Academic journal article Journalism History

Drawing Fire: Editorial Cartoons in the War on Terror

Academic journal article Journalism History

Drawing Fire: Editorial Cartoons in the War on Terror

Article excerpt

On January 28, 2003, President George W. Bush made his case for an invasion of Iraq in his State of the Union Address. The Bush administration had tried to sell the war to the American people based, in large part anyway, on the fact that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.1 In his speech, Bush spoke with a sense of urgency, making clear the dire consequences to the United States and the rest of the world if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime possessed nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. In one statement, in particular, Bush issued this moral imperative for attacking Iraq over the objections of the United Nations: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.2 Two months later, the United States invaded Iraq, defeated its army, and quickly toppled its government, sending Saddam Hussein into hiding.

Within six months, however, the administration acknowledged that the president's justification for the invasion of Iraq was not credible-that the information regarding Iraq trying to purchase uranium from Niger was based on documents forged by an Italian who was described as an "occasional spy."3 When it became known that the statement that Niger had sold uranium to Iraq was false, critics assailed the administration's credibility. A number of editorial cartoonists savaged the president for deceiving the U.S. public and dragging the country into a war based on false information. Cartoonist Ann Telnaes drew Vice President Dick Cheney with the Niger report in a wastebasket, saying, "Telling the truth may be a sign of personal virtue, but it's not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive political agenda." Cartoonist Ted Rail suggested that American soldiers had died because of the administration's distortion. His cartoon was titled, "Bush lied. They died." Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution drew a cartoon that showed coffins that spelled "W Lied." The Journal-Constitution did not publish it. Three-time Pulitzer Prizewinning cartoonist Paul Conrad made the connection between Bush and the Iraq war by drawing a giant "W," followed by "ar" in small letters.

Los Angeles Times cartoonist Mike Ramirez, who supported the administration, drew a man labeled "politics" holding a gun to Bush's head against a backdrop labeled, "Iraq." (Figure 1) Ramirez based his drawing on the 1968 photograph of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong officer at pointblank range. Ramirez intended to defend Bush against critics who he believed were playing politics by pouncing on the African uranium connection in the State of the Union address. "President Bush is the target, metaphorically speaking, of a political assassination because of 16 words that he uttered in the State of the Union," Ramirez later explained. "The image, from the Vietnam era, is a very disturbing image. The political attack on the president, based strictly on sheer political motivation, also is very disturbing."4 But the sixteen words in question were more than "words that he uttered in the State of the Union," they were central to the administration's argument for invading Iraq and committing the United States to war.5

If Ramirez's objective was to defend the president, he failed. To the administration, Ramirez appeared to be calling for Bush's assassination. Ramirez's drawing, therefore, was not merely specious in its argument, it was constructed so poorly that it was misinterpreted. Ramirez learned he was being investigated by the Secret Service from the conservative online commentator Matt Drudge.6 The next morning, a Secret Service agent phoned Ramirez, who thought the call was a prank.7 The agent then went to the Times office to question the cartoonist because the cartoon was "construed as a threat against the president," the newspaper reported.8 Times executives prohibited the agent from speaking to Ramirez. Los Angeles-area Congressman Christopher Cox, a Republican who headed the House committee that oversees the Secret Service, referred to the incident as an attempt at intimidation, calling it "extremely bad judgment. …

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