Why political cartoonists sell out; in the rave for national fame, they ignore what matters at home.

Author:Judge, Lee

In the race for national fame, they ignore what matters at home.

If George Fisher is such a good political cartoonist, why haven't you heard of him?


Fisher specializes in local issues. For him, local means Little Rock, Arkansas. Because he does so few cartoons on national issues, you'll rarely find his work reprinted in Time, Newsweek, or your city's newspaper But those who follow state politics in the Arkansas Gazette know Fisher is a powerful force.

In the early sixties, Fisher was drawn to the drawing board by the embarrassing antics of Orval Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas. Fisher ridiculed him in one cartoon after another. A classic Fisher cartoon depicted Faubus as Betsy Ross-sewing George Wallace's likeness onto the American flag. In going after Faubus, remembered one of Fisher's old editors, "George swung his drawing pen like a battle-ax '" When Arkansas eventually rejected Faubus, Fisher took satisfaction in knowing he played an important role in stoking the fires of disenchantment.

"You know I voted for Faubus in his first run for governor," Fisher told Target, the political cartoon quarterly. "But when he called out the National Guard at Central High [over segregation], I opposed him. I simply came to cartooning with the Faubus regime and haven't had any ambition to go nationwide. I thought that it was an important thing for me to express an opinion locally because no one was doing it '"

Since the late sixties, Fisher has trained his sights on another target: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. By damming one free-flowing Arkansas river after another without any apparent regard for the ecological consequences, the Army Corps has taken plenty of heat-much of it generated by Fisher, who led the opposition to two proposed dams on the Buffalo River. Harold Alexander of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation says, "Fisher's cartoons were among the most effective weapons leveled at stopping the destruction of that beautiful river," which continues to flow freely (In fact, the Federation considered Fisher so effective they published a book of his cartoons.) Fisher's editor, Jerry Dhonau, says, "George has done a lot to shape public attitudes on public works projects '" He's shaped those attitudes with humor. One of his most devastating cartoons depicts two Army Corps officials, donning buttons that read "Keep Busy" as they look out over the state of Arkansas, depicted as one huge flood-control project. "God would have done it if he'd had the money," quips one engineer.

George Fisher's career is testimony to just how influential a political cartoonist can be in an age of media saturation. Yet, only about a dozen cartoonists out of more than 300 working in the United States devote the majority of their cartoons to local and regional issues. Instead they put their pens to national and international topics. Take a look at a few major papers from around the country during May. The Cincinnati Enquirer ran 25 cartoons on national issues by its own Jim Borgman and just six of his on local issues. In New Orleans, the governor is brand new and the economy is flat broke. But the majority of the cartoons in The Times-Picayune could just as well have run in Buffalo as in The Big Easy. Only six out of 26 by the paper's Mike Lukovich dealt with issues unique to New Orleans or the Bayou State, And The Washington Post devotes about as much cartoon space to its hometown as it does to Rangoon. The paper ran 49 cartoons in May. Not one dealt with the problems of local Washington government, namely Mayor Marion Barry and the wave of corruption that has swept over his administration.

You would think cartoonists would be aching to fill the breach. After all, editorial cartoonists, whether they'll admit it or not, surely want their cartoons to make a difference. Why not try to do a cartoon that will count-a seething portrait of that unknown, but important, tax commissioner rather than another Dukakis with a big schnozz or Bush with a dopey grin? Sure, national subjects can be fun-but local cartoons can be fun and effective. Why go after an elephant with a blow gun? Why not hunt smaller prey?

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