The Political Cartoonist as Competitive Entrepreneur
For all that Arkansas’s editorial cartoonists have contributed to the public discourse in the postwar era, editorial cartooning was often secondary to the need to make a living. The few cartoonists whose work was featured in Arkansas newspapers prior to the Second World War either had outside businesses or employment, or produced cartoons in addition to their other duties with the paper. This changed in the Little Rock newspaper market shortly before World War II when the first full-time editorial cartoonists were hired by the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat. Missouri-born Jon Kennedy joined the Democrat’s staff in 1941, and Ohio native Bill Graham was hired at the Gazette in 1948. Both were not really considered practitioners of hard-edged political or social commentary. They approached their subjects with light-hearted humor and took pains to avoid overtly antagonizing their targets while reflecting the editorial philosophies of their respective newspapers. In the mid-1950s the aforementioned mold was broken with the emergence of Beebe-born-and-bred George Fisher to the Arkansas print media.
How did men such as Fisher and Kennedy, who on a daily basis held Arkansas’s public figures up to almost merciless scrutiny, square this role with being also on the payrolls of these same public figures through their private businesses outside their newspapers? Is it possible that personal relationships did survive, and in fact, thrive on both sides in spite of this dichotomy?
Arkansas has long been unique in the media world in that there has existed a single statewide newspaper market that was anchored until 1991 by two dominant newspapers based in the capital city with a central geographic location. Until 1980, the morning Arkansas Gazette and the afternoon Arkansas Democrat led a life of little competition. The Gazette, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River, prided itself on an liberal editorial viewpoint, while the Democrat, especially under the ownership of the Hussman family, promoted a conservative philosophy. In such a market, not only could candidates gain a wider audience for their causes; cartoonists could as well. This kind of work was not just potentially lucrative financially, but also had a large impact in “selling” a candidate or cause in the years before television became common in small towns and rural areas across Arkansas.
In this context, Arkansas-based and oriented cartoonists like Fisher and Kennedy developed a unique effectiveness within their home market because they had no syndication obligations to limit their focus. Fisher’s perceived independence and Kennedy’s non-confrontational image enabled them to pursue cartooning for profit, even when it involved clients who happened to be politicians.
There were also instances of political cartoonists who branched into other commercial media ventures that actually gave them the opportunity to do political commentary by a totally different venue. On Little Rock’s KATV Channel 7 from 1950 to 1959, a cartoon/puppet show aired on Sunday afternoons and Tuesday and Thursday nights called “Phydeaux and His Friends.” The program featuring a sock puppet dog named Phydeaux and proved to be subtle political satire. The show was both a commercial and journalistic success as it developed an emerging venue for Fisher to spread his work and message. Fisher’s distinctive style that became his trademark was reflected in his early drawings. Phydeaux bore a close resemblance to the “coon dog” caricature that Fisher gave to David Pryor after the rejection of his 1977 “Arkansas Plan.”
By the mid-1960s, the lines were clearly drawn among political clients: Fisher would work primarily for Winthrop Rockefeller and some more liberal Democrats, while Kennedy would get out his pen for whoever got out the checkbook, and didn’t mind taking his cue from an order blank. He absolutely would not work for Rockefeller, as it would upset his nominally pro-Faubus editors, plus he had some affinity for Faubus himself. In this sense, both men veered closer to a role similar to Trist Wood, the longtime cartoonist for the New Orleans Item who went on the payroll of Governor Huey Long’s propaganda arm, The Louisiana Progress. Both Kennedy and Fisher supplied their work to the two chief political papers of both sides.
Kennedy, like Fisher, attracted his largest number of political clients between 1964 and 1970, which were the years of the battles between Faubus and Rockefeller. There was no chance that he would ever become a client of the transplanted New Yorker, as evidenced by this advertisement/cartoon from November 4, 1966:
Yet Kennedy played both sides of the street on the opposition side, which was a testament to the way both he and his newspaper had avoided rankling the powers during the Faubus era. His relationship with “Justice Jim” Johnson, the 1966 Democratic nominee for governor, is a case in point. Part of the impression that many Arkansans had of Johnson was that he represented a dark past that voters were seeking to move away from. Frank Holt tried to make this point in the primary, and Rockefeller did in the general election. Johnson’s alleged “backward” thinking prompted some to give him the caricature of a Neanderthal caveman.
What a difference a primary makes. Jim Johnson the caveman and the “aginner” is gone. In his place is Jim Johnson the responsible public official, Jim Johnson the energetic leader, the efficient executive, the dedicated public servant, in contrast to the distracted, disinterested Rockefeller, who has “more important matters” to attend to, implying that he would neglect Arkansas if elected. Further, the images of Johnson produced by both Kennedy and Fisher physically made him older than he appeared; at the time of his nomination for governor in 1966, he was only 41 years old and was said to have the energy of a man much younger, giving occasion to the “ball of fire” description in the cartoon.
Revis Edmonds, Ph.D., is the coordinator of preservation outreach for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program at the Department of Arkansas Heritage. An Arkansas native, he is married to Nena Edmonds and together they have two daughters. They are also grandparents to one grandson.