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British political cartoonists and American Presidential Elections

Why is it that next to our own General Elections, political cartoonists in Britain tend to focus far more on the American Presidential race than those of any other country? I suppose, of course, the obvious answer is that we share a common language, enjoy cultural similarities and have an intertwined history. The United States is also the most powerful country in the world, both militarily and economically. Remember the old adage, when America sneezes Britain catches a cold? So, as a consequence, cartoonists appreciate that whomever the American people elect as their President has a significant impact on us here in the UK. According to Brian Adcock, “Some people think that not being American and not having a vote means that we should also not have a view on who becomes the next President; a notion that I thoroughly disagree with. I only need to refer their attention to America’s foreign policies during recent decades (especially under the Bushes) to show that whomever the American people choose to be their Commander in Chief, affects us all.” However, not all cartoonists feel this way. Peter Brookes, for one, has stated that he is only interested in American politics when it directly impinges on us over here, such as when Blair and Bush decided on deposing Saddam. "Without Trump," Brookes says, "I'd be floundering in a sea of disinterest. To me the Presidential elections are a sideshow to what's going on over here."

American politics has even had a significant influence on how we conduct things in the UK. For instance, Britain has copied the way American political parties focus on the presentation of their leaders rather than on policy. As a result, British party leaders now try to appear Presidential in style (Jeremy Corbyn possibly being the exception to the rule). Perception of the leader is everything and looking good on television and on social media is now as important here as it is in the United States. Appearing presidential, or should I say prime ministerial, is considered vital to gaining power. According to Ben Jennings, “Our own elections have become more focused on the personality and image of the leader, like it is in the United States. This is why Ed Miliband was doomed from the start, whereas David Cameron looks like the guy you'd get to play a British Prime Minister in a film.”

Party conferences have also become slicker and are now manifestly stage-managed. Consequently, dissent is not tolerated and long sycophantic periods of applause for speeches by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are a pre-requisite. Until the 1980s, Labour party conferences in particular were often a free-for-all, with booing, heckling and barracking of high-ranking figures. Peter Hitchens remembers, “howls of rage, walk-outs and factional baying at Labour conferences, along with genuinely contested elections for office, and even some acerbity over the European Union at Tory ones. These days, even the fringe meetings are uncontroversial and worthy.” Now, like American Conventions, party conferences are a picture of unity and decorum.

 The primary difference between British and American elections is the length of the campaigns; the former usually take place over a period of just one month, while the latter lasts almost a year. According to American cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher, “British elections are defined by their intense brevity. Over a course of weeks there is blistering blustery of political bombast. In contrast, the US election is a marathon to the UK’s sprint. The sheer size of the United States means there are months and months of campaigning, dozens of candidate debates and thousands of hours of negative TV ads. For the US cartoonist it is a double-edged sword. The campaign engages the readers at the same time as it bores and annoys them.” 

Another major difference is that those who stand for the American Presidency have not faced anything close to the same rigour as British political leaders have had to. Just imagine, for example, the likes of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Donald Trump or Sarah Palin negotiating their way through PMQs, let alone performing well enough as a parliamentarian to be envisaged as a party leader. This is probably one reason why gaffe-prone Presidential hopefuls and even elected Presidents have been such great material for cartoonists over the years. In British politics, the best inevitably climb to the top of the 'greasy pole'. This gives both the cartoonists and the public time to get to know them. The problem with Presidential elections is that occasionally a little unknown Governor, Congressman or Senator can run for the White House and thus suddenly be thrust into the political spotlight. This can sometimes catch the cartoonist off guard, and initially make it a struggle for him or her to capture what David Low called their "inner essence", i.e. a likeness that personifies them. Vicky has said that in such circumstances one has to begin “a period of labelling”. As In the past, cartoonists would label unknown politicians so that the reader knew who the caricature was of. This is a practice that most British cartoonists today avoid. Christian Adams says, "It's crass to label people. If I think the reader won't recognise a political figure then I won't draw him or her. That's why I haven't drawn Bernie Sanders as very few people in Britain would know who he is." However, this time around in the United States, labeling has, in any case, proved unnecessary, According to Kallaugher, “The most important feature of the US campaign is that often most Americans do not know the candidates well before a campaign starts. This year has been an exception where most folks already had an opinion of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Unlike America, we do not have a long tradition of representative symbols for our political parties. Vicky, in the past, was somewhat jealous of this: 'For many years now I have envied my American colleagues - just think what fun we could have if we had comparable animals representing our POLP (Poor Old Labour Party) and the CCP (Complacent Conservative Party)'. In Vicky's day there was nothing to symbolise Britain's political party's, only Low's T.U.C. Carthorse which represented the Trade Unions. Today we have the Labour rose, the LibDem bird and the Conservative tree (formerly a torch during the Thatcher/Major years). These relatively recent innovations are occasionally used by cartoonists over here, but do not carry the same recognition factor as the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey in the United States. The Democrat party were the first to take on the donkey as far back as the early 19th Century. During the Presidential elections of 1828, the Democrat candidate, Andrew Jackson was labeled a "jackass" by his opponents. Jackson was amused by the supposed slur and decided to use it to his own advantage. He put a donkey on his campaign posters and pointed out the virtues of a donkey; persistence, loyalty, and the ability to carry a heavy load. The donkey also symbolised humble origins and simplistic virtues, helping Jackson further differentiate himself from his aristocratic opponent for the Presidency, John Quincy Adams. However, it was actually the great 19th Century American cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who, somewhat inadvertently, is credited with making the donkey the official symbol of the Democrat Party. Nast drew the donkey for the first time in a cartoon for Harper's Weekly in 1870, which was originally supposed to just represent an anti-Civil War faction. However, Nast's donkey caught the public's imagination and by 1880 had become the unofficial symbol of the Democrats. Nast was also responsible for the creation of the Republican elephant. In a cartoon that also appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1874, Nast drew a donkey disguised in lion's skin, scaring away all the animals at the zoo. One of those animals, the elephant, was labeled "The Republican Vote." From that moment on, the elephant became synonymous with the Republican Party. These symbols still remain popular with American cartoonists even to the detriment of the politicians themselves, as according to Vicky, 'American cartoonists put everything into the mouths of their symbols without much bothering about the human personalities who really run the parties.' John Jensen feels that cartoonists who still use these symbols today, show a lack of imagination whilst also finding such representations tedious; "They should have grown out of them." In any case, most British cartoonists do not use the donkey and the elephant primarily because they feel their readers would not get the symbolic reference.

However keen British cartoonists may be to cover elections of other countries, they can sometimes find their editors less than enthusiastic. According to Bob Moran, “I suppose it's often difficult to persuade editors that a cartoon about America is appropriate. There needs to be very little happening domestically, and the cartoon idea has to be especially well conceived. It was a few months before I got my first Trump cartoon published. Another difficulty is that their political system is quite alien to most British people, so anything you do has to be fairly broad.” Despite not coming under editorial influence, Peter Brookes feels the sheer distance between the two countries and also the different traditions, peculiarities and sensibilities deters him from commenting directly upon American politics: "Covering American elections,” says Brookes, “is a bit like American cartoonists trying to cover British ones, they invariably get it all wrong." Andy Davey has found that some editors, he has worked for, even border on xenophobia: “No editor would let you bang on about the French/Belgian/Nigerian/ Egyptian/Mexican elections, unless several hundred people had been massacred at a polling station or a llama had been elected President. I did manage to do a cartoon about the Afghan elections for The Sun once, but this is less utterly astonishing than it sounds - the editorial staff were obviously keen to show how successful the interminable British entanglement in Afghanistan had been in bringing ‘democracy’ to the country, thereby ennobling Our Boys and making us all feel important.” Davey also believes that because UK readers have no vote in the US, newspaper proprietors are not interested in the Presidential elections as they cannot affect the outcome and as a result, “An eerie silence rings out on all things Washington.” 

Despite the majority of our cartoonists wanting to comment upon Presidential elections, it is not always reciprocated by their American colleagues, as Kallaugher explains: “Despite being ‘The Leader of the Free World’, in reality we’re incredibly provincial. Most Americans do not even know the name of their own Vice President, let alone the Prime Minister of Great Britain. If they did recognise David Cameron, they’d assume he resided in Downton Abbey. Perhaps if Cameron threatened to nuke Budweiser for insulting the good name of beer, Americans might stand up and take notice (it takes a lot for us to stand up, as we are all obese).”

Unlike British Prime Ministers, Presidents of the United States are also Head of State, and thereby the principal representative of their country. He or she is Prime Minister and Monarch all rolled into one. As according to David Low, “The President is of the people but, by virtue of his office, a being apart. An American amongst Americans, but not to be held lightly. Although the President's public character was that of the 'ordinary man’, the journey was as royal a progress as could be compatible with popular democracy.” As a consequence, American cartoonists appear to show a greater degree of deference to their President when satirising them. British cartoonists feel no such constraints and treat the President no differently to any other political figure. It was of no surprise then that when Steve Bell depicted George W. Bush as a stupid apelike creature, he upset many Americans for denigrating their then President. A number even contacted him threatening to come over to the UK and “kick his ass!” Bob Moran also found himself in hot water when he visited the United States as a student: “I think there is also a fascination with the contrast between how little reverence we bestow on our politicians in Britain compared to the huge evangelical rallies witnessed during US campaigns. I went to see some publications in New York with my portfolio. One of the cartoons inside was of then President George W. Bush as a baby in a nappy using the American Flag as a play mat. I think the nappy was also leaking on to the flag. It didn't go down well at all and I remember being surprised at how offensive people found it. I think perhaps British cartoonists enjoy the idea that they can portray American politicians in ways that American cartoonists are not permitted to.” Add to this the fact that American newspaper editors are far more Catholic in regard to what cartoonists are allowed to get away with. They feel their readers would never tolerate bare bottoms, i.e. nudity, bad language or anything that would seriously denigrate the office of the Presidency in their cartoons.

Since the creation of Punch in 1841, British cartoonists have regularly commented on Presidential elections. The first British cartoonist to visit the United States during an election was David Low in 1936. While in Washington D.C., Low was invited to the White House to draw President Roosevelt. According to Low, Roosevelt was “…a bad sitter. From the waist up alive and on the move all the time, ruffling his hair, throwing his arms about, twisting his body, turning his face to the ceiling, laughing too much, either opening his mouth or distorting its shape by wedging his cigarette-holder too far to the side. He might have been a swell President, but he didn't know how to pose for his portrait... Talk with Roosevelt was short and unimportant. But it was enough to give me his aura and to fix his personality in my private panorama of the times.” Having finished Roosevelt's caricature, which he later gave to Harry Hopkins during the war, Low, by invitation of the President, remained in the Oval Office for one of his Press conferences. Low noticed how Roosevelt knew every journalist by his or her first name and was surprised how informal and amiable it was throughout. Roosevelt started by saying:

“Well boys, what are we discussing today? Not politics I hope!”

Question: “How's the campaign going, Mr. President?”

Answer: “Traveling about is costing me a lot for laundry, Fred.”

Question: “What are the odds, Mr. President?”

Answer:  “I've got my bet locked in the safe with the result, Harry.”

Low was left feeling it was not the way the then British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, would have carried out a press conference, but found himself wishing it had been. Although it seems remarkable that Roosevelt had granted Low a private sitting, the President had a soft spot for British cartoonists. Leading British cartoonists such as Low, Strube, Illingworth and Poy had their work syndicated in many American newspapers that the President would have seen. The year before Low's visit to Roosevelt, the President had requested the original artwork of a cartoon by the Daily Express cartoonist, Sidney Strube, who had drawn a cartoon of FDR (Roosevelt) surviving numerous political scrapes. The President personally wrote to Strube on receipt of the cartoon, stating, “I am, as Teddy Roosevelt would say, dee-lighted to have that amazingly good cartoon, and I am having it framed for my own study. I hope the next installment will show that I am still not sunk.”24.jpg

In 1948, David Low and Victor Weisz 'Vicky' visited the United States during the Presidential election campaign. Both cartoonists followed the incumbent President Truman as he campaigned around the country. Low even travelled, for a while, on the President's campaign train, while Vicky attended a press conference given by Truman and made a sketch of him that the President then signed. Vicky shook hands with the President and said: "Thank you." Truman then replied: “What for?" to which Vicky responded: "For looking more like my caricature of you then I have ever thought you would!” Funny enough, Daily Mail cartoonist Leslie Illingworth told a similar story after meeting President Lyndon Johnson at the White House in June 1968. "He's an agreeable man", said Illingworth, "Fitted my cartoons exactly." It was David Low who became the first British cartoonist to attend a Party Convention, being the 1948 Republican one in Philadelphia that he covered for Life Magazine. To Low, it was a wonderful spectacle, especially when compared to British party conferences. “The Republicans,” Low stated, “Provided a better show than could be found in England anywhere except at the Derby. I half expect to see the winner brought in with a blue ribbon about his neck.” To Low, it was more of a sporting spectacular than that of a political event: “A British stranger to American politics might have been excused for mistaking in the milling parades, the singing. Badges, cardboard elephants, waving portraits and slogans, the comic hats and the unstoppable band were just a confusion suggestive of a Boat Race night and Derby Day held together in the Albert Hall. And at last there was Mr. Dewey on the rostrum, everybody's unanimous choice, promising to love, honour and obey. My impression was that the whole thing could have been settled over the telephone. All the same I enjoyed it. There is no reason why politics should not be a holiday.” Steve Bell, like Low, was bedazzled by the scale and the spectacle of the Party Convention. Apart from Ralph Steadman, Bell is the only cartoonist presently working in Britain to have been to one. Bell described his experience at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston as like a British party conference but to the power of ten. According to Bell,

“The razzmatazz is unbelievable, the crowds are vast, the noise is tremendous, the grins are huge and it's a sea of faces. The thing that struck me most was the way all these signs come up with different slogans and they say things like may god bless America. There were so many stars and stripes flags. If you saw that many flags in Britain you would think you were at a fascist rally. Both Republicans and Democrats are crazy for the old red, white and blue. It's dazzling, completely unlike anything in the UK.” 

During the Convention, Bell sat through many speeches by leading Democrats. One of them was by the then little known Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who definitely caught the cartoonist's eye. ”I saw Obama and I didn't know him from Adam, but he gave this terrific speech and had everyone in the convention hall entranced.”  In 2008, Bell was again in America, this time for the Republican Convention in Denver. He was lucky enough to witness Sarah Palin give that now infamous speech as the presumptive vice-presidential nominee: “At the time, I didn't have a clue who Sarah Palin was. Believe it or not, she gave quite an impressive display because this was a big, big hall and she had it in the palm of her hand; I mean it was evil crap but she was giving them what they wanted. In comparison, John McCain, the Presidential nominee, was a useless speaker - poor little guy with funny arms - looked like a chipmunk. Poor red-blooded Republicans wanted something in the hall to cheer about, so Palin came on and everyone went crazy - it was fun - great to observe it.”  

steadman Nixon.jpg

Unlike David Low and Steve Bell, Ralph Steadman appears not to have enjoyed the experience, having covered the 1972 Republican and Democratic Conventions with Hunter S. Thompson. He scathingly referred to Conventions as “smug self-congratulating festivals of establishment assholes!” It also left him with a visceral hatred of Richard Nixon. Steadman loved to draw the former President, but loathed him personally and politically and now. Looking back, compares him to “a poor man’s Donald Trump!!” In my opinion, the most remarkable story from the perspective of British cartoonists and presidential elections is that of Vicky, who covered the 1960 Democratic Convention for the Evening Standard. On the flight to the Convention in Los Angeles, he actually sat next to Senator John F. Kennedy! Vicky and Kennedy shared each other’s company for a whole six hours. Can you imagine something like that happening today? Writing about the flight on the day Kennedy was elected President, Vicky said, "I had the unique opportunity to talk to the new President of the United States, to study him and do several sketches." Kennedy actually signed one of the sketches Vicky, , telling the cartoonist, "You've made me look rather old." Vicky noted that although Kennedy had all the physical attributes and self-confidence to appeal to the electorate, his eyes seemed to give something away. According to Vicky: “This handsome young American face with the charming Lindberghian, toothy smile is dominated by strange, cold unsmiling eyes that seem too old. It was this expression I concentrated on and he spotted it. I have rarely met a more self-assured young man. When I asked him what he thought of his chances, he replied quietly: "Oh - it's all tied up." However, from a cartoonist's perspective, Vicky did prefer the “handsome boyish features of Kennedy” to the “solid dullish face” of his chosen running mate, Lyndon Johnson.

As I mentioned in last year's anthology, British cartoonists these days tend to be on the centre left of the political divide. Therefore, they are predominately more sympathetic to Democrat nominees than Republican ones. This can prove problematic, as Peter Schrank explains: “As the choices can be so polarizing, there’s a danger of going too easy on one candidate. As an example, Barack Obama practically reached sainthood status while running for office, which made it very hard to come up with anything that wasn’t bland, fawning even.” This time around, there was no chance of that happening with either candidate, especially in the case of Donald J. Trump. According to Morten Morland, “The problem with the most recent two campaigns [2008 and 2012] was that while they were historically significant, they weren’t particularly interesting beyond Obama. This time around there was an element of peril, which fired things up no end. A campaign featuring Clinton and Trump has been extremely good for cartoonists, I think; explosive in content, but also one that British newspapers have followed more closely than usual, giving cartoonists more opportunities to join in." Some cartoonists I have spoken to are underwhelmed by both candidates, but the majority fear a Trump victory. The choice, according to Andy Davey is between “A big fat, gilded, be-quiffed turd riding an elephant versus your dull auntie from Arkansas on a donkey carrying too much baggage. Risk versus safety on steroids.”

The Republican nominee, Donald Trump is considered a gift for cartoonists. According to Brian Adcock, “Drawing cartoons about Trump is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s so easy, there is so much to aim at, the hair, the fake tan, the arrogance, the delusion, the vanity, the list goes on and on. Obviously the hair, for me and I think many other satirists, is the main focus of attention. He is hiding up baldness with a wispy comb over! It reflects his vanity, delusion and arrogance. He is basically saying, ‘Look at me, I have a full head of hair and so I am virile and strong and should be allowed to govern you. I find myself screaming at the TV ‘It’s a comb over Donald! You’re a bald twat!’” Trump's hair is obviously his defining feature. Dave Brown has drawn Trump's hair as a separate entity from the rest of him, which may well be, in reality, true. Brown first drew it as a lemming, showing how the Republicans who supported him are following him off a metaphorical electoral cliff together if Trump was nominated. Later, Brown drew Trump's hair as a ferret symbolising his over aggressive attitude towards his rivals for the Republican nomination. Steve Bell, having been influenced by New York comic artist Eli Valley's phallic depiction of Trump's hair, morphed his hair into a 'cock and ball' weave. Valley had created this 'tag of identity' after Trump, in an exchange with Marco Rubio during a television debate, implied nay boasted that he had a large penis. Now Bell is doing the same. Surprisingly, Morten Morland has had difficulties with Trump's hair. “Annoyingly for me, I still struggle to get his most prominent feature right; his hair. I have the same issue with Boris (Johnson).”  Christian Adams, who always draws Trump with the same expression - shouting - is also perplexed by his hair. Adams even asked his colleague Matt, the pocket gag cartoonist at The Telegraph how Trump's hair works. A perplexed Matt replied, “no one knows...”

A number of cartoonists feel Trump is beyond satire. This Morten Morland believes has made things tricky, 'You almost can’t ridicule him any more that he unwittingly manages to ridicule himself. But on the other hand he has the policies and personality of a lunatic dictator, which makes trying to undermine him all the more enjoyable. Brian Adcock, like many cartoonists, is perturbed by the thought of President Trump, 'how is it possible that this lunatic is here, in this position, it’s unbelievable, it’s extraordinary and it’s utterly terrifying.” But Bob Moran is not worried. In fact he would be delighted if Trump became President because he thinks it would make his job easier. “Donald Trump has joined the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in the box labelled 'gifts that keep on giving'. He is also significant for cartoonists by being instantly recognisable; few people in Britain could identify a caricature of Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders, but they know you have drawn Trump from nothing more than a hairstyle. It seems to me that Donald Trump represents so much of what we in Britain find worthy of satire about American culture; excessive wealth, deluded self-importance, bizarre cosmetic taste and the ability to talk for extended periods without actually saying anything at all. Professionally, I'd be rather pleased if he ended up as the next President.” On a cautious note, Peter Brookes believes that cartoonists should be careful for what they wish for as "although Trump would be great to draw, it would be terrible for the world if he was elected." Luckily for the likes of Brookes, Kallaugher feels that it will all end in tears for Trump, as he is “a narcissist blowhard who is slowly realizing that he is in over his bouffant laden head.”

 The Democratic candidate is of a very different challenge to cartoonists. Women, like children, are generally much more difficult to caricature because they have softer, smoother features. Cartoonists struggled with Mrs. Thatcher when she first came to prominence. As a result, they initially tended to focus more on her hats and her handbag than her face. It was only in her later years that cartoonists developed a distinctive likeness. Luckily Clinton is 14 years older than when Mrs. Thatcher came to power, and age has made her much easier to caricature than when she was the First Lady. Christian Adams says, “Her buck teeth are a good feature, although it's a shame they are not that pronounced, but her hamster cheeks are a wonderful asset for me.” Dave Brown has noticed how she keeps gurning, continually pulling faces to appear one assumes charismatic rather than caricature-able. Morten Morland also believes that there are rich pickings to be had because of “Hilary's history and baggage and, of course there is Bill”. Some cartoonists find Clinton rather uninspiring, or even, dare I say it, dull, as according to Bob Moran, “Aside from the fact that she is a woman, there is nothing I find particularly interesting about Hillary Clinton.

In 2015, I wrote about how some cartoonists had got into trouble covering British elections in the past. Alas, I could only find one anecdote regarding American elections that caused trouble not for political reasons but for religious ones! During the 2004 Presidential Election, Andy Davey was covering for Peter Brookes at The Times and says, “I drew John Kerry as a many armed Indian deity, since he was presenting himself as the god-like veteran of Vietnam and trying to be all things to all men, spreading himself thinly in policy areas. One of his arms carried a gun (depicting defence policy, as I recall) but an irate reader complained that I had demeaned Hindu deities by giving him a gun. I hadn't intended to depict any particular god, so I don't know which one he thought I was depicting, but there are Hindu deities carrying weapons (well, not guns, natch, but lethal weapons, nevertheless). I have no idea why cartoonists are expected to reply to crank readers. Do the papers really value these mad people? OK, I suppose these days they probably know all their readers individually. The Indy could invite theirs all round for tea and still have change from a tenner. Perhaps in future cartoonists will be asked to reply to all online comments below the cartoon, especially those of the ‘you are a liberal-assed butt-hole motherfucker’ variety.”

The last Presidential race between Hilary Clinton and Donald J. Trump naturally proved a fertile ground for cartoonists. Many of the best cartoons from the election are featured here in this book. Now we have President Trump/Clinton (delete where appropriate). Despite him/her (delete where appropriate) becoming the most powerful man/woman (delete where appropriate) in the world, we do not need to get too down about it. What ever happens and however grim things may get, at least we can continue to laugh daily at the President thanks to having the best cartoonists in the world here in Britain.