May 30 at the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. We talked with him recently about his cartoons and the state of editorial cartooning today.

Q: You once described editorial cartooning as a "mysterious process." What is the mystery and what was your process?

A: The most common question any cartoonist gets is, "Where do you get your ideas?" There's a story about famous cartoonist Paule Loring (Providence Journal-Bulletin) who was asked that question by a woman at a party. He said, 'Ma'am, if I knew where I get my ideas, I'd be there right now getting some.' It's so true.

Let's say the topic of embezzlement from a big bank comes up, so you start thinking about the things associated with that: money, a safe, stocks and money bags. Those are the first things that pop into your mind. But as (cartoonist) Bill Mauldin said, "Beware of those first thoughts."

I always worked with a sketch pad and ballpoint pen and made what are referred to as thumbnail sketches on copy paper. Sometimes an idea would evolve after two to four sketches, but more likely after 11 or 12. In pulling all of this together you have to be thinking, "What should come first, the picture or the caption?" and the answer is that almost always they have to be worked out together.

Q: At the risk of asking a cliched question, generally speaking, how did you come up with your ideas?

A: Lot of times I took the bus to work and I would read the morning paper rival, the Globe-Democrat on the way. It was the overall tone, attitude and positions of the paper, like maybe the time they accused some Washington University professor of being a pinko.

Or I'd wake up sometimes, hear the news, and think "They can't do that to us." When I got to work, I read the early edition of the Post-Dispatch, the New York Times and tried to work out something. The editor would ask editorial writers what they were thinking about. He'd often come me, and I'd say "I don't have an idea yet. But I will after I do some more reading. ..."

Q: Over the years, did you have many serious disagreements with Post-Dispatch editors or have your cartoons killed?

A: Nobody put any screws on you to do this or that. I had a great editor in Bob Lasch. Sometimes, he'd say, "Well, Tom, you can do this, but it's not your greatest work." Or, "Engelhardt, that's not exactly our policy, but if that's what you want to draw it, go ahead." A cartoonist never should be forced to draw something against his beliefs, and the Post wouldn't print something that went completely against (its editorial policy. Engelhardt says that is the reason he never drew a cartoon for the Post on abortion.)

Q. Were there cartoons that you regretted drawing or wish you had drawn differently?

A: One I sure wish I hadn't done. Back in the Clinton '90s, everything was booming. I guess I had a slow day and didn't come up with any outrage, so I had Alan Greenspan (chairman of the Federal Reserve) as the man in the moon and a bull, meaning the bull market, jumping over the moon (him). Oh, boy, did I have that one wrong.

(In November '63) I drew a child's playroom where there are figures up close, two windup dolls, cowboys, squared off shooting at each other. One is labeled "conservative Democrats" and the other one is labeled "liberal Democrats." President Kennedy had gone to Dallas to try to unify those two wings. The figures have little cowboy hats, windup keys in their backs and they're firing at each other over this jack-in-the-box. The lid is not open very much. You can see Kennedy's head poking out, looking very cautiously toward the foreground. The caption is "Jack in the box."

The first edition came out at 10:30 in the morning, and he was shot at 12:30. The publisher said "Get those papers off the street" and sent trucks out to get those papers. I got a call from a lady who said, "I don't know how you know these things." Later a secretary marked that one "Not to be given out under any circumstances."

A: Who were some of your favorite public figures to draw, and who is especially challenging today?

Q: President Obama has very regular features, which makes him hard to do. I never could see cartoonists doing these huge elephant ears. It's always hard to do the handsome. John Kennedy was hard to do because he was a good-looking guy.

(It's easier) to draw some person with a wrinkle or a big nose or big ears. Lyndon Johnson was a treasure trove of features. With Nixon, everybody liked to do his nose, but I was always taken with his shifty eyes. I had his eyebrows way down low on his shifty eyes. Another obvious one was (former president of France) Charles de Gaulle with his big schnoz, wrinkles and bags under his eyes.

Q: What do you think of the state of today's editorial cartooning and its future?

A: Basically, it comes down to that I am appalled. Every cartoon I look at today, it's just two people talking to each other or a husband and wife looking at a TV; the first tells you what the cartoon is going to be about, the second is some sort of gag line. (Many) people cartooning now think if you just make jokes about politics, that's good enough, and I don't think that's good enough. There is no composition to speak of, things like using different devices to get across the message.

Present day cartoonists hardly ever use costumes, a clown outfit or a snake oil salesman. Everybody's in suits and ties. When I was a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, one of the comic teachers said, "You're a movie director, you're the film director, you set the scene, the perspective ..."

I just don't know how (editorial cartooning) is going to go if there aren't newspapers. The latest Pulitzer Prize went to an animated cartoonist (Mark Fiore, San Francisco Chronicle). With newspapers, people pick them up and might not think about the editorial cartoon, but as they're flipping through, they see the large illustration - well, it used to be large - so it would catch the reader's eye, which was the first Joe Pulitzer's idea.

Q: Are you still drawing cartoons today?

A: A little bit and I wish I had more (work). The most recent was for the St. Louis Journalism Review (Jan.-Feb 2010) on the Supreme Court ruling that said corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals.

And I get asked to draw other things. Our daughter in Dayton, Ohio, (Carol Herringer) and her husband (Tom) have adopted two kids - who are 10 and 14 - from Colombia, South America, and want me to do the announcement. That involves the lettering, so I'm busy with that.

Q: How do you feel about the exhibit of your work at St. Louis Mercantile Library?

A: I like having the show. It helps to educate people why you're in the business, not to just to make funny gag cartoons about politics. I will keep pushing the four criteria for a good editorial cartoon: The truth, or one side of it; humor; moral purpose; and good drawings. (Engelhardt credits the source of that as "A Century of Political Cartoons" by Allan Nevins.)

Q: Any thoughts as your reflect on your career?

A: I have always thought of the cartoon as a spoke in the wheel, and there were many different voices (at the PD) saying the same thing. I was always one small voice. I really enjoyed drawing. I used to think, "I can't believe they're paying me to have this much fun."

Paul Povse is a freelance writer based in Springfield, Ill.

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