Monday, July 4, 2016

RIP Elie Wiesel

I don't often post examples from my short, failed career as a political cartoonist, but the death this week of the great Elie Wiesel reminded me of probably the best political cartoon I drew.

In 1985, Ronald Reagan was asked by German president Helmet Kohl to lay a wreath for German war dead at Bitburg Cemetery. Turns out 50 of Hitler's SS Stormtroopers were also buried there, with distinctive black tombstones, and it became a total debacle for the Great Communicator, one which dominated headlines for weeks leading up to the visit. For the first time in his Presidency, Ronnie couldn't spin the issue. But he stubbornly went ahead with it. In an incredibly unlucky coincidence, it so happened that Wiesel was to receive the Congressional Gold Medal at the White House smack in the middle of this controversy. White House toadies tried to muzzle Wiesel, a man who had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Wiesel would not be intimidated and instead scolded a contrite Reagan in front of the nation. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

With the controversy roiling, Ronnie tried to give a speech about the deficit and how Reaganomics would solve everything. It landed like a turd on a hot sidewalk. Thus this cartoon.

The paper I worked for in Florida was a real rightwing rag. This was a problem, as you can imagine, considering my emerging socialist views. I made it work by sticking to safe topics: bureaucratic f-ups, the Soviets, terrorism, etc. Bashing the beloved Reagan was off limits. But when I showed the editor the sketch for this one, he burst out laughing and gave the ok. One of the far-right editorial writers (who looked like Nosferatu and frequently dropped the N-word in meetings) stopped speaking to me after it ran.

I was so impressed by the simple courage of the small, quiet Wiesel that day, I ran out and bought copies of his novels "The Gates of the Forest" and "Twilight"  and discovered his work.

This is typical of my style at the time. Very sketchy (with flexible point pens!), nothing particularly daring, stylistically, but I was still learning to draw at this point, at age 25. There's no way I could have pulled off a drawing like this even a year earlier.

Six months later, a new editor rode in and fired me for, as he put it, "general tastelessness." That was it for my mainstream political cartoon career. Once sacked, I figured, screw it, I might as well just make the cartoons I want to make.