Quick On The Draw
A cigar-smoking bird named Shoe and political caricatures have made Jeff MacNelly a newspaper favorite.
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99
On those rare occasions when Jeff MacNelly descends from his Virginia hilltop home to lope down Chicago's Michigan Avenue or traipse around Washington, D.C., he looks for all the world like an oversized bumpkin touring the big city. Large feet slap the pavement, large hands jam into pockets, an unruly thatch of gray hair brushes his heavy eyebrows, and thick glasses slide down his nose, which is small compared with his lantern chin and jug ears. He is a walking, six-foot-five-inch caricature--a "nerd," he cheerfully concedes.
Beneath that awkward appearance, however, is one of the sharpest wits and finest artists in American editorial cartooning and on the comics page. With the Chicago Tribune as his flagship paper, MacNelly, 51, is a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for political cartoons and twice the recipient of the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award (named in honor of the late Rube Goldberg) for his editorial cartoons and his comic strip, "Shoe," about the cigar-smoking bird editor of the Treetops Tattler Tribune and his avian associates.
"I think MacNelly's one of the most influential cartoonists of the last 30 years," says political and comic art historian Richard Samuel West, a Northampton, Massachusetts-based dealer in early American magazines."Many younger cartoonists became interested in cartooning because of the vitality of his work, and that's why most cartoonists regard him as a pivotal figure in political cartooning in the latter part of this century."
According to Kevin Kallaugher, himself an award-winning editorial cartoonist for The Sun in Baltimore and a former president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, other cartoonists "are dazzled by [MacNelly's] artistry, enchanted by his wit, and astonished with his originality.
"I know, I am one of them," wrote Kallaugher, also the editorial cartoonist for the Economist in London, in a tribute accompanying a display of MacNelly's cartoons at Forte Dei Marmi in Tuscany, Italy, which was held in connection with MacNelly's receipt of the 1998 Graphica Internazionale award.
MacNelly's thrice-weekly editorial cartoons for the Chicago Tribune are syndicated to approximately 400 newspapers, and "Shoe" appears in nearly 1,000 papers. He admits that his double duty as a political and comic strip artist is "hellacious," yet it does not seem to have diminished his astounding reservoir of creativity: he also does weekly illustrations for humorist Dave Barry's newspaper column, writes and illustrates books periodically, produces extraordinary, lavishly colored comic paintings and prints, crafts bronze and wire sculptures occasionally, and even turns out finely detailed model wooden boats. And he tinkers with his small fleet of vintage automobiles: a 1929 Model A, a 1931 Chrysler rumble-seat roadster, two 1952 U.S. Army Jeeps, a 1954 Willys four-wheel drive and a 1959 DeSoto--the model for the rattletrap conveyance that Shoe's colleague, the Perfesser, is forever taking to the mechanic.
MacNelly's remarkable productivity at the drawing board and easel is amply rewarded. Between his Tribune salary, syndication proceeds, merchandizing of "Shoe"--which has been turned into books, greeting cards and other products--and his prints and paintings, he has become one of the most highly paid political cartoonists in the country. He acknowledges earning nearly $1 million a year.
"It's like making it in Polish zlotys," shrugs MacNelly. "I mean, all I know is I can put the card in the ATM machine and get 300 bucks out of it, and I put it in my jeans and walk around with it for weeks. And, you know, the only reason I run out of cash is 'cause Susie [his wife] says, 'I gotta go to the hairdresser, can I have $40?'"
While MacNelly could easily spend exorbitant amounts on expensive premium cigars, he doesn't--although he, like his creation Shoe, savors a good smoke. During the depths of the winter, he lives in a tiny cottage in Key West, Florida, where he has access to a wide variety of cigars. On rare occasions, he even is the recipient of a contraband Havana--with which, he confesses, he is only mildly impressed.
"I hesitate to say this. These friends of mine have risked confiscation and possible fines to bring me [Havana] cigars if they come through London or somewhere. And they are really nice smokes," MacNelly says. "But I gotta tell you, I have cigars in Key West that are, like, three-dollar cigars, that are wonderful. And I think also that's probably because Key West is, in itself, basically a humidor. You could almost keep the cigars out on the porch. They'd just be fine. So they're good, sort of gooey, nice smokes.
"I like the maduros usually down there. I get these kind of nice, run-of-the-mill cigars, and they're great. To me, they match up with the Cubans. I don't think, when I smoke a Cuban cigar, that I'm having some 80-year-old brandy or something. I think the Dominican cigars are every bit as good as the Cubans."
Although MacNelly prefers Ashton Churchills, he has difficulty finding them near his Virginia home; and down in Florida he says he is "always roaming around" among different cigar brands and types. "There are some Fuente cigars of various kinds that I like. It just depends. Every once in a while I switch off."
For MacNelly, smoking cigars combines pleasure with practicality. "Susie calls them my 'think sticks,' because usually friends always know that I'm at home and working because the return to the air conditioning system is right over my desk, so when I fire up a cigar, the rest of the house gets the cigar smell.
"To me, it's just relaxing. And if I really have a heavy day--like on Sunday, when I work pretty much straight through--I'll probably smoke three cigars a day. Half of it is to keep me awake through the endless comic strip drawings. It's not a social thing with me, you know. I like to say it's 'crowd control.' Fire up a cigar and everyone leaves. It's kind of nice."
Up at 6:30 each morning, MacNelly leaves the second-floor bedroom of what he calls his "beach-house-style" residence, which he built in 1989, and commutes "16 steps" to his studio. He strolls past dramatically artistic photographs of world leaders (Richard Nixon, Leonid Brezhnev, Fidel Castro, Anwar Sadat), taken over the years by his good friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly. He works in a cluttered but bright and airy room, with paintings stacked against walls that are covered with framed cartoons by present-day colleagues and cartooning luminaries of the past.
MacNelly scours newspapers and magazines, listens to what he calls "the hideous National Public Radio" for the first two hours of the day--and "if something's really happening, that awful MSNBC, where you have to listen to the same ads over and over again every three minutes." He then decides what subject to address in his political cartoons.
He produces one editorial cartoon on Tuesdays for Wednesday's newspapers; one on Thursdays for Friday's papers, and one on Fridays for Sunday's papers. He does the drawings on 8-inch-by-12-inch slick stock paper with a combination of brushes, ink-brush pens and ballpoints. He works swiftly, preferring to finish a drawing within two hours, provided the composition he has devised is not too complex. "If you spend any more time on it, you get too nitpicky. It's not a fresh drawing," he says.
Once the ink is dry, MacNelly dispatches the cartoon by computer to an Aspen, Colorado-based aide, Chris Cassatt, who forwards it to the Tribune, which distributes it to MacNelly's syndicate clients.
On Sundays, MacNelly spends most of the day working on at least a week's worth of "Shoe" drawings, including the colored Sunday page. On Mondays, he produces the illustrations for his buddy Dave Barry's column. On other days he turns out paintings or sculptures, works on his model boats, or tends to the 10 horses he and his wife keep on their 110-acre farm (along with three dogs and seven cats), set atop a 1,200-foot peak with spectacular views of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.
It is an intense regimen that MacNelly has maintained for more than two decades--through an occasionally turbulent private life that has included four marriages and the tragedy of losing a 24-year-old son in a rock climbing accident in 1996.
Despite the personal upheavals, MacNelly somehow has remained at the top of his game, producing work that is among the best in the business. "He's the Michael Jordan of the profession," says Signe Wilkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News--and one of the few women to ply the political cartooning trade.
MacNelly has been popular ever since he launched his career as an editorial cartoonist in December 1970, achieving sudden success despite considerable anomalies. For example, he was--and still is--a conservative in a profession that produces and celebrates antiestablishment liberals.
MacNelly remains unsurprised by the appeal of his conservative viewpoint. Although he scorns the conservative and liberal tags, believing them largely to be meaningless, he says that for many years conservatives were considered "the establishment," ripe for ridicule by cartoonists. He always felt, however, that for a long time the "liberal Democratic apparatus was the establishment," while the conservatives "actually were the outs." Adopting the traditional cartoonists' role of gadfly, he could gleefully attack the "establishment" as he perceived it--and score a lot of points.
With conservatism now ascendant, he finds political cartooning a bit more challenging. "Yeah, it's harder playing defense. You don't score any points playing defense.
"It's not as much fun as it used to be. It's much more fun to be in this small guerrilla band in the bunker, kind of criticizing everything that goes on because you have no responsibility."
Although he is happy to see conservatism triumphant, MacNelly is displeased by the right wing's penchant for intrusive moralizing. "I have some very good, old conservative friends whom I disagree with on this, but I think where I've become a kind of libertarian is basically in letting folks alone. And that's where the disconnect is with me and a lot of conservatives, when they say, 'Gotta get rid of government, get government off of people's backs--but, by the way, what are you doing in your bedroom?' That doesn't make sense to me."
Regardless of who is in power, however, MacNelly is confident that they will supply him with enough "ridiculosities," as he calls the blunders of the mighty, to keep him busy. "No matter how crazy a scenario I come up with, the reality is always much worse." Interviewed at the height of l'affaire Lewinsky, MacNelly called this political era "really primo for political cartoonists."
MacNelly was born in Manhattan on September 17, 1947, and grew up in Queens and in the town of Cedarhurst on Long Island. His father, the late C. L. (Bud) MacNelly, was an artistically gifted advertising executive in New York who spent several years as publisher of the old weekly Saturday Evening Post in the early 1960s before quitting to devote himself to portrait painting. His portrait of the Rev. Billy Graham appeared on the Post's cover while he still was its publisher.
MacNelly's late mother, born Ruth Fox in Chicago, also was multitalented. Originally planning to be a concert pianist (and adept at painting as well), she left Wittenberg College in her junior year to earn a degree in journalism from the University of Toledo. During the Second World War, she was the chief assistant to popular New York society columnist Elsa Maxwell.
As a youngster, MacNelly was fascinated by the editorial cartoons he saw reprinted in the Sunday "Week in Review" section of The New York Times and elsewhere. He was particularly enthralled by the work of Bill Mauldin and Herbert L. Block. Mauldin, the youngest Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist ever, was cited at the age of 23 in 1945 for his "Willie and Joe" cartoons that portrayed GIs in the Second World War; he bagged another Pulitzer in 1959 while at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, then joined the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times. Herb Block--the Washington Post's legendary "Herblock"--won the first of his three Pulitzers in 1942. Coiner of the term "McCarthyism"; decades-long scourge of Richard Nixon; the dean of liberal cartoonists, Block is in his 70th year as a political commentator, having begun drawing editorial cartoons for the Chicago Daily News in 1929.
"Mauldin was an inspiration to me when I was growing up," recalls MacNelly, "because like most kids I was into tanks and warfare and G.I. Joe and everything else, and he was the cartoonist of World War II. He was my hero. My mother gave me a collection of his stuff, and I was just in awe of him and Herblock."
(Today, Block generously expresses awe of MacNelly: "He is not only an outstanding cartoonist but a real original--in his ideas, in the way he presents them and in his remarkable drawing, which applies to his strip as well as to his editorial cartoons. Jeff can do more with birds than most cartoonists can do with people or animals. And he has the incredible ability to draw caricatures of each person in a group--from memory.")
MacNelly went to the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he did not distinguish himself academically. At least during this period he learned how to smoke cigars.
"It's a long, tortured, hilarious story. I was hunting snakes in Central America when I was 14. It was bizarre." He explains that a childhood friend who was a pre-medical student at Harvard University had invited him to join in an exotic expedition to do research for Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology during the summer of 1962. "I remember being in Mexico and we stopped somewhere and there was this little bunch of cigars--they were tied with a string--and they cost like a dollar for 25 of these beauties. And I said, 'What the hell,' and I bought the cigars. And I think that's when I started smoking cigars. They were great."
After the Phillips Academy, MacNelly spent four years at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill without obtaining a degree. "Most kids took notes and doodled in the margins; I doodled and took notes in the margins," he says.
In his junior year--1967-'68--MacNelly began drawing editorial cartoons for the local Chapel Hill Weekly (now the daily Chapel Hill News). He eventually dropped out of school, married his girlfriend, Rita Daniels, and began working for the Weekly full-time, earning $120 a week for his cartoons and other artwork.
MacNelly confesses now that when he began drawing editorial cartoons, he knew nothing about national--or even local--politics. Fortunately, the Weekly's editor, Jim Shumaker, gave him ample opportunity to develop. Years later, MacNelly would honor his mentor by bestowing Shumaker's nickname, Shoe, on the title character of his comic strip.
MacNelly's experience at the Weekly led to a job with The Richmond News Leader, a daily newspaper. His editor there, "a classic conservative" named Ross Mackenzie, awakened MacNelly's dormant ideological instincts and gave him free rein to express them. (Mackenzie remains in Richmond, overseeing the editorials on the city's surviving newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch.)
MacNelly's work quickly attracted the attention of a syndicate and newspaper editors around the country. In April 1972, at the age of 24, he became the second-youngest cartoonist (after Mauldin) to win the Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning. It was an accolade that "still baffles the hell out of me," he says. "I look back at the work I was doing then and I feel like having a large bonfire in the backyard. Back then I was always worrying about being too much like Mauldin. Or too much like Pat Oliphant [the Australian-born political cartoonist]. I kept telling myself I've got to develop my own style. Then, after a while, I quit paying attention to that sort of thing."
One of the byproducts of MacNelly's success was that soon he became one of the country's most widely imitated editorial cartoonists. A substantive criticism that has been leveled at these "MacNelly clones" (and sometimes at MacNelly himself) is that their drawings don't make a genuine political statement but just are jokes at the expense of public figures. Cartoon historian Richard Samuel West believes MacNelly has been criticized unjustly for the failure of his followers to emulate all that he has to offer--humor and substance. "I think a lot of people have lodged complaints against this younger school of cartoonists for not having a lot to say, but MacNelly has always had an agenda," says West. "And it was never difficult, looking at his cartoons, to discern an opinion behind the joke."
MacNelly firmly believes that humor can be an important, powerful weapon--provided it is aimed with precision.
"There has to be a point behind a cartoon. You want to say something, you want to point something out, and sometimes making fun of somebody is the point of the cartoon. A lot of times a gag is valid. You don't have to draw people with gunshot wounds in their heads or massacres in order to get a serious point across."
Asked to further define his political philosophy, MacNelly offers a broad outline: "Well, first of all, I am anticommunist--always have been, always will be. The anti-big government shtick is another thing I've always been in favor of; cutting the budget, basically supply-side economics, I've always bought into. But I'm more of a pragmatic conservative, if you really want to sit down and analyze it. I realize that certain things can't be done in the context of twentieth-century America."
Yet MacNelly insists that he can't be confined in an ideological box. "I'm not much on dogma. On the rare occasions when I do get really lathered up, I always turn out a really stupid cartoon."
So where--and how--does MacNelly get his ideas for political cartoons?
"I don't know," he says candidly. "I am sort of immersed all the time in so much news and stuff that I've got several things on my mind most of the time. I just sort of decide what I feel strongly about or what I'm having the most fun with and go with that. And like anything else, some days are better than others.
"I'm not doing things on every airline crash or something. It's more the big issues; what's on everybody's mind; what my neighbors talk about. They're not news junkies, but boy, if a story trickles up to the Settles grocery and I hear people talking about it, I know people really care about this issue.
"I think that when a cartoon really rings true is when it makes common sense. That's when people really connect with it. People don't appreciate hatchet jobs."
Having captured political cartooning's greatest prize after just two years at the drawing board, MacNelly subsequently began a second career as a comic strip artist. He launched "Shoe" in September 1977. It immediately became immensely popular, too.
MacNelly had wanted to do a comic strip since his youthful infatuation with Walt Kelly's legendary "Pogo."
"I thought, 'God, wouldn't it be fun to create this little world and have this constant play going on.'" He readily admits the initial stylistic similarities between "Pogo" and "Shoe," with both featuring gnarled trees, drooping foliage and slick brushwork, but he notes that "Shoe" has "never been a political thing" in the way that Kelly's creation was. "Shoe" occasionally may contain a wisp of social commentary, but it essentially is a humorous chronicle--and a tremendously time-consuming one, given its insatiable, seven-days-a-week format.
"Yeah, it's hellacious. I did it because I just wanted to see if it would work, and I kinda snuck into it. And then I started having fun with it. The problem with a comic strip is that the major part of the creativity comes in creating the characters and rounding them out. After they're rounded out, it's a writing thing, not a drawing project anymore. Yeah, it's fun to do it in front of a football game, but it's not as challenging as a political cartoon from the artistic standpoint."
Adding the new demands of "Shoe" to those of his editorial cartooning evidently did not unduly tax MacNelly's creativity. In 1977 he won his second Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, as well as the prestigious George Polk Award, which recognizes journalistic integrity and efforts to protect the public. In 1979 and 1980, he earned the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award. Ironically, the never-ending deadlines proved to be a crucial safety valve for him during a tumultuous two-year period in which he divorced, remarried, divorced again, retired from editorial cartooning--and then returned to it.
In 1981, MacNelly ended his marriage to Rita Daniels, the mother of his sons Jeffrey (Jake) and Daniel. His second marriage, to Boo Goldstein, his former secretary at The Richmond News Leader, also ended in divorce. In 1985, he married Scotty Perry, a Chicago advertising executive, who became the mother of his third son, Matt, the following year. After he and Perry were divorced, MacNelly moved to his Virginia mountaintop and vowed never to marry again. Then he met Susie Spekin, a former Washington, D.C., caterer, in late 1989. They were married in 1990.
Throughout all the personal traumas of the 1970s and 1980s, MacNelly continued to do his work, never missing a deadline.
"A lot of times it was an escape. I really needed it. I don't know what I would have done if I didn't have cartooning. You know, I'd have people yelling and screaming at me, and I'd go up to my little room and do my cartoons. I could just absolutely put it all behind me, put it away."
MacNelly's editorial cartoons briefly became a casualty of something other than his personal turmoil: professional burnout. He had enjoyed success lampooning his then-favorite target, Jimmy Carter, and confidently expected to find others to lambaste even after Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. The reality proved otherwise. The public may not have been losing interest in MacNelly's editorial cartoons--but he was.
So he quit editorial cartooning in June 1981, announcing that he planned instead to concentrate on "Shoe." His "retirement" lasted eight months. By March 1982, he was back in the editorial cartooning harness for the Chicago Tribune, returning to something he found he really had missed. The profession had missed him, too. In 1985 he received his third Pulitzer for political cartooning--and other accolades for his work have continued rolling in. In a survey by the Washington Journalism Review, he was judged "the best in the business" among political cartoonists in 1987, 1989 and 1993; and in 1991 he won the award for editorial cartooning bestowed by the national journalism fraternity, Sigma Delta Chi.
MacNelly's draftsmanship is bright, clean, forceful and almost always comical. He has the natural comedian's sense of absurdity, posture, expression and punch line. He believes caricature is the most important artistic element in his work. His likenesses of major political figures are not meant to be anatomically correct, but "impressions" of the individuals that try to make a stronger statement about the person's character than facial features convey. Caricature offers MacNelly the single most important opportunity he has for artistic creativity.
"I really get uncomfortable if I draw something that looks like I've taken a photograph of the president and kind of made the nose bigger. Sometimes I'm doing a whole scene and I want to do the president and I'm going to have to reduce him to the size of your thumbnail when I do the original. So you really have to have a certain shorthand and looseness."
When MacNelly stopped working in newsrooms in the late 1980s, he was concerned that the longer lead time between the drawing of his editorial cartoons and their subsequent appearance several days later might diminish their effectiveness. And he had already been grousing about the artistically deadening demands of producing "Shoe" for daily publication, something he once did all on his own, without the assistants that some comic strip artists have. Thanks to today's computer technology, these are no longer problems.
Chris Cassatt, 52, a talented photographer and the editorial cartoonist for the Aspen Times, is the computer whiz who now enables MacNelly to fire off his editorial cartoons to the Chicago Tribune the day he finishes them and also to enjoy drawing "Shoe" again.
"In the old days," MacNelly says, "I would write the strip, then I would letter the balloons and get the lettering and the writing all done, and then figure how the hell I was going to crowd stuff into the remaining inch-and-a-half-high area. I was doing everything very traditionally.
"So now what I do, I do the drawings much bigger than I used to--it's much freer and looser, it's a lot more fun to draw--and I send Chris the dialogue. He types it out with my font-- in my handwriting--he arranges everything, then I just send him the artwork and he just fits it in and crops it, hacks around it, moves it around.
"This has really made it a joy to do the strip again. After 15 years or so, I was worried that it was losing the artwork side of it. I was just doing talking heads, and I didn't want to do that. Now since I'm looking at a bigger space, got a little more leeway, I can experiment around a little more than I used to."
MacNelly also says that he now has writing help on "Shoe"--a gentleman named Chuck Smith of Woodbridge, Virginia, a personnel manager for the Environmental Protection Agency who has earned a modicum of notoriety in Washington by consistently participating in a weekly humor contest called the "Style Invitational" in the Sunday Washington Post. "He sends me every week a bunch of stuff and I basically try to rearrange [it]," MacNelly says. "A lot of times it's some idea that he's had that kicks off an idea in my brain."
MacNelly says he gets comments--"always con"--from readers about Shoe's cigar smoking and other habits. "Every once in a while somebody yells at me: 'Your characters are in a bar! Your characters are smoking! This gives a terrible message to kids!' Well, you know, kids are smarter than you think."
When he receives compliments on "Shoe," they usually are prompted by what MacNelly calls "the philosophical" episodes. People like "the life view of the Perfesser. It's a philosophy of life that rings true. People like those."
Like the Perfesser, MacNelly is not a model of neatness: decades' worth of his cartoons are scattered in his attic, all uncatalogued by date or subject; and his studio is a jumble of paper, art supplies, paintings, wood scraps and the model boats he makes out of them. He says that "over the years, I've kind of turned into the Perfesser."
Indeed, much of what is in "Shoe" is "just stuff that happens to me," MacNelly says. "It's just observations. It really doesn't change much. It's not going anywhere, clearly, 'cause if it was headed somewhere, it probably would have gotten there by now."
For three years, from 1993 to 1996, MacNelly produced yet another comics-page creation, the single-box "Pluggers," which features anthropomorphic animals illustrating the theme that people just endure somehow, no matter the curves that life throws at them. ("Pluggers" now is drawn by Gary Brookins, the political cartoonist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.) The title drawing for a collection of MacNelly's "Pluggers" comics, called "Calm in the Face of Disaster," shows two bears as billboard painters, just discovering that they have produced a monumental-sized typographical error: "Clam in the Face of Disaster."
It was a genuine disaster, the death of his son Jake on October 12, 1996, that ended MacNelly's stint with "Pluggers," which became just too much to handle in the wake of the tragedy. An immensely personable and talented 24-year-old who enjoyed writing poetry, Jake MacNelly had begun making a mark for himself as the editorial cartoonist for the Aspen Times when he went on a climbing expedition at Diehard Rock, some nine miles east of the Colorado resort town, and fell about 75 feet. He died later at Aspen Valley Hospital of massive injuries.
"It's like somebody comes along and basically chops off your arm," MacNelly says quietly. "You're going to recover from that part of it, but the rest of your life, you're going to have to do things a little differently. Very weird.
"I was divorced, I guess, when he was like 10, and we were always pretty close, but it was one of those divorced father things that's just stupid and awful--basically like a rich uncle who comes in and buys him a pizza every once in a while and takes him on a trip. But he and I got to be very close the last year and a half. And he was actually doing political cartoons. We talked every day--twice a day, sometimes. He'd call up and it would always be something funny and we'd have these great discussions."
The death of his son affected MacNelly's creative output in another way: the sort of paintings he produced changed completely.
"I've always enjoyed painting, but I'd always ended up doing sort of serious, kind of Andrew Wyeth things, 'cause that's what I love. People hate 'em. They look at 'em and say, 'So what? You're supposed to be a cartoonist. What the hell's this?' So I did them basically for me.
"But after Jake died, I went to Key West that winter and I just said: You know, life's too short to fart around trying to be a fine artist. I'm just going to have some fun, get some therapy out of this. So I started just doing basically the cartoon paintings, some wacko ideas I had, and they just started selling--which was a shock."
A good friend of MacNelly's, Nance Frank, owns The Gallery on Green in Key West. She expressed an interest in trying to sell his acrylics and oil paintings--and they instantly were snapped up by eager buyers. Admirers also have expressed interest in prints of his paintings, as well as in his original political cartoons and non-computer-composed "Shoe" strips.
MacNelly's paintings generally illustrate outrageous puns or bizarre comic visions: "Alexander Graham Bell's First Try" shows Bell looking at an Edison light bulb and saying, "Hello?"; "Born to Graze Hell" is a portrait of a bull-turned-Hell's Angels biker.
Although MacNelly has used computers to facilitate production and distribution of his political cartoons and comic strip--and has a Web site (www.macnelly.com)--he remains an adamant advocate of the printed page and scornful of past attempts by others to put political cartoons on television.
"About every year and a half during the mid-'80s, somebody would put together some money and decide that it's time to put cartoons on television. And it just doesn't work. It's a waste of time. Newspapers can reproduce two things that television can't: they can reproduce great writing and they can reproduce artwork. Cartoons are a two-dimensional thing. They're something that you can cut out and look at and show to people; and if it moves, I think it screws up the whole idea of cartoons. It's like a painting--I'm not being crazy about it--but if the Mona Lisa's eyes blink, does that make it better? No."
While the work of top cartoonists can be found in cyberspace--and MacNelly's own Web site carries his paintings, editorial cartoons and comic strips--he doesn't think the general public will switch readily to the Internet to see his work or that of other newspaper cartoonists. "I might be just totally anachronistic, but I still think there's no substitute for actually just turning the page and seeing it."
MacNelly would rather spend his time contemplating possible developments in politics, both national and international. He is surprisingly optimistic about foreign prospects and somewhat resigned to domestic ones.
"I think people--given the free flow of information, given the dissemination of the truth--eventually will find ways to rid themselves of the bad guys. They always have, if they're presented with the facts. You can't keep the truth out, especially now when you can pick up satellite broadcasts from a briefcase. You open up a briefcase and pull out an antenna that picks up a satellite.
"What the hell, if you can do that, the game is over for the totalitarian governments that try to control the minds of the people. That proved to be the case in Eastern Europe. It will take a lot longer in China, but eventually, yeah, it'll happen there."
MacNelly maintains what he calls his "Presidential Hall of Fame" in his laundry room, over the sink. It features photographs of himself with such chief executives as Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan--and yes, even Bill Clinton. Grinning, he says the location of this mini-museum was calculated: it was selected "so when Susie's washing my socks, she knows what a terribly important person I am."
The present crop of presidential prospects, however, does not impress him. Asked if he thinks we have entered an age of political pygmies, he readily agrees.
"I think that's true. I think that reflects on the new view of leadership, which is: get the best pollsters you can find, find out what the people want to hear--and give it to them. That's basically what's happened.
"In the old days, the reason someone appeared larger than life is because he had a concept, he had an idea of what he wanted to accomplish. Sometimes he failed, but he tried to influence public opinion instead of the other way around. Certainly Reagan was like that. Reagan believed all that stuff. This wasn't something he was spouting just to get people to go along with him. That was his core belief system and involved a lot of what he ended up doing. The same with Lyndon Johnson. Of course, he was a little more of a bully about it."
MacNelly doesn't see any giants on the horizon, either in the Republican or the Democratic ranks.
"I like guys like John McCain [Republican senator from Arizona], but I'm suspicious of him 'cause so many in the media have decided he's their favorite. The media favorites always are great copy. They tend to prop 'em up."
And as for Al Gore?
"I think Gore is as dead as a smelt. I mean, if I was running against Gore, I'd get all the film clips of him with his arm around Bill Clinton. I'd get a shot of him over in China, hugging whichever dictator he was hugging at the time. And then this campaign finance thing." Even though Attorney General Janet Reno decided not to recommend that a special prosecutor look into the matter, "I think it's going to hurt him," MacNelly says.
"I just don't know. We may be going into a period of boring straight guys--this may be a Harding-Coolidge thing," MacNelly concludes with a chuckle, referring to Warren G. Harding, the randy 29th president who trysted with a nubile mistress in a White House closet, then died in office in 1923 and was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge, a dour, taciturn, straight-laced New Englander.
Past presidents such as Nixon, Carter and Reagan gave MacNelly plenty of rich material with which to work, but he admits to having some problems drawing a few of today's politicos. "Gore is tough to do. [Rep. Richard] Gephardt [of Missouri] I do pretty well, even though he's very fair [complected]. It's the Jerry Ford problem: you know who it is but you can't do it in ink."
Nevertheless, he insists that he doesn't pine for those halcyon days of colorfully caricaturable officials.
"You know, I don't really miss anybody, because I'm having so much fun with this particular bunch of ninnies and hypocrites," he says with a satisfied grin.
He anticipates continuing his cartooning--on both the editorial and the comics pages--"probably forever."
"I think if I retired, I'd be twice as busy. I can't afford to retire, basically because I have too many projects that'd take up all of my time. So this way, at least, I have an excuse to relax, have fun and do my job." *
Neil A. Grauer, a Baltimore writer and caricaturist, is the author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber.
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