After this contentious and unprecedented election season, we wonder how the late and so-very-great political cartoonist Paul Conrad would’ve caricatured all those candidates we met over the long campaign. Conrad’s career “spanned more than fifty years and eleven presidents,” U.S. Congresswoman Jane Harman announced when entering his 2010 passing into the Congressional Record. For thirty of those years, Conrad astutely assessed the world in political cartoons for the Los Angeles Times, adding two more Pulitzer prizes to the one he had earned at the Denver Post. In his fully illustrated autobiography I, Con: The Autobiography of Paul Conrad, Editorial Cartoonist, published by Angel City Press in 2006, he described his mostly contentious relationship to past presidents:
I’ve skewered a lot of presidents while they were in office. It didn’t matter whether they were Democrats or Republicans. They all did some stupid things, and a few of them were just total losers. None of those guys liked me much, but I got invited to two presidential inaugurations: John F. Kennedy’s and Bill Clinton’s. I liked what Gerald Ford said about me: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and you’ve been the subject of a Paul Conrad cartoon.”
On this Veterans Day, it’s worth noting that Conrad served in World War II on the Pacific front. In fact, he credits the war as one of the great influences on his work. In his autobiography, Conrad recalled his time in the 1886th Engineering Battalion, Army Corps of Engineers during the invasions of Guan and Okinawa in which he “saw a lot of fighting and a lot death.” These wartime experiences colored his poignant commentary against the Vietnam and Iraqi wars.
Conrad’s legendary political cartoons are preserved in a number of institutions such as the Library of Congress, Detroit Institute of Arts, Syracuse University and along with his fascinating papers at the Huntington Library in San Marino. When he donated drawings to the Library of Congress, he spoke at the national library about his career, revealing that one of his favorite cartoons was “Nixon nailing himself to the cross” and boasting that Nixon added him to his list of enemies in 1973. Earlier this year, the Huntington gave a behind-the-scenes look at their Conrad collection, which include:
awards, hate mail, sketches, and, most importantly, more than 9,500 original cartoons. The cartoons provide visual and written commentary on five decades of culture and history, ranging from acerbic condemnations to laudatory celebrations—focusing on Los Angeles, but also on California, the United States, and even abroad.
In Conrad’s later years, he worried about the state of journalism, opining at the Library of Congress that today’s editors “don’t want any ripples” and reporters lack “the fire in the belly.” Certainly he’d be proud of what some editors and reporters did this year. As present-day journalists recover from election battle scars, may they find solace in the words that drove Paul Conrad’s biting and insightful cartoons: “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”