October/november 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 6
Here is how political cartoonists have sized up the candidates over a tumultuous half-century.
“Some Shoes to Fill!” is the title of the October 1932 cartoon seen here. It ran in the New York Herald Tribune , voice of the city’s Republican establishment. A spiffy Hoover towers over the disheveled New York governor. But with the economy in ruins, Hoover’s spats failed to charm the electorate, and on November 8 the terrified homunculus cowering in the corner of this drawing suddenly grew up to carry all but six states and gain 472 electoral votes to Hoover’s 59.
Upper-class discomfiture over New Deal reforms was a favorite theme of pro-FDR cartoons, and Peter Arno’s vision of a plutocratic bunch heading for the latest newsreels was the most famous of them. Roosevelt’s “treason” to his “class” inspired particular fury in his fellow patricians. (When, after FDR’s death, this drawing was reprinted in an anthology with the caption respectfully changed to read “We’re going to the Trans-Lux to hiss Truman,” the cartoon became utterly meaningless.) Hissing the celluloid FDR was only slightly more futile than Alfred Landon’s 1936 race. The Kansan carried just two states. “As Maine goes,” said the Democratic National Committee chairman, James Parley, “so goes Vermont.”
Following Roosevelt’s announcement for an unprecedented third term in 1940, opponents more and more frequently pictured him as a would-be dictator. In this 1940 cartoon from the Chicago Tribune —a leading FDR critic—Sen. Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky, majority leader and New Deal loyalist, encourages Rooseveltian vainglory until the Nazi brownshirt and Hitler mustache appear. (The button popping off the shirt would remind readers of Fat Stuff, a character in the Smilin’ Jack comic strip in the paper.) FDR defeated Wendell L. Willkie, although the Republican candidate did receive twenty-two million votes, the most garnered by a beaten candidate to that time.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a ubiquitous spokesperson for her husband’s administration. Opponents derided her prominent role, and this 1944 cartoon from the New York News also pokes fun at Sen. Harry S. Truman, FDR’s running mate. An ally of the Kansas City Pendergast machine, Truman was assailed as incompetent but joined the ticket as a “unity candidate” after Roosevelt dropped Vice-President Henry A. Wallace as too radical. FDR easily defeated the New York governor Thomas E. Dewey in the election.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a 1948 campaign poster by the artist Ben Shahn, was painted for the left-wing Progressive party candidacy of Henry Wallace. It parodies a famous 1945 Life magazine photograph of Truman playing the piano while Lauren Bacall lounged on top of it. Shahn substituted the GOP candidate Dewey for Bacall. In a close election Truman beat Dewey, Wallace, and Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the candidate of Southerners who defected from the Democrats over civil rights.
“Ixnay, Adlai” is the title of this 1952 cartoon from the New York News . The articulate, Princeton-educated Stevenson, Democratic governor of Illinois, is needled for his use of long words by the News , which was very much the journal read by New York’s working class. Joseph Medill Patterson, the paper’s founder, had backed Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936 but switched to the GOP column starting in 1940. The depiction of Stevenson emphasizes his baldness, which brought the word egghead into widespread use. Stevenson’s Republican opponent, the wartime hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, came into the campaign from the presidency of Columbia University. Despite this post and an equally bald head, he scored a decisive victory over the Illinois governor.
“Well, Men, That Buttons It Up,” says a GOP boss to his cohorts, reflecting the party’s justifiable optimism over Eisenhower’s 1956 candidacy for a second term. The cartoonist was Herblock—Herbert Lawrence Block—who began drawing for the Chicago Daily News in 1929. In 1946 he went to the Washington Post , became widely syndicated, and won Pulitzer Prizes in 1942, 1954, and 1979. Stevenson once again opposed Eisenhower as the Democratic candidate, and he lost by an even larger margin than in 1952.
By 1960 television was universally established in America, and it played a prominent role in that year’s presidential campaign. Sen. John F. Kennedy, who entered and won seven primaries for the Democratic nomination, took the nomination on the first ballot. Vice-President Richard M. Nixon won the GOP nomination easily and campaigned on the record of the Eisenhower administration. A crucial factor in the campaign was a series of television debates between the candidates. There was great fretting in the Nixon camp over the Vice-President’s appearance, and particular worry over the shadow of his beard, which showed clearly on the black-and-white televisions of the time. The Democratic Daily News of Greensboro, North Carolina, parodies Nixon’s predicament while asserting that Kennedy is the more substantial candidate. And in fact, Kennedy’s good looks played a real role in his narrow victory.
“I just happened to be passing by …,” says Lynclon Baines Johnson to a forlorn Republican elephant (here symbolizing the party’s liberal wing), and LBJ, who had succeeded to the Presidency on Kennedy’s assassination, is delighted to give the beast a lift. The liberals were unhappy with the policies of the GOP candidate, Sen. Barry M. Coldwater of Arizona, a leader of the party s conservative wing. The cartoonist is Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times , winner of Pulitzers in 1945 and in 1959. Aided by GOP defections, Johnson trounced Goldwater in the election.
A cartoon in the British magazine Punch (left) foresaw that popular opposition to the Vietnam War would cause grave problems for Johnson, and indeed, the President decided not to run in 1968. Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey was the Democratic nominee, Nixon the GOP choice. George C. Wallace, who had been governor of Alabama, entered the race as a segregationist candidate; David Levine, known for his work in The New York Review of Books , saw him as a sinister force holding the balance of power in the election (right). Wallace scored well in the South and in many traditionally Democratic working-class areas in the North. The Democratic split helped tip the balance toward Nixon.
Edward Sorel’s Richard Nixon presides over a motley crew in this burlesque of Washington crossing the Delaware. Sorel saw the rowboat of state foundering amid antiwar sentiment, the rising black challenge to Southern politicians, the demands of women’s liberation, and the prevalence of street crime, while a pompous and militaristic Nixon does not deign to notice them. Nevertheless, Nixon managed to get his troops across triumphantly—only to be routed at the battle of Watergate two years later.
“There must be some mistake,” exclaims this Democratic boss when presented with the new party candidate in 1976. Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia and a political outsider, had beaten the party machine in the primaries to capture the nomination. Carter then went on to narrowly defeat President Gerald Ford (who had succeeded Nixon after his resignation). But Carter never gained the confidence of Establishment party figures such as House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O’Neill, whose jowls could well have inspired this cartoonist for the Boston Globe .
The lack of a real choice is a continuing lament in recent American election history. This cartoon from the Minneapolis Star & Tribune mocks all three 1980 candidates—Carter, Republican Ronald Reagan, and Independent John Anderson. The Wizard of Oz provides the cartoonist’s inspiration, with Carter as the scarecrow, Reagan as the tin woodsman, and Anderson as the cowardly lion. Reagan won a decisive victory in the election, but his “lack of heart” remained a favorite theme of his opponents.
Reagan is one happy sheriff in this cartoon from the Dallas Morning News . Inside The Old Democrat Saloon his potential opponents stage a knockdown primary fight. The characterization of Reagan as a Western figure is in keeping with strong White House emphasis on this theme during his term. Walter Mondale won the shoot-out. Reagan has run on the record of his administration, which Mondale has accused of being trigger-happy and excessively kind toward the rich. The results of the election? The people will decide, whatever the cartoonists say.