The Politico, Washington’s new whiz-bang political tabloid, has yet to distinguish itself since its January 23 launch. Congressional and political coverage are pretty much more of the same. Only columnist Roger Simon is off to a rousing start.
Against that backdrop, Matt Wuerker’s illustrations pop off the pages. What distinguishes the Politico from its competitors—Roll Call and The Hill—is that it has chosen to hire and highlight a political cartoonist at a time when newspaper cartooning is a dying craft. Roll Call has a fine staff cartoonist in RJ Matson but rarely features him on the front page.
“It’s an anomaly,” Wuerker told me from his DC home. “I was shocked and surprised when I heard they were looking for a staff cartoonist. I was shocked again when they chose me.”
Barack Obama probably was shocked when he saw Wuerker’s color caricature of him on the Politico’s front page on Thursday. Wuerker draws the Illinois senator in fine detail, flashing that trademark grin, tying on track shoes for his run at the White House, ears large enough to pick up the sound of a campaign-contribution pledge in Chicago.
Says Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles: “Matt consistently produces tough, sharp, hard-hitting, closely rendered, and impolite cartooning in the best traditions of the field. I’m a fan and a friend.”
Wuerker, 50, has been drawing political cartoons since he graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. His work first showed up in the Willamette Week, and he’s been freelancing “for some 20 years.” His drawings are syndicated by Tribune Media Services and appear in the Oregonian, Christian Science Monitor, and Washington Post’s weekly national edition.
Politico is his first staff position, thanks to senior publisher Martin Tolchin.
“Marty is a classy, old-school journalist,” Wuerker says. “He believes newspapers should have a staff political cartoonist. It’s completely counter to the trend.”
Cartoonists at big-city papers are becoming an endangered species. The Chicago Tribune lost Pulitzer Prize winner Jeff MacNelly to cancer in 2000 but never replaced him. Mike Ramirez won a Pulitzer for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, TN; the Los Angeles Times fired him and has yet to fill his spot. The Baltimore Sun let Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher go in a staff buyout in January 2006.
Kallaher told the Sun’s public editor that the editorial-page director “made it clear that the future of the editorial cartoonist position at the Sun was uncertain.”
Rick Cole, a freelance cartoonist with the Trentonian, got the ax a few weeks ago in a cost-cutting move, according to a news item posted by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
Says Wuerker, a member of the cartoonists association: “It’s a little like being a member of the Association of Buggy Whip Makers back in 1920.”
The cartoonists association is holding its 50th-anniversary convention here in Washington in July. It says the number of full-time newspaper staff cartoonists has declined from about 200 to about 80 over the past two decades.
“Fifty years ago,” says Wuerker, “cartoonists were living high on the hog and high on the media food chain. They had a featured spot on the editorial page. That has eroded for different reasons; now we read about cartoonists being eliminated.”
Wuerker says he was “scraping together a freelance career” before the Politico put him on its pages. His caricatures of columnists adorn their prose. Roger Simon’s big head sits atop a reporter in a wee trench coat taking notes. Gossip columnist Anne Schroeder’s long hair flounces around her shoulders; the trademark beauty mark on her right cheek shows up as a dot as she peeks around a potted palm.
Politico will sometimes put Wuerker’s drawing on the front page, as it did with Obama and a caricature of defeated Virginia senator George Allen being videotaped in his “Macaca moment.”
“Papers need to distinguish themselves and be unique,” says Wuerker. “If they start running packaged cartoons, they look like everyone else. It’s penny wise and pound foolish. Second-rate content can lose readers.”
Wuerker says the Politico’s editors have promised to experiment with new cartoon forms on the newspaper’s Web site.
“Political cartoons are really well suited to the Web,” he says. “What we do best is simplify things to pithy caricatures that make people laugh and maybe even think, and this can be done with pixels just as well as with ink and paper, maybe even better.
“In the olden days a good cartoon got hung up on the fridge with a magnet to be shared with friends,” he adds. “The Internet is just a bigger, better refrigerator door.”
Full disclosure: My daughter Rose Jaffe was a political cartoonist for student newspapers and took a class with Wuerker.