Visual Convention Commentators: Five Political Cartoonists Discuss Covering the Democrats Last Month in New York City
Astor, David, Editor & Publisher
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. …