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'Fresh Air' Remembers Pulitzer-Prize Winning Editorial Cartoonist Tony Auth


This is FRESH AIR. We got some very sad news yesterday. Pulitzer prize-winning editorial cartoonist Tony Auth died at the age of 72. He had metastatic brain cancer. He worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 41 years and was nationally syndicated. He also illustrated children's books. For the last two years, he was our colleague here at WHYY where he was our first digital artist-in-residence, contributing cartoons, illustrations and animated videos for our NewsWorks website.

His position at WHYY worked out really well for me. Tony illustrated a talk that I gave with animations that accompanied the interview excerpts I played. It was a privilege to work with him and see a bit of his creative process. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of an interview I did with Tony, back in 1988, after the publication of a collection of his editorial cartoons called "Lost In Space: The Reagan Years." He told me that in looking back on the Reagan era, he believed that Reagan's attack on domestic social programs marked a turning point for many political cartoonists.


TONY AUTH: When he started devastating various domestic programs, and especially since the Reagan administration was using the term truly needy - and that was something that we could latch onto and use against the administration - they stopped using that term. And it was in fact in reaction against one of my cartoons, I'm told.

GROSS: Describe the cartoon that it was a reaction to.

AUTH: Well, I think the one that they said was when I had them launching a presidential yacht, which Reagan had named the Truly Needy.


GROSS: Now how did this get back to you that this...

AUTH: The New Yorker did a piece on it, and they mentioned that in the piece.

GROSS: So that shows that a cartoonist can actually have some influence, which is something I'm sure you've doubted, right?

AUTH: Strange but true. (Laughter).

GROSS: But seriously, I bet you have doubted it.

AUTH: Of course. Of course.

GROSS: Washington correspondence, when they're covering a president, they travel with the president. They're there for the press conferences. They'll go on the road if the president goes on the road. How do you get your take on the president? Is it by reading? Do you ever go see the president or...

AUTH: No, I think that would be a very counterproductive activity.

GROSS: (Laughter).

AUTH: No, it's very essentially lonely work. I mean, I spend more time reading than doing anything else. The cartoonists, though, as an organization, meet every other year in Washington. And they try desperately to see the president. And the last time they had a Rose Garden audience. And I boycotted it because I just think it's really silly.

GROSS: Why would you think it's silly?

AUTH: Well, because I think in that kind of a situation, the president is trying to use the cartoonist. And I think that more than anything else, the atmosphere that is - or the attitude that is - generated by the president and trying to get everybody to buy into is one that, well, you know, basically you guys draw these funny pictures, and we're the politicians, and we're all in this together. And it's not very serious.

GROSS: So you take it more seriously than that; it's not just little jokes.

AUTH: Well, I think we have - I think cartoonists have a problem being taken seriously in any event, and I do everything I can to not play the clown and to not have that attitude be accepted. And a lot of cartoonists cooperate with that. I mean, they wear strange clothes, and they joke about who they're going to vote for, who's the easiest to draw - all that kind of stuff.

GROSS: Who's the easiest to draw? Now, that really cheapens the political message of a cartoonist.

AUTH: Of course. As if what we were about was filling the editorial pages with people that we could draw easily.

GROSS: The introduction to your book is written by your friend and colleague, cartoonist Jules Feiffer. And I want to read a couple things that Feiffer has to say about you. (Reading) Tony Auth's cartoons are not just funny. They have true political content. Unlike too many of his colleagues, Auth doesn't pick on Ronald Reagan for his superficial defects. His argument is with Reagan's extremism, callousness, hypocrisy and ignorance, all of which he presents to us with humor.

GROSS: I wonder what your reaction is. I don't mean to put you on the spot and have you pass judgment on your colleagues, but do you agree with Feiffer that a lot of political cartoonists today are funny, but they don't really have political grip, they don't really go to the heart of the political issue?

AUTH: Well, that is a problem that cartoonists often talk about when they get together. There is a tendency to do gags about the headlines and to print them on the editorial page. And what comes to mind is Jerry Ford and all the cartoons and commentary about him bumping his head. And I never did one cartoon about him bumping his head because the fact of the matter is he's probably the greatest athlete that we've ever had elected president. He slips once. You know, if people were photographing us all the time, God knows what they (laughter)...

GROSS: Oh, not me.


AUTH: Actually I did use it once as a metaphor for him slipping with regard to some sort of policy or something; that to me makes it work. And then you can use that as a metaphor. But to do jokes about somebody hitting their head is just, you know, so what?

GROSS: You got started - didn't you? - at underground papers.

AUTH: Yes.

GROSS: That must've been good in the sense that you were really expected to be outspoken there. Anything goes.

AUTH: I had more trouble there than at the Inquirer.

GROSS: No. Really?

AUTH: Yes, because underground editors tended to think that they knew the truth.

GROSS: Oh, so you had to be politically correct.

AUTH: Right. The worst thing for a cartoonist is to have an editor who thinks he knows the truth.

GROSS: Funny how that works. You came of age as a cartoonist with Watergate.

AUTH: Yes. Vietnam and Watergate.

GROSS: OK. Was it good for Tony Auth that there was Watergate? That's not what I mean (laughter) - but, I mean, you had issues...

AUTH: That's a paradox.

GROSS: I know but you had issues that really mattered to people when you started cartooning professionally.

AUTH: Well, I think...

GROSS: I'm not saying that issues now don't matter, but there are times when there aren't really big issues.

AUTH: Yes. And I think that political cartoonists are caused by social upheaval. I would have been a medical illustrator, as I was, had it not been for Vietnam and then Watergate. And in the '50s and the very early '60s, Herblock and Conrad and Mauldin used to sit around and say, what's happening to our profession? It's dying. We have no new blood. And all they needed was a Vietnam and a civil rights movement, followed by a Watergate, which - and then what you had was waves of cartoonists being, you know, put ashore, who otherwise would have been something else.

GROSS: Tony, thanks a lot for talking with us.

AUTH: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Editorial cartoonist Tony Auth recorded in 1988. He died of metastatic brain cancer yesterday at the age of 72. He worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 41 years and was our colleague at WHYY for the past two years as our first digital artist-in-residence. We will miss him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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