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Inside Politics

The funny side of politics

Exhibit draws on cartoonists' view of campaigns, conventions

A single image and a few words depict the unsuccessful primary battle that ended John Joseph "Joe" Moakley's first congressional campaign. This cartoon is featured in a Suffolk University exhibit.
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Boston (Massachusetts)
Suffolk University
Pulitzer Prize

BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- An exhibit titled "Campaigns, Conventions and Cartoons" at Boston's Suffolk University features original works by the nation's top political cartoonists.

Among those featured are Tony Auth of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times, Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News.

The show opened in tandem with the Democratic National Convention. It runs through August 18.

Among the 83 cartoons are drawings from 19 cartoonists who have won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, including all the Pulitzer Prize winners from the past 10 years.

At a reception for the cartoonists this week, Boston Post cartoonist Dan Wasserman said he found the Democratic convention hall in Boston's FleetCenter overwhelming. "It's like going to Home Depot," he said, adding that he's spent little time at the site where the Democrats were gathered.

The protests outside the FleetCenter didn't interest him either. "Anarchy is not what it used to be," he said.

Wasserman is among a dwindling number of on-staff political cartoonists for newspapers. The American Association of Editorial Cartoonists doesn't have an exact figure for the number of full-time editorial cartoonists on staff today, but many in the industry said they believe the numbers have dropped to about 80.

Clay Bennett, editorial cartoonist for The Christian Science Monitor and winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, said most vacancies simply are never filled.

But part of the decrease in the number of full-time cartoonists is a result of attrition in newspapers, he said.

"For years, small cities as well as large cities had two newspapers going at it, looking for an identity, a way to distinguish themselves from their competition," Bennett said. Cartoonists often provided that identity, he added.

Now, he said, consolidation in the industry means no more competition, so no need to differentiate. "The need now is to homogenize the news," Bennett said.

Boston Herald Managing Editor Kevin Convey called it "a terrible tragedy" that more newspapers are not employing cartoonists. "It's a link to our graphic past," he said. "And the way cartoons express political opinion is completely different from political expression in words only."

It is a tough business demanding a sharp wit but a quick pen. Strong conviction is also a necessity. Unlike word-wielding reporters and writers who strive for objectivity, political cartoonists always take sides.

"Campaigns, Conventions and Cartoons" includes an equal number of shots at President Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry, with a sampling from past campaigns and conventions stretching back to Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats in 1948.

Appreciating political cartoons is more than a matter of finding them funny. It requires an understanding of the context of the topic and the bias of the cartoonist. Good political cartoons use visual satire to illustrate a viewpoint or an opinion.

If the number of newspaper staff cartoonists is declining, Bennett said he believes the state of the art is better than ever.

"There are more quality cartoonists now, but fewer earn a living wage. That's the paradox," he said. "In the 1940s and 1950s, cartoonists were pretty much hacks. They weren't very inventive. They labeled everything. By and large, the bulk of the work was pretty uninspired. Now there is so much more really good work; it's more opinionated, more inventive."

The Suffolk University exhibit shows how the graphics of the medium have been simplified over the past 50 years. Text and drawings have shifted to more direct readability and visual immediacy, but editorial cartooning's connection to its acerbic history is very much intact.

Rob Rogers, cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said he sees the Internet as a significant boon to cartoonists. "When I put my cartoons on the Web, my readership went up tremendously," he said.

Sage Stossel, who draws for the online version of Boston-based The Atlantic Monthly, is one of the few women in the political cartoon business. One theory about why the field has so few women has to do with differences in the way men and women process humor.

Stossel said she hasn't heard that theory but notices that more women approach her to discuss her cartoons than men. She said that may have more to do with her approach to the medium. "I tend to show political leaders in family situations, interpersonal settings even though it's about politics," she said.

"Campaigns, Conventions and Cartoons" was curated by Robert Bedard and sponsored by the John Joseph Moakley Archive and Institute at Suffolk University.

Bedard said the idea for the show came about after some old cartoons were discovered among the papers of Moakley, a former congressman. Moakley defeated incumbent Louise Day Hicks in a closely contested race for Massachusetts' 9th Congressional District in 1972. He went on to serve until he died of leukemia in 2001.

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