March 31, 2015
For Paul Conrad
Posted on Sep 5, 2010
By Mr. Fish
“[Bush] is a fucking nut,” Conrad continued, packing his pipe. “I think he borders on the insane.”
“Worse than Nixon?” I said, being too young to have any real memory of the man beyond the Rich Little version that was as benign as Arte Johnson’s Nazi on “Laugh-In.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, knowing better.
I should say, also, that I brought up Nixon, not because I’m such a lazy student of American history that I’m only capable of comparing one alleged worst president of all time! with another, but because Nixon was to Paul Conrad what the unshaven, slouched and disillusioned G.I. was to famed WWII cartoonist Bill Mauldin: not just his bread and butter but also his mortgage and the college tuitions for his children.
Square, Site wide
What I did refuse to do, however, was to ask the Nixon question that has appeared in every interview with Conrad ever since 1968, namely, What do you consider a greater accomplishment, receiving the Pulitzer Prize or appearing on President Nixon’s enemies list? I wanted to avoid asking it because, not only did I already know the answer (can you guess?), I didn’t feel that it truly revealed the relevance of Conrad and his art. In fact, for me, it minimized his significance. For me, Nixon’s enemies list was, as I said before, little more than a ridiculously detailed suicide note from a public figure torn to pieces by his own insecurities; a tragically sick man who was finally so paranoid that he imagined that gremlins were hiding beneath every bit of debris left by the demolition of his own character. Left to expand, I’m not uncertain that the list wouldn’t have eventually grown to include inanimate objects like shoes and bananas, finally windmills. Having your name added to such a list is meaningless.
Similarly meaningless is a quote from the late Gerald Ford that has appeared nearly as often as the Nixon question in profiles done on Conrad: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and you’ve been the subject of a Paul Conrad cartoon.” Likewise with the enemies list, when one recognizes that the most complimentary thing that anybody could think to say about Ford at the time of his death was “he was a man who led by asking questions” and “he used to toast his own English muffins,” suddenly the observation becomes something less than magnanimous.
No, Paul Conrad is not flattered by absurdist criticism or imbecilic praise, but has rather gained all the accolades that he rightly deserves by remaining in print for 60 years and moving the hearts and minds of his readers with a precision of thought and a generosity of spirit that has remained remarkably steady for more than half a century.
What I did ask him, instead of the enemies list/Pulitzer question, was this: “Your disdain for Nixon’s politics is well documented, but what did you think of his piano playing?”
“I never knew that the motherfucker played,” he said. “And I wouldn’t have listened to the fucking sonuvabitch if I’d had the opportunity.”
Following that question, I could tell that Conrad had finally figured out that he wasn’t being interviewed by a journalist, but rather just another smart-ass cartoonist, like himself. Almost immediately, our conversation switched from being something easily transcribed for publication to the sort of zigzagging chitchat that warms only the participants.
Example: I told him that I often found cartooning horribly depressing and wildly elating at the same time because all of my best work usually came out of the most disastrous political circumstances and that, aside from needing to endure the sort of existential nausea severe enough to uncross the eyes of Sartre and the legs of Simone de Beauvoir, George Bush’s re-election in 2004 was the best thing that could’ve happened to our profession. He told me stuff like he went to Mass because it was like eating half a head of lettuce. “It’s just got to be good for you,” he said, spilling pipe tobacco onto his trousers.
Then, before I knew it, the coffee was done and the dog was asleep. I started packing up to go and, already feeling sentimental about the afternoon, thanked him for what he did.
“Huh?” he said.
“You know, what you do with your cartooning,” I said.
“What do I do?” he wanted to know, standing to walk me to the door.
“You know, changing the world for the better, that kind of crap,” I said. He grunted and waved off my comment as if he’d caught a whiff of something too sweet to be entirely pleasant. “You don’t think an editorial cartoonist can change the world?” I said, suddenly wondering if I’d entered the wrong profession.
“Nope,” he said.
I gathered my stuff and followed him into the living room. “Do you think a bunch of editorial cartoonists can change the world?” I said.
“Nope,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “your cartoons can start the conversation that can change opinions that can change the world. Right?”
“I’ve never seen any evidence of that. It’s all the same crap,” he said, as we reached the front door.
I asked him if he knew the famous story about Boss Tweed, the Tammany chief in New York in the 1860s. He said that he didn’t, perhaps more out of deafness than hearing the question. I told him that Boss Tweed never cared what people wrote about him in the newspapers, but that he despised the mass appeal of editorial cartoons, which he referred to as them damn pictures, which were what ultimately destroyed his career and effectively ended the corruption that had gripped the city for that time period.
“Hmm,” he said, opening the door.
“Your cartoons let people know that politics are not too complicated to understand and that nobody is so stupid that they shouldn’t have an opinion about what goes on in the world.”
“Do you find that anybody has any idea about what is going on in the world?” he wanted to know.
“I find that people are not used to talking about political issues and that it’s a difficult conversation and I think that what you do is provide a point of reference for the common person to feel brave and empowered enough to look at certain issues, maybe even do something about them.”
“Well, I hope so,” he said, as unaware of his importance as a pen is of what it’s writing.
“Thanks, Paul,” I said shaking his hand.
“I promise to play piano for you next time you come by, uh, Wayne,” he said.
“That would be swell,” I said, feeling like one of the family.
Editor’s Note: Portions of this interview appeared several years ago in the LA Weekly, as described in the piece.
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