Sometimes, words fail us. This week, for many Americans, is one of those times.
Enter Mike Keefe, our favorite political cartoonist. He’s a man of few words but plenty of ink and water colors, and he can say more in one image than most journalists say in pages of copy.
Keefe has cartooned for more than 40 years. He’s been around. He even won a Pulitzer. But the 2016 election left him dispirited and fried, and he took off soon after to Mexico, planning to take several months off from the U.S., Donald J. Trump, and cartooning.
Yet Keefe being Keefe, all news man, tuning out the headlines isn’t an option. I was thrilled when the cartoon above popped in my mailbox in time for Friday’s inauguration. After the Russian intrigue and Senate confirmation hearings, Trump’s swearing-in tomorrow is, apparently, too much to resist.
“I needed to escape. But two months into this stay in Mexico, I thought I can’t pass this up, this is too rich. I’ve got to start cartooning again,” Keefe said Wednesday from Guanajuato.
Here’s more of our chat…
Greene: You were supposed to be taking a break. What happened?
Keefe: I would have loved to have a transition to a president I thought would keep the country in good hands. But we don’t. What we’ve seen, even before Trump takes office, is, like, the biggest thing in decades. I’ve got to say something. It’s what I do.
Greene: What makes the Trump presidency “the biggest thing in decades”?
Keefe: Well, I was around through Vietnam and Watergate and the impeachment and removal from office of Richard Nixon and the election Ronald Reagan. Those are some of the stories that drew me into this work in the first place. But here we have a man who will be president unlike anyone we’ve seen – an admitted groper of women whom that story, like other stories about him, slid off like it never happened. … That’s big in a whole new unexpected way. … It’s hard to take your eyes off of.
Greene: What’s it like ‘tooning Trump?
Keefe: First of all, he’s lovely to draw. He’s a dream for caricaturists. Have you ever seen another public figure who looks like this guy? The colors alone are unbelievable. He has parts of the rainbow that are unavailable to other human beings.
And then there’s what he has to say, especially his tweets. When Twitter came along, I thought we cartoonists had been tweeting forever, writing captions about 140 characters long. Now we’re faced with a politician who does the same thing: He speaks in captions. They are satire in themselves. He offers cartoonists a new challenge: How do you satire a simple, uneducated non-leader with an ego problem in the age of Duck Dynasty? How do you satire a guy who is unmindfully self-satirical?
Greene: But there are lots of people – almost half a country of people – who don’t see him that way. You know that, right?
Keefe: I do. And that’s something you need to be careful about. The fact that he has followers who have legitimate concerns about the future of the U.S., the lack of mobility of the middle and working class, you can’t dismiss that. There are people who have felt ignored by the political establishment, and their complaints are legitimate. It’s important for journalists to keep that in mind.
Greene: So, in the age of Trump, a time when we’ll be governed by a man you see as an embodiment of satire, are there still lines you can’t cross in your commentary?
Keefe: (He cites a recent cartoon called “Alabama Voters” by Jeff Danziger riffing on Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions and his efforts to distance himself from a reputation as a racist. Danziger has been criticized for making the overreach of suggesting all voters in Alabama, which Sessions represents in the U.S. Senate, share his views).
Yes. That’s why the Danziger cartoon was wrongheaded. It was a real mistake to generalize about all Alabama voters when the cartoon would have been just as good without it.
Greene: Journalists all over the U.S. are concerned about freedom of the press under Trump and about threats he has made to those who’ve reported about him in ways he deems unfair. Cartoonists have in the not-so-distant past been murdered for their work. Are you concerned?
Keefe: So far, I haven’t heard any noise from Mr. Trump about cartoons. But it could come. I’m surprised, in fact, given the devastating caricatures of the orangutan-colored, short-fingered buffoon, that he’s not tweeted something at this point. (But I’m) not worried about him. (I’m) worried more about that small percentage of his backers who are truly in the lunatic fringe.
Greene: “Saturday Night Live” re-emerged this past year as a major force in political satire. So have other forms of satire, especially in social media. What does this all mean for good old-fashioned political cartooning?
Keefe: I can’t tell you the last time I saw a 25-year-old person on a bus spreading the editorial page out on his lap studying cartoons. That’s the traditional venue for editorial cartoonists: newspapers. And that venue is, well, you know… . Now that everyone’s a satirist these days, editorial cartoonists have gone online and tried to stay relevant. And some are. There are still some great cartoonists out there who are worth looking at.
Greene: Like who? What other cartoonists are doing work about politics and Trump that you admire?
Keefe: Tom Toles at The Washington Post is at the top of the heap. Joel Pett in Lexington, Jack Ohman in Sacramento, and Signe Wilkinson in Philadelphia are among them. There are about a dozen really top-notch cartoonists who are offering something that you won’t get anywhere else. Cartooning is a unique vehicle to meet Trump at Trump’s level. To the extent that cartoonists can do that, we might have some sort of impact.
Greene: Now that you’ve imagined Trump’s inauguration in your latest cartoon, will you be further interrupting your no-news hiatus to watch the real thing on Friday?
Keefe: There’s that part of me that, yeah, just wanted to get away. But I can’t help myself. I’ve got to see it.