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Political Caricatures Of Obama, 'Birther Movement'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we check in on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, still recovering from the attack on her at her town hall meeting last year, but scheduled to watch her husband command a space shuttle flight. That is coming up later.

But, first, we want to talk about an issue that won't go away: race and the question of the president's birth. This morning, President Obama released the long-form version of his birth certificate. He released the short-form birth certificate during the 2008 campaign, but that seems to have done little to end questions by some about his birth.

In a press briefing this morning, the president said Americans are, quote, "being distracted." Let's listen.

President BARACK OBAMA: Now, I know that there's going to be a segment of people for which no matter what we put out this issue will not be put to rest. But I'm speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press. We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We got better stuff to do. I've got better stuff to do.

MARTIN: The issue, if you can call it that, has sustained the so-called birther movement who still question the president's ability to hold his office because they don't believe he was born in the United States. But the issue has also sustained a series of cartoons that some Americans think are harmless and funny, but that others consider out and out racist.

Just last week, California GOP committee member Marilyn Davenport sent an email to acquaintances with an altered photo of a family of three chimpanzees, President Obama's face is Photoshopped over the baby chimp's head. The caption reads, quote, "Now you know why no birth certificate."

Ms. Davenport has apologized after a fashion, but her comments made us wonder what other offensive political cartoons came up in U.S. history and how much cartoonists should consider sensitivities when drawing these cartoons. So we've called upon Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He's co-author of three books about the history of political cartoons. The latest of which is "American Political Cartoons, 1754 to 2010: The Evolution of a National Identity." He's with us from the Brookings Institution studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. STEPHEN HESS (Senior Fellow Emeritus, Governance Studies, Brookings Institution): Delighted to be with you again.

MARTIN: We've also called upon Mike Luckovich. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. And he joins us on the line from Emery University in Atlanta. Welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. MIKE LUCKOVICH (Editorial Cartoonist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Thanks, Michel. I'm proud to be here.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Now, one of the arguments that Marilyn Davenport used to defend this email that she sent around is that there were plenty of cartoons of previous presidents, particularly President Bush, being compared to an animal. So, her argument is, what's the big deal? So, Stephen Hess, I wanted to ask you, is that true?

Mr. HESS: Yeah. But I want to do something that's special about this Marilyn Davenport cartoon that I think Mike may also worry about. And that is that suddenly in the Internet world, everybody can be their own reporter. Everybody can be their own cartoonist. Davenport clearly was not a cartoonist. And this thing was sent out, got a lot of attention. And that in some ways may be the future of it all. And that's very disturbing when, of course, cartoonists are professional. They have their own ethics. They have their own association.

And now, in a sense, they're going to be mixed in with a lot of people who just sit there and doodle things, put them out on the Internet. And if they're vulgar enough as this one was, racist enough as this one was, may get a good deal of attention, enough to worry you.

MARTIN: I see. But what about the historical precedent that she cited? She said, look, people drew cartoons about President Bush that made him look like a monkey and nobody complained. So, what's the problem?

Mr. HESS: Yeah. She's right, of course, that there's a long history of cartoonists who can use any symbols that they want. Some are really quite bizarre. In 1902, in Philadelphia, a cartoonist named Charles Nelan drew the governor, his name was Pennypacker, as a parrot. Pennypacker was so upset that he had the legislature introduce a bill to prohibit the depicting of men as birds or animals, close quote.

Of course what the cartoonist did the next day was paint the governor as a beet and his cabinet as all - as vegetables. And that was the end of that. So, yeah, this has a long history.

MARTIN: But - Mike, I haven't forgotten about you - but in your book, Stephen Hess, you make the point that cartoons have been used to kind of viciously attack minorities in general, but black people in particular. And so I did want to ask if you think there's something particularly - there is something different, let's just say it that way, about portraying a black person as a monkey. It's different from portraying a white person that way.

Mr. HESS: Oh, absolutely. We know what that is all about. And we know where it comes from. And it is true. Mike, I'm afraid, may have to agree that while cartoonists show the virtues of society, they also show the prejudices. So the greatest cartoonists that we think of as the greatest, Thomas Nast, in the same Harper's Weekly, that he was bringing down Boss Tweed and corruption in New York, he had terrible anti-black cartoons, anti-Chinese cartoons, anti-Irish cartoons, anti-Catholic cartoons. And it's protected by the First Amendment like everything else.

MARTIN: If you're just tuned in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We're talking about political cartoons and whether they sometimes cross the line, especially where President Obama and race are concerned. I'm speaking with Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. He's the co-author of three books about political cartoons.

Also with us, Mike Luckovich, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Mike, you yourself drew one of former President George W. Bush sort of, I don't know if I'd say he looked like a monkey, but his ears definitely got kind of big.


MARTIN: And he got kind of small.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yeah. This is about - the one I think you're referring to is how he evolved over time in my drawings. And after 9/11 I showed him, you know, broad shouldered and looking fairly normal. And then after the Iraq invasion, his ears got bigger and he got smaller. After Katrina he became smaller and smaller and his ears became larger. And after torture and wire tapping he became very small. And pretty much he was the size of a bug after the economic meltdown. So it was sort of a evolution backwards with him.

And cartoonists have a, you know, we are sort of paid to offend in some ways. And to kind of come up to the line and cause people to think. And so we often portray politicians - it's our job basically to portray them in less than flattering light. And sometimes we draw them as animals.

I just want to make one point, that image that that woman, Marilyn, whatever her name is, with Obama as the small monkey, first of all, that's not a cartoon. That was something she Photoshopped. And it was crude and it was racist. And cartoonists are always sensitive. We want to make people think - we even want to tick people off occasionally, but we don't want our symbolism to overwhelm our message.

And so when I'm drawing a cartoon, I will try and get my point across, but I still want people to understand my point and not lose it on the symbolism. I would never show Obama or an African-American as a monkey. That's just racist. And we know the history of that.

MARTIN: Because why?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Because throughout history that has been a way of dehumanizing African-Americans. Now, the fact that Obama's African-American, I think it has been good for cartoonists in that he sort of has transcended race and we are able to show in ways that we're not so cautious now. And I think that's a good thing for white people and black people, that we're able to look at him as just a human being now. And I think that's been a good thing.

MARTIN: Stephen Hess, do you think that's true?

Mr. HESS: Yeah. I think that's true. I think what happened here is that most cartoonists are white males. And certainly 40 or so years ago, as they became sensitized, they became very skittish about how to depict African-American characters 'cause that's what they do. They take characteristics and they change the nose, the lips.

Obama, I should say, is a fortunate target for them because of his ears.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Thank goodness for those.

Mr. HESS: You know, Teddy Roosevelt had the teeth. Lincoln had this long frame and so forth. So more and more I think you're going to - cartoonists, particularly, not very good ones, they're just going to put some big ears on it and say everybody knows who I'm cartooning.

MARTIN: Mike, I do take your point that this was a Photoshopped image and not a cartoon, per say, but because Ms. Davenport raised the whole question of cartoonists. That's why we made the connection because that was part of her argument about why this was just funny, harmless fun.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: No. She was trying to make an excuse, I think. She was trying to justify something that was, you really couldn't justify.

MARTIN: Well, part of your point, though, is that, you know, why embrace an image that you know is just going to make people upset?


MARTIN: Have you ever published a cartoon that people thought was just incorrect? What's the word I'm looking for? Politically insensitive.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Absolutely, I never have. Never.

MARTIN: Never. That's never happened to you?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: No, no. That's - almost weekly. You know, I did one last week, as a matter of fact. You know, it was holy week and I'm Catholic, but this was just too good to pass up. I did - it's captioned "Last Supper 2011." And I drew the Last Supper and Jesus is in the middle and then all around him are his disciples and they're looking down at these little black things and Jesus is thinking to himself, I am totally over smartphones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUCKOVICH: So all his disciples are not paying attention to him.

MARTIN: They're all texting.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yeah. Texting and, you know, doing whatever they do. And, you know, when I go out with people and, you know, people are always looking down at their phones. So I just thought it was perfect. But I did get some complaints on that one.

MARTIN: You did get some complaints on that.


MARTIN: Well, we only have about a minute left. I mean, Stephen Hess has already made the point that this speech, however offensive it is or the kind of image that Marilyn Davenport distributed to her friends, however offensive is protected speech. Is that right, Stephen Hess? It's protected by the First Amendment.

Mr. HESS: Yeah. It's protected speech. But I think there's even something worse about the Davenport cartoon and what came out of it - her remark, first offending and then when enough people jumped on her, she apologized. And that was - I don't think she thought it was racist. I think this was so deeply ingrained in her that she just did it. And that's the worrisome thing about -to me - about this particular cartoon. It showed enough to worry me plenty.

MARTIN: What's your take on it? Go ahead.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Well, Stephen, I disagree. I am not letting her off that easy. I think she knew it was racist. I mean, you have to be pretty stupid not to know that wasn't racist. I think she was just - I think she's got some racist tendencies and it came out in that - in what she did.


MARTIN: Well, we have to leave it there for now. Michael Luckovich is a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You can see his cartoons at AJC.com, including the one that he says got him in a little trouble last week.

Stephen Hess is a senior fellow emeritus in governance at the Brookings Institution where he joins us over the line there. He's the author of many, many books and the co-author of several books about the history of political cartoons. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Thanks, Michel.

Mr. HESS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.