Editorial cartoonist Henry Payne frequently takes the train from Washington, D.C., to New York City's Penn Station, which has a reputation for being dirty and containing numerous homeless people.
When Payne arrived at Penn to cover last month's Democratic Convention at adjacent Madison Square Garden, he was astonished at the station's appearance. "It was clean and there wasn't a homeless person in sight," recalled the Scripps Howard News Service and United Feature Syndicate artist.
Payne, like several of his peers, ended up doing a cartoon on the irony of New York conducting a "homeless sweep" of the Madison Square Garden area to accommodate the convention of a political party supposedly concerned about the interests of less-affluent people.
The way firsthand observation helped Payne come up with this particular drawing exemplified the advantages for the more than 15 editorial cartoonists who traveled to last month's Democratic Convention. E&P talked to five of these creators, and all of them said they were glad they had covered the event live.
However, a couple of them added that editorial cartoonists who remained at home had the tools to also do a good job if they read about the convention and watched it on television.
"I don't think it was a must to be there to do effective cartoons," commented Payne, who was attending his first convention. He did note that "it's probably a good idea to go to one of these things at least once" to get an idea of what they're like.
Given the convention's TV orientation, stay-at-home editorial cartoonists may have actually had some advantages over their attending peers.
Payne noted that the most important activities and speeches at political conventions these days are saved for TV's nightly prime-time period -- making it difficult for on-the-scene editorial cartoonists to find open print shops and meet the deadlines of the newspapers they work for and syndicate to.
"With the main speakers, it's almost better to watch it on TV," added Jim Borgman of the Cincinnati Enquirer and King Features Syndicate. "If you do a cartoon on a Jesse Jackson speech, TV allows you to hear his words better and see his expression and hand gestures -- and then Tom Brokaw comes on to say what it all means !"
Editorial cartoonists, of course, could travel to the Democratic Convention and watch at least some of it on broadcast or cable TV once they got there. Meanwhile, they were picking up all kinds of stuff that TV tended to cover poorly or not at all -- including state delegation activities, demonstrations outside Madison Square Garden, and New York street scenes.
"You're there, you're feeling what' s going on, you're rubbing elbows with delegates and hearing their comments ," said Chris Britt of the Tacoma (Wash.) Morning News Tribune and Copley News Service. "There is no way you can capture that on TV."
Several cartoonists acknowledged that the Democratic gathering, like other recent political conventions, wasn't extraordinarily newsworthy. Bill Clinton and Albert Gore had already locked up the presidential and vice presidential spots, and much of the Madison Square Garden action was carefully staged and scripted in advance. Yet the cartoonists said the convention still gave them some political insights and colorful cartoon material.
"A convention is really a sensory event for political cartoonists," said Steve Benson of the Arizona Republic and Tribune Media Services, noting that it provides "so much visual fodder" as well as "apotpourri of buffoonery and ridiculousness."
Benson added that, besides being "extravagant public-relations endeavors,'' conventions "also provide real value for delegates and the average voter, who can focus on the party, the platform, and the candidate. At the Democratic Convention, it was the first time to see Clinton as he wanted to present himself."
Kevin Kallaugher of the Baltimore Sun and Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate said, "A convention is a great morale booster for the party faithful -- the local organizers and others who do all the dirty work. It gives them an adrenaline boost for the next four months."
"KAL" did observe that if modernday conventions are going to be "relegated to that status," they probably should not get such extensive media coverage -- although a close primary race could theoretically make a future convention very important.
To convey both the serious and silly aspects of last month's Democratic gathering, KAL chose to do mostly sketchbook-type work rather than his usual detailed cartoons -- and it wasn't only newspaper readers who saw the drawings. KAL's sketches periodically caught the eye of convention-goers, who would observe him as he drew.
"It was a circus-like atmosphere, and editorial cartoonists -- while not the main event -- were like the jugglers you could watch on the side," joked KAL, who was at his first American convention after having covered lower-key British political gatherings during the years he worked in England.
For Borgman, the Democratic meeting was his fifth convention, and he said they were all worth attending. "From Ohio, politics can sometimes seem like a distant ball game," said last year's Pulitzer Prize winner. "At a convention, your work has a real fresh 'you-are-there' feeling. It becomes more fun and loose and spontaneous." Part of this is a function of the workload. Borgman noted that he did more than 20 cartoons during his six days in New York (with about a third of the drawings having an Ohio emphasis). The other four cartoonists interviewed also at least doubled or tripled their normal weekly output. "A convention is like a triathlon for a cartoonist," said Borgman. "I was on the go the whole time," added Britt, who was covering his first convention. "I think the earliest I got to bed was 3:30 a.m." "It's tough and demanding work," . declared Benson, who has also done onthe-spot coverage of two other political conventions as well as events such as the Los Angeles riots and Persian Gulf war. "It pushes a cartoonist to the creative and physical limit. It helps you see what you're capable of .... "
Some of the stress was caused by the tightly packed Madison Square Garden, which KAL compared to a crammed New York City subway train.
"It was so crowded on the convention floor that I couldn't take my drawing pad," remembered Benson. Most cartoonists did their cartoons -- or at least the final versions of them -- in their hotel rooms or temporary
Payne was one of those using a temporary office space, where he went after sketching and taking Polaroid photos of convention-related action.
Benson, who colored a number of his cartoons, recalled trudging back and forth to a key-opened office hallway bathroom to get water to mix his paints in a glass borrowed from his hotel room.
Borgman, after hours of roaming around the Garden and other locales with a sketchpad and pencil, spread out the drawings on the bed in his Times Square-area hotel room. He then inked the cartoons on a desk pushed against the window for better light.
Outside this window, Borgman had a good view of one of the major convention-week events -- the large AIDS march.
Despite the crowds and less-than-ideal working conditions -- or perhaps partly because of them -- most of the cartoonists found covering the convention exhilarating. It also didn't hurt that it was in New York, which offers loads of positive and negative cartoon fodder as well as a jolt of adrenaline to visiting artists. "It was my first time in New York City, and I got a real energy from being there," said Britt. "When you walk onto the sidewalk, you jump into this river of people."
"It was more exciting than most conventions because New York is such a vibrant place," commented Payne.
Once in New York, some creators (such as KAL) concentrated on sketches, some concentrated on regular cartoons, and others did both. Then the drawings were sent back for publication in regular editorial page spots, on news pages, and elsewhere.
Many of the cartoonists used fax delivery, with mixed results. Borgman said he was "very pleased" with the way his work looked in the Enquirer, and noted that fax reproduction has improved greatly in recent years. KAL said the reproduction of his faxed sketches was "passable." Benson and the Republic were not satisfied with the fax, so overnight mail was used instead.
Every interviewee had some or all of his convention work syndicated, and Benson and Britt also did color cartoons for CNN.
Most of the cartoonists who came to New York will also be covering the GOP convention in Houston this month, and several added that they wouldn't mind going to the 1996 Democratic and Republican gatherings.…