Greg Kearney: Complexities of Political Cartoons

Greg Kearney is known for putting pen to paper and touching on recent issues affecting Americans. He has been drawing cartoons for newspapers, many of them political in nature, since his days as a high school student. He continued drawing cartoons through his college days and landed a job as the cartoonist for the Casper Star Tribune in Wyoming, where he spent the bulk of his career until he became an independent syndicated cartoonist.Presently, Kearney draws cartoons for newspapers in Maine, Kansas, Wyoming and Montana.“Generally, I just look at the leading stories in the states where I provide cartoons to on any given day and select a story or issue from a story to draw about.” Kearney finds inspiration for his cartoons focusing on issues affecting the readership areas for the newspapers for whom he draws. Kearney noted he has been fortunate to do what he loves. You can find many more of his cartoons on his blog, Drawing Attention.

Greg Kearney (00:00):

Boss Tweed, the political boss of New York in the 1870s and 1880s once said, "That he could care less what the newspapers wrote about him, because his constituents couldn't read, but the damn pictures, everybody could see."

Emy DiGrappa (00:19):

Hello, my name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question, "Why?" We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is, What's Your Why?

                 Today, we want you to meet editorial cartoonist Greg Kearney. He is working with us, the Wyoming Humanities, in our cartoon caption contest. This is part of our Democracy Initiative. Welcome Greg.

Greg Kearney (01:11):

Hello.

Emy DiGrappa (01:12):

Well, first of all, just to get to know you on a personal level, in terms of learning how editorial cartooning, where did you start? Where did you begin?

Greg Kearney (01:21):

I grew up in Maine, northwestern Maine. I attended a boarding school, which is not uncommon in that part of the country, Oak Grove-Coburn. And while I was there, I started drawing cartoons for the local paper, which was over in Waterville actually. And so I've been drawing political cartoons on and off, and mostly on, for in excess of 40 years now. I kind of fell into it. I was mentored by a cartoonist at the Bangor Daily News, a man by the name of Victor Runtz. He is deceased now. And he really taught me, one, how you discipline yourself to draw every single day. A lot of people can draw a good cartoon once in a while, but to have the stamina to do it every day is kind of the test whether you could actually do it professionally or not.

                 Vic Runtz is also the source of the cat that is shown in the cartoons. Each cartoon has a little cat, the cat says little snarky things. Vic Runtz had this cat in his cartoons, that very same cat, and when Vic Runtz died, I decided to honor him by keeping the cat alive. And so the cat has a name. His name is Vic. Every once in a while, somebody will refer to him that way, or you'll see it on the back of a boat or something like that. And so that's kind of how I got into it. I did it in college at the student newspaper at Brigham Young, which is a place that has a regular herd of sacred cows waiting to be gored. And I've been doing it ever since.

Emy DiGrappa (03:14):

So this is interesting, so you draw cartoons every week and-

Greg Kearney (03:21):

I draw several cartoons every week. I draw cartoons every day.

Emy DiGrappa (03:26):

You draw cartoons every day? Okay, so every day you're drawing. Do you call it editorial or do you call it political cartoons or are they the same thing?

Greg Kearney (03:37):

They can be called either one, editorial cartoons or political cartoons. There are signed opinion pieces. They are not representative of what, in the case of Wyoming, the Jackson Daily News might think. It's my opinion, because they bear my signature.

Emy DiGrappa (03:57):

And when you create a political cartoon and you use visual metaphors and caricatures to address complicated political situations, why do you think that's effective? And why do you think it's important?

Greg Kearney (04:10):

Well, it's effective. Boss Tweed, the political boss of New York in the 1870s and 1880s once said, "That he could care less what the newspapers wrote about him, because his constituents couldn't read, but the damn pictures, everybody could see." Political cartoons boil off lots of complexity, and yeah sure we do over-simplify, but we make it so that it is easily understood and captured in a very short timeframe. I'd like to say that I don't have much more than 15 seconds of the reader's attention to get the point across. But the other thing, the power of it is, is that people will remember cartoons long after the best written editorial. And this is probably what gets us in trouble in newspapers or among newspaper people.

                 Nobody ever cuts out the editorial out of the newspaper and puts it up on the refrigerator, and says, "Gee, what a great editorial." They don't do that, but they do cut out the cartoons and stick them up on the refrigerator. Growing up in my childhood home, my mom was a librarian, was all the time cutting out cartoons and sticking them on the refrigerator. So it is the single most powerful form of editorializing that we have. I sometimes think editorial cartooning has fallen onto hard times as newspapering has, and a lot of cartoonists have lost their jobs, and almost no newspapers have cartoonists like they used to, where they were paid staff of the newspaper. And I sometimes think that we cartoonists made it all look just too darned easy. You know, editors were slaving away over getting every word exactly right, and cartoonists were batting these drawings off.

                 I'm known particularly in the trade for being particularly fast at drawing, and I seldom spend more than 30, 40 minutes drawing a cartoon. And it just looked all so darned easy to editors, almost like we were cheating somehow. What they didn't realize was the real work was in coming up with the ideas, it wasn't in putting out the finished artwork. It was sitting around all the time trying to think what you're going to draw next.

Emy DiGrappa (06:48):

And you worked for the Casper Star Tribune for how long?

Greg Kearney (06:52):

Oh, 20 years.

Emy DiGrappa (06:53):

For 20 years, and so when you-

Greg Kearney (06:56):

Until a newspaper has decided they didn't want to make money anymore.

Emy DiGrappa (07:00):

Well, that is too bad. But I think it's interesting, because you know Wyoming.

Greg Kearney (07:06):

Yeah.

Emy DiGrappa (07:07):

Because you did work for the Casper Star Tribune.

Greg Kearney (07:09):

Yeah.

Emy DiGrappa (07:11):

So how did you try and get people to have conversation by drawing a cartoon that maybe was edgy or maybe funny, made them think about something?

Greg Kearney (07:23):

That seldom was a problem, particularly in Wyoming where everybody knows everybody, and everybody knew who I was and probably they still know who I am because I still draw for some Wyoming papers. Wyoming folks were seldom shy about expressing their displeasure with my cartoon. That's fine, that's what it was supposed to do. You know I hated it, the worst thing of all of cartooning is draw a cartoon and have nobody respond to it. Cartoonists get kind of a fiendish delight in riling people up enough so they will call them up or write a letter to the editor and stuff like that. When I was working at the Star Tribune, it was when the Howard family owned it, it had a particularly liberal policy concerning letters to the editor, which meant that they ran almost every letter they got, so long as it wasn't patently libelous or completely crazy. And you'd be surprised how many times newspapers get letters written to them from people claiming to be God.

                 But Dick High, the editor much of the time that I was there, was fond of saying that the fastest way to get a letter into the Star Tribune was to criticize us, because that was almost sure to get into the paper quickly. And I think that's a good idea. A newspaper shouldn't be something that's run kind of in secret. I think we've allowed newspapers to be run like banks. I don't know about the Jackson Paper, but in the case of the Tribune, the new owners redesigned the front lobby, and it looks like a bank. It looked like you're dealing with tellers. It used to be that you could walk right into the Star Tribune and walk right up into the newsroom, right up to Dick High's desk and yell at him or me. I had people come up and yell at me, and that's the way it should be. We're not a bank, and we shouldn't impersonate one.

Emy DiGrappa (09:49):

Well, how are we going to draw a bridge across this great political divide that we have?

Greg Kearney (09:57):

I don't draw a bridge. Again, my opinions are my own. They've always been my own. And I am one of the few media people who will freely admit, and it used to be the case that all newspapers did this. There was a book called Editor and Publisher Yearbook, and you could look up and the newspapers would identify what political party they associated with. I do that. I don't make any effort to be neutral. I don't make any effort to bridge. It's not my job. My job is to draw cartoons as a traditional labor Democrat view. Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Clinton, those type of Democrats, a traditional labor-focused democratic voice. Some people run around and call me a socialist. I happen to be in a couple of socialist newspapers, and they might be justified in that, in some ways. But I think people have become all kind of squeamy and not willing to stand up for what they believe in, because they think someone's going to be offended by it. If you're easily offended, you should not go into this profession.

Emy DiGrappa (11:21):

Well, that seems to be very true, because the cartoons that you draw, you want to elicit an emotion. You want someone to think about something.

Greg Kearney (11:30):

Yeah. Now not all cartoons have to be heavy-handed editorial types. And when you draw daily, you can't keep that up. So I draw lots of cartoons that are mostly humorous. I'm thinking of one I drew about, well COVID is good for humorous cartoons, oddly enough. And so I drew a cartoon for the Jackson Hole Paper just a few days ago in which the skier who is standing on the slope and next to him is a COVID vaccine. I have a little COVID caricature I draw. And the COVID caricature is on skis as well. He's saying, "How's the powder?" And the cat is on skis also and saying, "Look, a tourist." So no, I don't necessarily fire off with all shots all the time, nobody who does it daily does it. So a lot of times I'm looking for those issues that are unique to Wyoming.

                 There was a story a while back about bears getting into beehives and eating stuff they shouldn't. There was one particular bear called 399, who was particularly fond of beehives and trash. And so there was a story about, "Oh dear, what are we going to do with this bear?" It is visualized eating junk food and it's not good for him and this and that. And so I had this bear sitting there with a bee honeycomb in his hand and a trashcan beside him, and he's talking to this guy who's got a McDonald's food bag, and the bear is saying, "You're one to talk." And Vic, the cat, is saying, "Smarter than the average bear."

                 So they're not always hard hitting, but sometimes they are. I just got done drawing one about Liz Cheney asking the Republican elephant, "Why they want their ring back?" That's pretty edgy. So no, it doesn't, but my job is not to make the peace. I let editorial writers opine upon such matters. My job is, when I do take a stand, take a clear and consistent stand based upon what I believe.

Emy DiGrappa (14:24):

How does political cartooning support our democracy?

Greg Kearney (14:29):

We're the court jesters, of course, and somebody once compared a newspaper to an army where they said the editorial cartoonist was the paid assassin. It supports it by, it's easy to make things too important, and it cuts the powerful down to size. You can think yourself terribly important until the cartoonist gets a hold of you, and then you suddenly discover you're not very important at all, particularly in his eyes. So I think it's important in supporting democracy to remember that nobody is greater than the whole. Now we certainly saw that with President Trump. Cartoonists had a field day with that guy. I seldom drew him, because I was drawing about local politics and local markets, and generally Donald Trump didn't show up in Wyoming or Montana or Maine or North Dakota. He wasn't on the issue every single day. And furthermore, I think editors got tired. I know editors got tired of seeing this constant flow of Donald Trump cartoons. Every single day there was a cartoon about Donald Trump, and I often said, "Drawing Donald Trump is like shooting fish in a barrel." There's no skill in that. It's an easy and cheap way out.

                 So I focus on local things. I focus on State things. I focus on issues about agriculture. I draw an awful lot of cartoons about agriculture. I draw cartoons about oil production, about oil pipelines. My fellow cartoonists are saying, "You're always drawing these cartoons about these weird subjects." I said, "Well they're important in North Dakota. So my cartoons are a little different. They've always focused, even when I was employed at the Star Tribune, I didn't draw very many national, international cartoons. And I don't even now. I have one or two papers that request them and I draw occasionally for them specifically. But mostly I'm trying to satisfy the needs of the editors I work with every day.

Emy DiGrappa (17:11):

Well it has been really a great pleasure talking to you. I really appreciate your time and just your passion for what you do. I'm really glad that you're out there making people think.

Greg Kearney (17:24):

Well, I'm one of the last ones left standing I got to tell you. It's a pretty bleak situation for editorial cartooning life.

Emy DiGrappa (17:32):

Well, that is too bad actually, but we look forward to-

Greg Kearney (17:37):

I'll keep doing it until I drop over dead, I guess.

Emy DiGrappa (17:40):

Well, when you're good at something, you can do it until you drop over dead. You don't have to retire.

Greg Kearney (17:49):

No, I have no intentions of retiring, couldn't afford to even if I wanted to. Oops, there goes the doorbell, there goes the dog. So I'll let you go.

Emy DiGrappa (18:13):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org, subscribe and never miss a show.