Patrick Bruce Oliphant

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Patrick Bruce Oliphant

American newspaper editorial cartoonist Patrick Bruce Oliphant (born 1935) was a native of Australia, but came to the United States in 1964 because he saw more opportunity to develop his craft. Using his skill of caricature and satire, he targeted injustice, hypocrisy, and scandal, and skewered hoards of politicians.

Patrick Oliphant was born July 24, 1935, in Adelaide, Australia. Although his parents, Donald Knox and Grace Lillian, nee Price, encouraged him to draw, Oliphant originally set out to be a journalist. He began his newspaper career as a copyboy, first for the Adelaide News and later for the Adelaide Advertiser. At the Advertiser, though, Oliphant transferred to the art department, and by age 20 had been promoted to editorial cartoonist. Oliphant once said he got his inspiration for political cartooning from his father, "who distrusted parsons and politicians equally." Oliphant's editors liked his work so much that in 1959 they sent him on a world tour to study other cartoonists. On a visit to the United States, Oliphant knew he had found his mecca. In America he saw a bigger audience, plenty of issues, and an opportunity for new approaches to editorial cartooning. Besides, he explained, "Nothing much happens in Australia."

That hardly could have been said of America in 1964, the year Oliphant immigrated to the United States to be editorial cartoonist for the Denver Post. The country, still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy the year before, was embarking on a tumultuous 10-year period Marked by a divisive war, the struggle for racial equality, more assassinations, energy shortages, and finally the resignation of a president in 1974.

The period was perfect for Oliphant. It was packed with issues, plagued by turmoil, and populated by pompous politicians. "If the country was at peace and everything was tranquillity and steadiness, there would be nothing for a cartoonist to do," said Oliphant. In addition, the Australian transplant felt his work required the presence of villains, a commodity never in short supply in American politics. "Cartooning is an inherently negative art form," Oliphant once admitted. "If only good people populated the political scene, I would have nothing to do. Good people make poor targets. I like villains."

Coming to a Boil Every Day

Issues, turmoil, and villains were the ingredients which brought Oliphant to a boil every day. Oliphant thought this agitated condition was necessary for producing strong editorial cartoons. "You've got to be angry," he explained. "The sense of outrage, bringing yourself to a boil once a day, is good for you." Oliphant transformed his anger and outrage into political cartoons that used caricature and satire to deliver their punch. He said, "Without a certain amount of savagery, the cartoonist is really not doing his job."

To Oliphant, the strength of a cartoon came from its immediate visual impact. He felt that a cartoonist should be able to articulate strong ideas without getting bound up in words. In this respect, Oliphant was a pioneer. "The guy's a genius," said his colleague and friend, Paul Rigby, of the New York Daily News. "Before Pat, most cartoonists labeled everything and drew figures with little worlds for heads. He's really the revolutionary cartoonist for America."

When Oliphant packed up his bag of cartooning innovations and headed for America, he included his sidekick, Punk, the wisecracking little penguin who was tucked away in a corner of each cartoon, making his own statement. Oliphant had invented Punk when he started as a political cartoonist in Australia as a way of gaining more freedom with his work.

The Watergate Years

Oliphant probably became the most incensed during the Watergate scandal of 1973 and 1974 that ultimately caused the fall of his favorite villain, Richard Nixon. Oliphant once observed that "Watergate was a great time for political cartoonists. I look back on the days of (Richard) Nixon with some nostalgia because there was a new cartoon every day." Political cartooning in the United States, Oliphant believed, lost much of its potency after Watergate and became characterized by gags, imitations, and sameness.

Oliphant, naturally, continued stirring things up even without Watergate and Nixon, although he was bringing himself to a boil for a different newspaper. In 1975 Oliphant left the Denver Post for the Washington Star. He stayed at the Star until it folded in 1981. Rather than join another newspaper, he opted for independence and concentrated on his syndication through Universal Press Syndicate. By 1990 he was the most widely circulated political cartoonist in the world. His cartoons appeared four days a week in more than 500 newspapers in the United States and other countries, including his native Australia. According to Wayne King in a 1990 New York Times Magazine profile, Oliphant was "probably the most influential editorial cartoonist … working."

Samples of the Oliphant Wit

Some of Oliphant's post-Watergate cartoons that demonstrated the ever-sharp sting of his pen included a cartoon of a rotund Elizabeth Taylor leaping a stone wall with her then-husband, U.S. Senator John Warner, on her back. Another cartoon that stirred things up appeared during the 1980 Democratic primary season. It pitted incumbent President Carter against U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, showing Kennedy at the wheel of a car, with Carter in the back seat outfitted in scuba gear, thus evoking Kennedy's infamous bridge accident at Chappaquiddick Island. When President Reagan was touting turning government functions over to private enterprise, an Oliphant cartoon depicted how such a scheme might work if applied to Social Security. The cartoon featured Reagan saying, " … there's whole bunch of things could be handled a lot better by the private sector! … and at a profit, too!" as old people fell from a conveyor belt into a grinder for making fertilizer. "A rather savage view of things," Oliphant admitted.

In early 1987, 50 people picketed the Syracuse Post-Standard after it carried an Oliphant cartoon that protesters considered to be anti-Catholic. The drawing satirized a Vatican pronouncement on artificial means of conception. In other cartoons, to underscore the "wimp" image that plagued President Bush, Oliphant depicted him carrying a purse. "I just thought I'd rub it in a little," Oliphant said.

Oliphant did not always resort to his drawings to stir up controversy. In a speech at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention in 1987, for example, he criticized the Pulitzer Prize Board for awarding its editorial cartooning prize to Berke Breathed, creator of the "Bloom County" comic strip. Oliphant said, "The work makes no pretense of being editorial. It is on the funny pages. It does, however, make the pretense of passing off shrill potty jokes and grade-school sight gags as social commentary."

Oliphant, a Pulitzer winner himself in 1967, had been critical of the prize long before it had been awarded to Breathed. After reading a book on past prize-winners, he realized there was a formula that would assure winning. "It was jingoism, flag waving and my country right or wrong," he said. He believed this mindset of Pulitzer judges played a part in his own award. He explained that the 11 cartoons he submitted to the Pulitzer committee included one he drew on Ho Chi Minh while still hawkish on Vietnam. "I wasn't particularly proud of it, and to add insult, some editor changed the meaning of it altogether. Sure enough, I won the Pulitzer and they cited that Ho Chi Minh hack job as typifying my work," Oliphant said.

In addition to the Pulitzer, Oliphant was voted the nation's best editorial cartoonist in 1985 and 1987 by readers of the Washington Journalism Review. His other honors include three Reuben awards from the National Cartoonists Society, the Sigma Delta Chi award in 1967, the Distinguished Service Award for Conservation from the National Wildlife Federation in 1969, and an honorary title from Dartmouth College in 1981.

Oliphant the Artist

Although political cartooning was always Oliphant's bread and butter, in the mid-1980s he branched off into sculpture and lithography, which he saw as natural extensions of his drawing. In order to make way for these new interests, Oliphant cut his output; by 1990, he was producing four cartoons each week instead of the five or six he had averaged earlier in his career. That same year, though a collection of his presidential caricatures in cartoons, bronze sculptures, and lithographs was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. After an eight-month stay at the gallery, the collection traveled to several U.S. cities. A book, Oliphant's Presidents: Twenty-five Years of Caricature," was published to accompany the exhibit.

That book joined a parade of cartoon collections which appeared from Oliphant regularly and were bought eagerly by fans. Recent collections include Fashions for the New World Order (1991), Just Say No!: More Cartoons by Pat Oliphant (1992), Why Do I Feel Uneasy?: More Cartoons (1993), Oliphant: The New World Order in Drawing and Sculpture, 1983-1993 (1994), Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop … More Cartoons by Pat Oliphant (1994), Off to the Revolution: More Cartoons (1995), 101 Things to Do With a Conservative (1996), and So That's Where They Came from (1997).

Alan Fern, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, described Oliphant as "a genius. His drawing is the most eloquent and the least labored of any I've ever seen. That quality will cause him to survive in the history of art the way Daumier has." Fern said Oliphant's work was characterized a miniaturist's eye, a director's theatrical sense, and a speed of composition which lent movement to his work without looking labored.

Oliphant's typical work day went a long way toward explaining the qualities of his art. The cartoonist arose by 7 a.m., read two newspapers and watched a television news show to make sure he had not missed an important event. By 9 a.m. he was sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper. By noon, that paper was invariably graced with the lines that Fern characterized as the mark of genius. Before lunch, another completed cartoon was ready to be taken by courier, copied, and sent to 500 newspapers.

Oliphant also took his turn at direct political action. Faced with a newly conservative climate and a Supreme Court edging to the right, Oliphant filed as a friend of the court to defend controversial publisher, Larry Flynt, against charges of libel. The cartoonist explained that a court decision which applied reporters' libel restrictions to editorialists would spell the end of the sort of political cartooning which had made his career.

Further Reading

In addition to the book published in connection with the exhibit, there were a number of books that contain collections of Pat Oliphant's cartoons. These were: What Those People Need Is a Puppy (1989); Nothing Basically Wrong (1988); Up to There in Alligators (1987); Between Rock and a Hard Place (1986); Make My Day (1985); Year of Living Perilously (1984); But Seriously, Folks (1983); Ban This Book (1982); The Jellybean Society (1981); Oliphant! A Cartoon Collection (1980); An Informal Gathering (1978); Four More Years (1973); and The Oliphant Book (1969).

Later books included: Fashions for the New World Order (1991); Just Say No!: More Cartoons by Pat Oliphant (1992); Why Do I Feel Uneasy? More Cartoons (1993); Oliphant: The New World Order in Drawing and Sculpture; 1983-1993 (1994); Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop … More Cartoons by Pat Oliphant (1994); Off to the Revolution: More Cartoons (1995); 101 Things to Do With a Conservative (1996); and So That's Where They Came from (1997).

There have been a number of magazine and newspaper articles about Oliphant, some of which were in a question and answer format. These included: The Kansas City Star (February 19, 1990); The Washington Post (July 14, 1985); Washington Dossier (January 1985); USA Today (March 22, 1983); New Yorker (December 31, 1979); New York Times Magazine (November 9, 1975 and August 5, 1990); New Republic (February 2, 1974); Newsweek (June 12, 1972); and Time (May 10, 1968, and September 18, 1964). □

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Patrick Bruce Oliphant

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