Political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant kept some of his hate mail. Some of it he memorized and can still recite verbatim.
Some of it he crumpled into a ball and tossed aside. Some are now housed in the archives at the University of Virginia, a curious memento from a career that lasted for more than half a century and defined political parody in some of the most prominent newspapers in the United States.
Oliphant, 85, is calm and good-humored. Over the course of his career, he resisted making friends with politicians and his non-nonchalance is still evident. A resident of Santa Fe since 2004, Oliphant retired six years ago because of his deteriorating eyesight. Sporting big tufts of curly, white hair, Oliphant speaks softly with the remnants of an Australian accent. Seated on his patio, not far from his home studio and the guest house that his wife, Susan Conway, uses as an office, Oliphant shares his unvarnished opinions, which remain as barbed as ever. “The Republican Party, to me, has always been suspect. Although, I did meet some nice Republicans, once,” Oliphant says. “The brand itself seems itself to have survived for no good reason.”
Oliphant’s home near Canyon Road is filled with books, many of which are serious tomes that explore the grand American fabric. I asked Oliphant if he, in fact, had read all of them. In a hushed tone, Oliphant says, “Nobody reads all of them.” But, Oliphant digested a lot of information over the course of his career, and his cartoons are almost always filled with detail. He parodied decades of politics with ease because he read tirelessly.
“Oliphant really revolutionized the political cartoon in America,” says Professor Elizabeth Hutton Turner who teaches art history at the University of Virginia and curated a 2019 museum exhibit drawn from the university’s Oliphant collection. “He created a whole new scope and reach for the political cartoon, and that is because of his depth of knowledge and complete, phenomenal skill with caricature.”
“If you speak to any editorial cartoonist, or just a cartoonist in general, they will tell you that there are two major influences on every single editorial cartoonist for the past five decades, and those are Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant,” says Jason Chatfield, president of the National Cartoonist Society and a cartoonist for The New Yorker. “You can see that influence in every single cartoonist’s style who borrowed something from either one of them to the point that they almost defined the style and editorial guides for editorial cartooning. You’d be forgiven for not being able to distinguish the work of various cartoonists in America on account of editors wanting their work to look a particular way.”
Born in Adelaide, Australia, Oliphant got his start with a local newspaper as an editor. At times, the job frustrated Oliphant, but it gave him an opportunity to move into cartooning. He took classes at the Adelaide School of Art, but also taught himself how to draw and recognized early on that he had an aptitude for it. “We had some bombastic bastard editor from the East Coast,” Oliphant says. “It was funny, really, because he had a stutter and would say to me quite often, ‘Y-y-y-you’ll never make it as a journalist.’ ”
In 1964, Oliphant accepted a job with The Denver Post. “I adapted fairly quickly to the United States, but it was an exploration for me; the whole thing, the whole experience was all new,” Oliphant says. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven it was such a wonderful experience to be amongst all these people. The American reader was so accepting of this strange person.”
Within three years, he was syndicated with the Los Angeles Times and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He also received two Reuben Awards from the National Cartoonists Society, and Germany’s Thomas Nast Prize.
During his long career Oliphant covered the high and low points of American politics — from the Goldwater Era to President Barack Obama. Historical figures like Nixon made frequent appearances. “These characters that start to take on a life of their own, they come back and they haunt his scenes,” Turner says. “For example, during the [George H.W.] Bush years, the ghost of Nixon or Nixon himself would pop up in the midst of a scene to tell George Bush something. Nixon becomes the personification of total corruption.”
Oliphant saw himself more as a mirror on society than a comedian. The humor in his cartoons — he drew tens of thousands over his career — came from the truth and from Oliphant’s observations as much as they did from his keen wit. He still scoffs at the idea of punch lines. “Humor is a vehicle, and it comes in all different shades,” Oliphant says. “Sometimes it’s correct, and sometimes it’s not.”
“He had such a field day with the story of Cheney and the shotgun,” Turner says of the incident, in 2006, when former vice president Dick Cheney accidentally shot a friend during a hunting trip. From then on, he appeared in Oliphant’s characterizations wielding a 28 gauge.
After his work in Denver, Oliphant moved to the center of the U.S. political scene, taking a staff job with The Washington Star. “It was a conservative newspaper, but I never let that bother me,” Oliphant says. He stayed with the Star until 1981, when his syndication work allowed him to transition to a freelance career. Afterward, Oliphant stayed in Washington.
Oliphant came out of retirement in 2017 to parody Trump. “I’m torn two ways with Trump: He’s so bad for the country, but he’s so good for cartoons. There’s a smugness and a self-satisfied, self-seeking quality that I found fairly disgusting, and it was wonderful to have someone like that.”
Typically, Oliphant would wake up at five or six in the morning and read the newspaper, formulating notions for the day’s cartoon. The point was to “get it all together and try to isolate in your mind what the component parts are and which ones will work together and then you start drawing in pencil, just roughing out your thoughts,” Oliphant says. “Sometimes, that’s the wellspring of where ideas come from, just trying it out and trying it out.”
A liberal “most of the time,” Oliphant did his best to stay independent of the whims of editors. “They can give me flack any time they like; that doesn’t mean I’m going to change my own personal conviction,” he says.
“A lot of it is gut feeling, I think,” Oliphant says of topic selection. “As Bill Mauldin used to say of his philosophy, ‘If it’s big, hit it.’ ” Even when on staff, Oliphant rarely had editors looking over his shoulder.
Oliphant composed his cartoons in 4- by 6-inch, coil-bound Strathmore sketchbooks with a pencil. “I’d sometimes walk in while he was trying to work on something, and he’d have a big grin on his face imagining what terrible thing he was gonna write,” says Conway, a former gallery owner and Oliphant’s wife of 24 years. Many of these preliminary drawings featured text and looked remarkably similar to the final product.
Using a pencil, quill pen, ink, and brush, Oliphant then reproduced the cartoon on 11-by-16-inch paper. Although it’s been several years since he last created a cartoon, Oliphant’s skylit, adobe home studio is still filled with these tools. A sink by his drafting desk remains covered in black ink from the pens he washed. There are also stacks of charcoal pencils and piles of sketchbooks, now organized by year.
Oliphant and other mediums
After they met and married in Washington, Conway, an art conservator who trained at the Louvre Museum in Paris, organized Oliphant’s collections and made an arrangement with Turner to donate 7,000 original cartoons, as well as Oliphant’s personal correspondences to the University of Virginia.
In addition to his work in cartoons, Oliphant branched out to other mediums. While at a 1981 museum exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington that was featuring the work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, Oliphant also realized that he wanted to experiment with bronzes. The rawness and power of sculpting looked like fun, he says, and he hated to miss out on it. He used wax roughs to bring his caricatures into three dimensions and then had them bronzed at a foundry in Baltimore. Turner finds a lot of similarities between his cartoons and bronzes. “With the sculptures, he’s connecting vision and touch as well,” she says. “Except [that] it’s not the pen or the pencil moving against the page or the sketchbook. It’s his hand and this warm wax.”
He also made charcoal sketches. “I started doing large charcoal drawings of quasi-politicians and Rudolph Giulianis and things like that,” he says. “I picked those names because they all come along with their own foibles and shortcomings, and I love shortcomings.” The charcoals capitalize on the same caricature characteristics that Oliphant so often satirized in his cartoons, but they’re portrayed with fewer frills in his charcoal portraits, usually without text.
Most of his bronzes rendered in small scale, but Oliphant hopes to have one cast much larger. The Adjournment of the Luncheon Party (2002) encapsulates Oliphant’s career in an unexpected way. Eleven grotesquely proportioned, suited, unidentified members of the American elite leave a ritzy restaurant in a clump. They are, in essence, representative of the corrupt and gorged American political scene that Oliphant has parodied for more than 50 years. The group could also be placed anywhere and seem universally at home. Conway and Oliphant would like to see the statue placed in the Railyard where the subjects might appear to be leaving the train station, or waiting for the farmers’ market. He and Conway keep a small bronze of the statue at a table by the entrance to their home. Standing just ten inches tall, the hobbled dark-bronze figurines stand atop a flat base.
Although their home is filled with other mementos of Oliphant’s career, including a bronze of his take on President Obama as an Easter Island head and the surface of his old drafting desk framed and placed on an easel, he hasn’t kept much of that hate mail. He doesn’t need it. “I can quote one of them: ‘Oliphant, you’re a no-good son of a bitch. Why don’t you go back to where you [expletive] came from,’ ” Oliphant says. “That was pretty much verbatim.” ◀