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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

(continued from page 2)

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.

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