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PostWatch: An irregular correction to the Washington Post

Brought to you by Christopher Rake


Saturday, February 08, 2003
1:19 PM

I've been meaning to comment on Tom Toles, the Post cartoonist and subject of a recent exchange between OmbudsGod and Eleven-Day Empire. Eleven-Day thinks Toles was grossly disrespectful of the lost Columbia shuttle crew in a recent cartoon portraying NASA as a boondoggle. To oversimplify, OmbudsGod says NASA may very well be a boondoggle and that's what cartoonists lampoon. As it happens, one letter-to-the-editor today makes a point similar to Eleven-Day's.

I see both sides of this and I'll comment only in passing: My guess is that your reaction depends partly on how connected you feel to the disaster. And I also think Toles' cartoon could be read as an indictment of NASA precisely because, as an agency without an important mission, it unnecessarily risked the astronauts' lives.

But I want to take this occasion to repeat something I said when Toles first appeared on the Washington scene, last July. His caricature of George Bush is grossly and inalterably scornful. Now that's a cartoonist's right, but it contrasts oddly with some of his other drawings, such as Saddam Hussein, who's kind of cute. One guy is trying to lead the free world to victory over depraved cruelty (Toles: that would be Bush) and the other guy practices said depraved cruelty. But it's Saddam who gets the Teddy-Bear treatment. (and I could be wrong about this, but I think Toles' drawings of North Korea's Kim il Jong have become increasingly nutty, which suggests that Toles is taking him more seriously as a threat to security.)

I think this is going to be a problem in the years ahead. After the next wave of catastrophic attacks, the nation will again rally 'round the government and its head of state as we steel ourselves for the battles to come. And I don't think portraying the President as grapefruit head with a curled lip and Alfred E Neuman ears is going to cut it.

The weird thing to me is this: gifted cartoonists like Toles don't usually limit their options. Their drawings allow their main characters to play the hero and the goat. They can look silly or corrupt on one day and moved or resigned to fate on the next (as a president might after something like Columbia). But I just don't see how Toles can make that shift with Bush. The fact that he's drawn Bush in a way that makes that shift impossible obviously reflects his view of the President, which at the end of the day is part of a cartoonist's job description. But Toles has drawn himself into a corner, and he's going to appear irrelevant or grossly out of touch after our next September 11ths.

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