Post Watch: Tom Toles

Toles’s frequent skewerings of President Bush are in the best tradition of the Post’s Herblock.

By: Harry Jaffe

Why does President Bush get up every morning and skip reading the Washington Post?

Perhaps because Tom Toles gets up every morning, asks himself, “What needs to be said?” and comes up with a cartoon in the Post depicting Bush as a crowned fool or a bewildered child or clueless as he destroys Iraq and his own political party.

That might make anyone quit reading the Post.

What does Toles think of the President? “Have I left a lot of doubt?” he asks.

Toles hasn’t left much doubt about Bush, Iraq, or global warming. Down on Bush. Against the war. Haranguing everyone to realize the planet is suffocating under greenhouse gases.

“I am doing the kind of work I had hoped to be doing here,” he says. “It wasn’t just to get to Washington but to do something when I got here.”

Toles, tall and lanky, came to the Post in 2002 from the Buffalo News, where he started cartooning and won a Pulitzer in 1990. He could never fill the shoes of Herblock, a fixture in the Post newsroom and on its pages for 55 years. So Toles has tried to make the editorial-page turf his own, with a similar liberal leaning and a hatred for what he sees as hypocrisy and corruption.

“I don’t take any particular relish in disagreeing with people,” he says. “I do like expressing my own views with palpable enthusiasm.”

Like his December 1 cartoon of the Grim Reaper’s skeletal hand writing planet earth on a certificate of death. “A little heavy-handed,” he says.

Or poking his cartoon pen at the raw nerves of the gay-marriage debate with a depiction of Dick Cheney reading a “conservative values” newspaper with the headline "Mary Cheney to give birth out of wedlock," one day after news broke that Cheney’s gay daughter would bear a child.

Or his drawing last January of the Army as a serviceman back from Iraq, body wrapped in bandages, stumps for arms and legs, with then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declaring the patient “battle hardened.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff attacked Toles’s cartoon as “beyond tasteless.” Veterans groups came to his defense.

Toles is not known for elegant strokes of the pen. He draws characters with spare, abrupt lines. Bush takes only a few strokes: one inverted U for his head, two pencils sticking up as his ears, dots for his eyes under heavy brows, a straight line for his mouth. When seated, his wee legs never reach the ground.

“The creative part is not what I would call enjoyable,” Toles says. “It’s hard work.” Toles makes his points with words as much as with his characters.

He came here with two goals: to build an audience and have some impact on the Washington debate. After four years, has he succeeded?

“I think I have had an effect on the editorial page’s position on global warming,” he says.

But on the war in Iraq, Toles and the editorial page have staked out very divergent positions. The editorials, under editor Fred Hiatt, started out hawkish and have remained mostly in support of Bush. A recent essay seemed stuck in its own quagmire of reasoning about how to salvage the war. Toles has been a steadfast critic of going to war, its conduct, and its repercussions.

The Post publishes Toles six days a week. On a typical day he draws four cartoons. One goes in the newspaper and on the Post’s Web site. Another also goes on the Web site. Two go in the trash. He’s also the first Post cartoonist to devote one drawing a week to a local matter.

Like President Bush, Toles goes back home every summer to refresh his spirit. The President cuts brush in Crawford, Texas; Toles draws his slashing cartoons in Buffalo.