A Cartoonish Worldview

A look at the legacy of the late Paul Conrad, longtime editorial cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times.

The old maxim about a picture being “worth a thousand words” would serve as a fitting epilogue for the work of Paul Conrad, who spent 43 years as an editorial cartoonist famous for his withering attacks on political figures – especially conservatives. Indeed Conrad, who died September 4th at the age of 86, actually believed that the best cartoons were those that let the pictures do all the talking and contained no words at all – only images to depict what Conrad called the “political, social and moral injustices” of our time.

Conrad came of age as a cartoonist after the Second World War. His first professional job was with the Denver Post, where he spent 14 years until the Los Angeles Times eventually hired him in 1964. The Times, where Conrad would stay until his retirement 29 years later, gave the cartoonist an extraordinarily high-profile platform from which to disseminate his leftist view of the world. Vowing that he would never stoop so low as to vote for any Republican political candidate, Conrad was outspoken and forthright about his leftism. “Don't ever accuse me of being objective,” he often said.

When it came to commenting on American culture, Conrad, as leftists are wont to do, focused almost exclusively on the negative. During his first several years at the Times, he directed much of his attention on the civil rights movement's effort to disinfect what he viewed as a society that was morally contaminated to its core. In a cartoon that appeared shortly after the 1965 Watts riots in California, for instance, Conrad drew a group of white men gathered around a black man who was seated on a therapist's couch, saying to him: “You've mentioned unemployment, housing, education, police brutality and despair ... but, what was the reason for the riot?”

While his cartoons commonly touched upon broad themes such as civil rights, Conrad gained his greatest renown for the way he skewered particular key individuals. Indeed, his indignant passions reached their apogee when he made Richard Nixon the object of his wrath. So searing were Conrad's depictions of the 37th president, that they earned the cartoonist a spot on Nixon's infamous “enemies list” in 1973 – a distinction Conrad welcomed as a sure sign of his own effectiveness. In one particularly famous cartoon, Conrad portrayed an agitated Nixon sitting, with pen in hand, at a large desk covered by long, serpentine scrolls of names – titled “Enemies List.” The caption of the cartoon read, “His Own Worst Enemy.” As James Rainey of the L.A. Times recently observed, Conrad's renderings of Nixon invariably showed the president with “brow furrowed, eyes ringed with dark shadows, head slumped into rounded shoulders – helping to cement the image of a desperate, paranoid chief executive.”

After Nixon's precipitous fall from grace in the Watergate affair, Conrad's attacks on him became still more relentless. The day after the illegal break-in at the DNC headquarters in Washington, the cartoonist drew Nixon disguised as a telephone-company worker boring a hole in the DNC's office wall. In another famous cartoon of the period, Conrad, emphasizing that Nixon's troubles were mostly self-inflicted, depicted the president nailing himself to a cross. As a variation on that theme, Conrad drew a hangman's noose fashioned from long strips of unraveled audiotape from Nixon's secret Oval Office recordings. On yet another occasion, Conrad drew Nixon as a modern-day Gulliver, bound and rendered helpless by multiple reels of those same tapes. Many times, Conrad emphasized Nixon's allegedly imperial mindset as one who believed himself to be above the law, and thus likened the beleaguered president to such historical figures as Napoleon Bonaparte, Richard III, and Julius Caesar. So deep was Conrad's contempt for Nixon, that there seemed to be no bounds to what he would imply about the president. Indeed, at least a year and a half before the Watergate scandal would erupt, Conrad drew the satanic murderer Charles Manson wearing a wicked grin on his face and a “Nixon's the One” campaign button on his shirt. (Notably, L.A. Times editor Tony Day determined that this particular cartoon was, even by Conrad's standards, beyond the pale, and thus prevented it from being published.)

Conrad's disdain for Nixon never waned, following the latter even to the grave. After Nixon's death in 1994, Conrad became incensed upon hearing anyone utter even the barest praise for the deceased former president. “I think it's sick,” fumed Conrad. “We know what the bastard did.” To be sure, Conrad penned his own unsentimental eulogy for Nixon: a cartoon drawing of the late president's gravestone with the inscription: “Here lies Richard Nixon” – suggesting that Nixon's mendacity would persist for all eternity.

Yet another high-profile Republican president whom Conrad openly detested was Ronald Reagan. The cartoonist's antipathy for Reagan actually had its roots in the 1960s, when the latter began his tenure as governor of California. At that time, Conrad depicted the actor-turned-politician as a bumbling, intellectually deficient, and often mean-spirited chowderhead who understood nothing about the concerns of ordinary folk – a wholly unqualified dimwit who had stumbled into politics only as a fortuitous result of his celebrity. Indeed, this would become the left's enduring view of Reagan for decades thereafter; Conrad was among those most responsible for launching and helping to popularize that image.

To be sure, Conrad's hatred of Reagan was entirely understandable; Reagan was his ideological antithesis. When Reagan in 1973 proposed a ballot measure to restructure the tax system of California, Conrad put his cartoonist's pencil to paper and depicted the governor as “Reagan Hood,” soaking the poor in order to give to the filthy rich. This simplistic, hackneyed paradigm remains, to this day, the left's reflexive characterization of virtually every genuine conservative who comes down the pike.

Dutifully and tirelessly pushing that image, Conrad continued to portray Reagan as a heartless monster indifferent to the needs of the poor, a trigger-happy warmonger who preferred to spend billions of dollars on fancy weaponry rather than on food and shelter for society's most vulnerable. After Reagan's election to the Oval Office in 1980, Conrad wrongly condemned the president's military buildup as a foolhardy endeavor whose funding was made possible only by draconian cuts to vital social programs. To drive his point home, Conrad asserted that Reagan had bequeathed a $2.5 trillion federal debt – presumably created by unnecessary military expenditures – to “our children, and to their children and to their children's children.” To further illustrate Reagan's alleged simplicity, Conrad in one notable cartoon depicted the president immersed and playing contentedly in a bathtub filled with toy warships bobbing in the water.

When it came to international conflicts involving the United States, Conrad generally could be counted upon to view America as the antagonist. The last “good war” the U.S. fought, said Conrad, was World War II. Not surprisingly, Conrad's blame-America-first impulse extended also to our country's closest ally in the Mideast, Israel, which he depicted as an egregious abuser of human rights. Casting the Jewish state as an agent of mass murder, in the early 1980s Conrad drew a Star of David formed by the corpses of Palestinian men, women and children. In a 2002 cartoon, Conrad showed an Israeli airplane flying directly toward a pair of high-rise mosques bearing an unmistakable resemblance to the Twin Towers that had once stood in lower Manhattan.

During his 43 years as an editorial cartoonist, Paul Conrad did his utmost to advance a leftist worldview among his exceptionally large audience. Now he is gone, but his corrosive legacy lives on.