Mike Luckovich 

Pulitzer winner and political cartoonist

Two-time Pulitzer winner and AJC political cartoonist Mike Luckovich has secured a berth as one of the country's most celebrated and widely syndicated commentators on the American scene. Luckovich's cartoons will enjoy a different venue Oct. 12-Nov. 6, when TEW Galleries features an exhibition of his drawings.

People have described you as an independent thinker and not a lockstep liberal or conservative, and yet many of the readers' comments on the AJC website seem to see you as some kind of paragon of the liberal, lefty elite. Can you talk about the difference between your public image and your private beliefs? I think that my private beliefs are public. I really try and make points based on the way I feel about things. On my blog you get a lot of people on the left and the right, people who are way out on either side. I do hit Bush a lot, mainly because to me he's just such a terrible president. He's just incompetent and arrogant. He's perfect for a cartoonist. At this point it's hard not to take shots at him. I can understand why people would feel I'm a huge liberal just because whoever is president gets most of my focus. When Clinton was president I was always hitting him, especially over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But he actually was a pretty good president. He was not a stupid person and he cared about running the government, and I think Bush is the opposite. I don't think he cares, and I think he's pretty stupid. So it's more of a competence thing for me than a left wing/right wing.

How would you describe your political orientation? I try and view each issue independently. I think it would be fair to call myself a liberal, because I think I'm for most of what the Democratic Party stands for. I want to see us get out of Iraq in some sort of phased withdrawal. I'm for fiscal responsibility, which the Democrats seem to be for and the Republicans don't seem to be. So I think it's fair to say I'm a liberal.

How much does anger and outrage propel your work? It propels my work quite a bit. For instance, the one today, I did something on the talk of war with Iran. It's just so annoying. Yesterday, Dana Perino, who is the White House spokesperson, someone asked her based on this Sy Hirsch article in the New Yorker whether we're going to war with Iran. She said we're going to pursue a diplomatic solution first of all. Well you know, diplomacy involves talking, and Bush doesn't talk to people he doesn't like. So I'm pissed off. But the way to get people to pay attention is to use humor. So that's where the difficulty for me comes in. I'm so pissed off by the incompetence and the arrogance, but I want to make my point and I want to be funny so people want to look at what I have to say. So that's what I have to focus on, to get my opinions across in a humorous way.

Will your show at TEW Galleries be the first time you've shown in an art gallery? Does this signal a shift in the reception of political cartooning much like R. Crumb made the jump from underground comix to art galleries? I've never had a local art gallery show my stuff before. I just think that Timothy Tew at TEW Galleries saw a potential there, that people might be interested in my work and [he] understands that editorial cartooning is an art form. He's looking to bring interesting things to his gallery, and I think that was his motivation.

Your caricatures of President Bush definitely get the cowboy posture right. They also exaggerate his ears to Mickey Mouse proportions, and yet he is ironically the one president who listens the least. What's with the big ears? Well, he has actually very small features: He's got a very small little nose, little, kind of beady eyes, even a small mouth. So his ears were the kind of one big thing on him. And I use it as a way to kind of – because I personally don't like him – it's a way to kind of mock him. He bought his ranch in Texas a year before he ran for president. It's all phony. Even the way he walks is phony. He tries so hard to be this Texas cowboy, which he's not. But you know, a lot of people bought it. I don't think too many people are buying it now. That's why I draw his arms out like that; that's the way he holds himself, and it just seems so fake to me.

So are there certain people it's really hard to caricature? Does great beauty not lend itself to caricature? As a general statement that would be true. If a person's a really good-looking person, they are harder to draw. Although there are some good-looking people, like Tom Cruise is a good-looking guy, but there's something goofy about him and something sort of crazy about him. So even though he's a good-looking person, I enjoy drawing his caricature. He usually has his mouth in some big, huge smile, kind of crazy-looking. When I think about him I think about him jumping on Oprah's couch. Even good-looking people have certain characteristics to their face.

One person that has been very difficult for me to get has been Al Gore. And I can get him, but what's difficult about him is that when his face is relaxed, when he's not smiling, it's like his bone and muscle structure in his face is one way. But when he smiles it really changes. I can't really describe it. Oh gosh, it's like trying to figure out a mathematical puzzle; like looking through a prism almost. When he smiles his whole face changes, and I'm thinking, "what the heck happened there?" It's very weird. When you draw people a lot ... I kind of know even when a face is at rest, I kind of know how their face is going to look in a smile. And his is kind of an exception to that rule. So it just kind of throws me off. Whenever I draw a caricature of someone, I don't pencil it in first. I just ink it on my drawing board. And so often, like when I'm doing someone like Al Gore, I have to keep starting over so I'll have 12 or 13 drawings that will maybe just have a nose and an eye and a mouth on it and I realize this sucks, and have to start over again.

Of all the presidential contenders, who would be the most fun to caricature, and who the least? They're all pretty good. I think Barack Obama, he's a good-looking guy, but there's something cartoonlike about his face, and he has very large ears, and he has a very big smile and something about the shape of his head, and his jaw is sort of easy to do. So he would be good. But Hillary is good, too; she's got kind of an overbite and kind of a wide face, prominent cheekbones, and so I kind of enjoy drawing her.

I like drawing John McCain. His face is very plain; on the blogs they call him "walnuts" because his cheeks are kind of big and he's got sort of a fat neck and kind of a round head but little dark eyes without too much in the middle. And even his hair; it's really hard to draw his hair because it's so fine and it's white, it almost fades into his skull. But there's a certain way to get him, so when I'm drawing him he's always sort of a challenge, sort of like Al Gore. I know I can get him, but he's kind of hard.

Oh! Rudy Giuliani would be excellent. He's got a very high forehead, and he kind of combs his hair over the top of his big high forehead, and he's got kind of a long narrow nose and kind of a craggy face, lined. And sort of buckteeth but a big jawline. He's sort of an unusual-looking guy. And another guy is Fred Thompson, who's really kind of goofy-looking.

Whoever happens to win, the caricature part, any of them would be fine.

So what are some of the day-to-day perks of having won two Pulitzers? Better seats at restaurants? It really doesn't change it at all. I'm happy that I've done that, but still every day I have to come here to work and try to come up with a good cartoon. You can't rest on an accomplishment. It can be kind of grueling trying to put stuff together to make a point, that is humorous. And sometimes it's like the news doesn't change that much, especially with the Bush administration; it's the same story line over and over again: making great progress in Iraq, turning the corner ...

Sometimes it can be a really, really hard job. I love doing it, but I never have in my mind, "Well, I've won a Pulitzer" or something; I just don't think about it.

The beauty of political cartoons to me has always been their short and sweet nature. Have you ever been tempted to go longer? No. I think the less words, the better. A good editorial cartoon should be able to express something in a fairly quick manner. And I think that's one reason editorial cartoons can be attractive to people, because they don't have to wade through a long opinion piece. Our society is just getting faster and faster with the Internet, and with an editorial cartoon you can go in and read it and get it and move on. And that's what I try to do, I try to be concise.

How often do you read the comments to your cartoons on the AJC site? Are those comments ever helpful? No, not really. I was looking at them just a little while ago, and some of the people on that blog are insane. I'm reading this garbage that's just coming out, and I imagine some really strange, weird guy in an old bathrobe sitting in his house somewhere. On the Internet you don't have to be smart or anything; it takes all types, which is good. But then you get these really colorful, crazy comments. What I tend to do every day is I'll go down and at least read some of them and see what people are saying. It's kind of fun that the people have a place to sound off about the cartoon. I'd say 80 percent of the comments on that blog are sane. But 20 percent of them, I shake my head and think, "What is going on with that person?" because if you read some of them, they're just wild.

What do you read to stay informed? I read the AJC and the New York Times, and then I get on the Internet and look at various blogs. One of my favorite blogs is TalkingPointMemo.com. It's this guy Josh Marshall who posts about things going on in the news. It's a news blog and he's an historian and very smart. Another blog I really love on WashingtonPost.com appears around 1:30 p.m. every day. It's this guy Dan Froomkin and it's called White House Watch. And he kind of talks about what's going on in the White House and then links to various other news stories. It's just very interesting, and it's often helped me with my editorial cartoon. If I don't have a topic, I'll read his stuff and think, "Oh, there's something there to do a cartoon on."

And on the other extreme, do you ever keep up with anything pop culture in terms of People magazine or Vogue? Well, I'm on the Huffington Post right now. They have almost a People magazine thing: entertainment, Britney Spears losing custody of her children. I really try and keep up with what's going on in popular culture just because if there's something that people are really aware of, I can sometimes take an issue and combine it with some pop-culture thing that's going on and sort of twist it. And that's where you kind of get the humor and people understand it because they're following what's going on.

What is the highest purpose, in your mind, of editorial cartooning? I think it's just to, there is so much opinion out there and so much spin, and what I try to do with my cartoons is try and show what I believe to be the truth and what I believe is right.

For instance, I like today's cartoon because they're talking about going to war with Iran after they've just created the hugest blunder in American history by going into Iraq. Bush and Cheney have just created this gigantic mess and it's going to take many, many years to clean this all up. And now they're talking about, "Let's hit Iran now." So I was trying to think of a good way to combine that. So in today's cartoon I drew the Iraq war as a monster, and it's in a baby stroller and Bush is walking the baby stroller, and he says to Cheney, "We've given birth to a monster, what should we do?" And Cheney has leaned his head on Bush's shoulder and is saying, "Let's have another," and he's holding a piece of paper that says "War with Iran." So I'm really just trying to get out what I believe is the truth.

Can you make some big-picture assessment about how political discourse has changed since you began cartooning while working in the early '80s? There's always been a kind of bickering between the Republicans and the Democrats, but it really changed around the early '90s with the Clinton administration where the right wing, I don't know where it came from, but there was so much hatred toward the Clinton administration and to me it just seemed irrational.

When George W. Bush's dad was in power, there were a lot of people angry with him on the left, but it was never ugly. I think the person who really ushered in the polarization and the ugliness that has infected our political discourse is Newt Gingrich. He came into power, and as he rose up he really tried to just dehumanize or make Democrats seem evil. And so he, along with Rush Limbaugh and Tom DeLay, just created this kind of ugliness. I think spirited debate in our democratic system is always good and mocking people's ideas that you don't think are correct. But I think it has crossed a line, and I think it's really hurting us in getting things done. And Bush and Karl Rove and Cheney have really carried it to the extreme.

This ugliness may be beginning to change. I'm hoping it's kind of run its course; that hateful spin, people aren't buying it anymore. That's a good thing. I'm hoping the political system will correct itself and that we can get back to a civility.

Although an editorial cartoonist saying that is kind of weird. Because I thrive on conflict. But really I care about my country more than I care about having an easy day at work. There's always going to be good material; just because there are politicians and so many blowhards and people who take themselves too seriously and people who do stupid things being human. I just fear for my country, because the politics have become so ugly, and I think it's become really unhealthy.

What's your favorite procrastination technique? Sitting here playing on the Internet. I told you I look at my news sites, but I didn't tell you I'm playing around on eBay. I goof off every day. I have a thing I do: Every day I'm writing down topics, but I don't really get serious about them until about 3 o'clock. And around 3 o'clock I start getting nervous and that forces me to come up with something, so I'll come up with a couple of ideas and I show them to guys named Peter and Jay in the office, and they normally shake their heads and say, "Those ideas stink." And I love that, I love the rejection, because then I come back with a couple more and they're probably better. And that's how I do it every single day. I procrastinate. That's an integral part of my job.

Do you always work 9-to-5 hours, or will you backlog ideas over the weekend or start sketching on a napkin at dinner when inspiration strikes? Nah. We have four children, so that's kind of hard to think about stuff. I'll think about it in the morning when I get up. I'll get up and I'll start looking at some news stories. It's mainly, I don't think of things at home or on the weekends. It's when I get here when I focus. And waiting this long? None of my cartoonist friends do this; fart around all day and then do it like this. But I like being up on the news and I like the nervousness because it forces me to come up with something.

Two or three years ago I was doing this thing on CNN. ... They had something on their website where viewers would vote for the main topic of the week and so they would tell me on-air, "Mike, this is the top story for the week. Mike's going to be back in a half-hour with a drawing on this subject." So that was really pressure, because I'd have 15 minutes to come up with something and 15 minutes to draw it. Very quickly. So there were times when they'd be saying, "OK, we're coming back to Mike," and they would put the camera on me. I'd still be drawing and just finish it. But I like that; I like that pressure. I always feel like I'm always right on the border of being humiliated. It motivates me.

What limitations are presently imposed on your work? Previously at the Times Picayune, you had to submit several ideas and your editor would choose one for you to draw. There's nothing really discouraged. I can't draw people naked. I can't be too graphic. But they let me do what I want. I still will give multiple ideas, because I lose my objectivity when I'm looking at my ideas. So I need others to kind of tell me whether they're good or not. For instance, it's like looking at the word "who." If you were to look at the word "who" for half an hour, you'd start thinking, "What does that even mean?" So I need to pass it around and show it to others, and normally there's a consensus favorite and that's the one I'll do.

Is there anything you won't joke about? I would never do something about a child, especially a child that's innocent of something but is involved with something for whatever reason. I mean, I'm Catholic, but during the pedophilia scandals that the Catholic church has had, I've hit them very hard. And I take stands on things dealing with the church. They're a large institution in the world and in society, and I feel I have to comment if I disagree with something.

Where does your sense of irreverence and desire to question authority come from? I don't know where that came from. All the way through school I was always the kind of kid in class who told the jokes. And I went to a Catholic school for a while, and I was always seeing what I could get away with. And I've always been someone who kind of observes what people are doing and questions things. I'm sort of a cynical person, and I know how to draw, so it's just the perfect thing for me. But people who know me would say I'm a very nice person. I'm not a mean person to people, but I can be mean in my cartoons when I'm dealing with something or someone that really infuriates me.

What do you do for fun when you're not shaming the power mad? I enjoy hanging out with my kids, being with them, being with my wife. I like to exercise. I lift weights and I run, I work out at this place called Concourse Athletic Club. I lift weights and then I run four miles. And it's just relaxing.

You draw a lot of your average Americans wearing glasses that don't allow us to see their eyes. Can you talk about that recurring visual motif in your work? For some reason I think it's funnier if they don't have eyes. I don't know what that's all about necessarily.

But most people receive the news in front of their television, so a lot of times when I'm drawing a cartoon I have the husband and wife in the cartoon and a lot of time they have cats in their lap; this is how these characters receive the news and they comment on it. And I always make the man smaller and the woman bigger. I think I've always viewed women as more evolved. So I always sort of view women in some ways as superior to males. And she's usually the one who makes the smarter comments and it's usually the guy who makes the really stupid comments in the cartoon.

Are you ever worried that people are becoming more and more prone to take "The Daily Show" approach and just laugh off the absurdity of politics and politicians without necessarily doing anything about it? Sometimes you need to laugh even though it hurts. But I think in our political climate a guy like Jon Stewart is one of the best ways of communicating. Even though it's humor and it's not real, he gets to what is really going on out there in a way that local news or CNN doesn't. With CNN or network news, it's all, "They said this and these people said that." And so much is more nuanced than that. So much of it is spin and responding to the spin, so what "The Daily Show" does is cut to what's going on and actually shows what's going on in a very humorous way. And I try and do that in my cartoons; show what's really going on in a humorous way. Because I think that's more effective. I think that "The Daily Show" has done good. I sometimes wonder why more Americans don't get involved. I think sometimes they feel like the spin is overwhelming and there's nothing they can do. But I don't think that has anything to do with shows like "The Daily Show." I think "The Daily Show" has really educated a lot of people as to what is really happening in our country.

What's your favorite vintage store for your wacky ties? I always will have a place in my heart for vintage clothing. But I've kind of left that behind now. My wife and I went to France last year, and I tried on this Italian suit. My wife said, "Oh man, I really like that on you." And she likes it because my vintage suits, the crotch always hung down to my knees. But these Italian suits, they fit really nicely. And so now, I buy Italian suits on eBay. It's really great.

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