Why It's Hard To Poke Fun At Obama

The recent news about administration nominees dropping like flies should offer plenty of fertile material for editorial cartoonists.

After all, poking fun at a president is what editorial cartoonists do so well. But so far, most pen-and-inksters do not seem to be skewering President Barack Obama in the wicked ways they skewered former President George W. Bush.

Why is that? According to some masters of the trade, newbie-in-office Obama presents special challenges. It's not that he's hard to draw or that he's uninteresting. The problem, they say, is that he has not revealed any flamboyant character flaws. And they want to give him a chance to succeed.

For example, Ben Sargent, drawing in the Austin American-Statesman on Wednesday, shows a woman and a man walking through the White House. "The thing I like about the Obama White House is everything's so cool! So thorough! So smoothly efficient!"

And as the man glances into an office labeled Appointment Vetting Dept. — where a fat guy in a T-shirt is fast asleep, snoring with his foot propped up on a box labeled Resumes — the woman adds, "Well, for the most part."

The cartoon, like many political renderings of the Obama administration so far, makes more fun of the ethical situation than of the president himself. That, the cartoonists predict, will eventually change.

Across the board, the pen-wielding pros say that Obama is easy to draw: Big ears, which the president himself makes light of. Tall and wiry. Lincolnesque stature. Exuding a certain air of self-assurance mixed with self-deprecation. Maybe sporting a baseball cap or with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

"As a cartoonist," says syndicated artist Stuart Carlson, formerly of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I find Obama eminently caricaturable. His prominent ears have stuck out, so to speak, from early on the campaign trail. And there are some personal attributes that help define him: the smoking habit — or attempt to kick it — his thin build, the affinity for basketball. Even his general attitude of cool could be something that he could be lampooned for, given the right circumstances."

But, Carlson says, "What might concern cartoonists of his political stripe, like me, is that we want to see him succeed. ... That could lead to some pulling of punches, which is dicey territory for a political cartoonist."

Bush Was An Easy Mark

For many cartoonists, satirizing Bush was simple — visually and politically. He was easy to prick with a pen. "For the last eight years we have been spoiled by perhaps the most raucously caricaturable president in history," says Sargent.

And syndicated political caricaturist Kerry Waghorn — whose drawings appear in scores of newspapers and on Slate.com — says, "I had become very tired of drawing Bush, looking at those sour faces for eight years."

Tom Toles, editorial cartoonist at The Washington Post, says, "Having someone to cartoon about that you have nothing but contempt for does facilitate a certain type of cartoon idea — the easy kind of attack that is fun and satisfying."

He adds that because Obama is "fresh and new and hasn't done a lot of things that would have earned him contempt, it removes the possibility of doing that type of cartoon."

And, Toles says, skewering the president is not the only goal of an editorial cartoonist. He says he is presenting Obama as a character in "an unfolding situation — bringing an unusual type of politics to Washington."

There is "a fascinating drama being played out," he says, a drama that will yield provocative story lines for the cartoonist. As the Tom Daschle debacle unfolded, for instance, Toles penned a cartoon showing an exasperated Obama sitting at his desk. An aide — holding a newspaper with the front-page headline "Obama Picks Can't Figure Out How to Pay Their Taxes" — says to Obama: "Looks like we just came out for tax simplification."

Turkey Vultures

When Obama slips and falls with ill-considered moves, editorial cartoonists will be waiting like turkey vultures.

"We're supposed to let politicians have it," Carlson says, "whether we personally like them or not. I'm sure that will happen. But for now, he'll enjoy a honeymoon from my acid pen."

Toles says that the halcyon days probably won't last. "The things he does, the things he says, will facilitate the traditional kind of challenge or attack," says Toles. "It's just that he hasn't done that many of them. Yet."

Toles also says that he absolutely hates it when reporters ask him, every time a new president is sworn in, if he finds it difficult to draw the likeness of the new chief executive.

So, does he find it difficult to draw the likeness of the new president?

"The answer," he says in a soft voice that turns to a shout, "is, 'No!' "

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