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Retiring Editorial Cartoonist Reflects On 50-Year Career

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For 50 years, Tom Toles has been working as an editorial cartoonist, including almost two decades at The Washington Post, where he took over from the legendary cartoonist Herblock in 2002. Now Tom Toles has announced that he is retiring from the Post next week after a long and eventful career at the paper afflicting the comfortable and hopefully offering some comfort to the afflicted. So we wanted to take a look back at his career as well as at some of the rewards and challenges of the work that he does. And Tom Toles is with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

TOM TOLES: Hi, Michel. Very nice to be with you.

MARTIN: You've written a final cartoon, which you were nice enough to share with us. It starts out by saying, I started out 50 years ago at my college newspaper as a long-haired liberal and half a century later as a long-haired liberal (laughter).

TOLES: Yeah. There was a little time in there when I had kids that I looked more like a regular person. I thought I had to, you know, present a little differently. But as soon as they were out of the house, I grew my hair back again and feel much more like myself.

MARTIN: Well, but your views haven't changed. Your worldview hasn't changed. Your values didn't change.

TOLES: In terms of the way I look at the world, no, it hasn't. I mean, the value system is the bedrock. The policies come and go. They get shaded by different eras and different presidencies, different whole sets of arguments that these change over time. And you see them all a little differently, but you see them always through that same lens of, what do I think makes for a just society? And so that's always pretty much stayed the same.

MARTIN: It's interesting that political cartooning is in the news right now as we speak, in part because, you know, yet again, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in France have sparked this, you know, tremendous - both a reaction and a counterreaction.

I mean, it's been a hugely traumatic experience with cartoons that were drawn by a satirical magazine in France were strongly objected to by some people who actually killed people at the magazine. And then there was another death recently. And then there's been a reaction to that, with some people saying that they are showing insensitivity and other people saying that, you know, obviously, this is an attack on free speech. But it's been a very traumatic event.

And I was just curious, though - over the span of your career, has it ever been that way before, where political cartooning itself has been something of a subject of kind of debate and sort of social interest?

TOLES: Yeah. I mean, the nature of political cartooning is - the thing that differentiates it from other commentary is the image for sure. And the image is part of its strength - a great deal of its strength, actually. And it's something that touches a more visceral spot in the brain of the viewer or the reader. And so it's volatile. It's almost a dangerous, combustible combination of meaning and imagery.

Now, the Charlie Hebdo thing is a really, really tough case that I come at from both directions. I mean, as a cartoonist and a journalist, I start with a pretty close to absolute First Amendment-oriented right to free speech. What happens in a situation - in some situations, as in the Charlie Hebdo controversy, is, where does the line become starting to look like shouting fire in a crowded theater?

It's a tough call. I mean, the cartoon in question - while I absolutely defend the right of cartoonists to draw what they want to, it's a cartoon that I would not have drawn myself.

MARTIN: There have been a number of cartoonists over the years who have - in recent years who have been criticized for racial insensitivity. I mean, I'm thinking about one cartoon in particular in one of the conservative papers in New York where, you know, people at times have felt that they depict Black people in a demeaning way. And I was just wondering if that has ever been a concern of yours, is, like, depicting certain people.

For example, Obama, for example - was that a challenge - making a political point without pushing people's buttons on something - an issue that wasn't related to the politics or to the politics point?

TOLES: The history of political cartooning is hardly pure. It has some truly disgraceful, inexcusable cartoons produced. And, yes, I've tried extremely hard to avoid it. And if you're trying to avoid it, it's not that hard. I mean, caricature is an exaggeration, so there's always the danger of inadvertently running up against what is traditionally a visual stereotype.

But you can exaggerate someone's features in a way that they're recognizable in a ridiculing fashion, and you can also caricature somebody in a friendly way. So it's not like it's impossible to thread that needle.

MARTIN: What is your thought about the state of editorial cartooning today? Because on the one hand, visual imagery is more available than ever before in some ways. I mean, you've got all these other platforms - like, you've got Instagram. You can post stuff on your own pages. On the other hand, newspapers, especially local newspapers, are shrinking. What's your sense of the state of things?

TOLES: The actual data on it is the profession of traditional daily newspaper political cartoonists is being decimated. I mean, it's gone from in the hundreds to around 30, 40 full-time cartoonists now. It's an open question as to whether the particular form of editorial cartooning - it is kind of a distilled type of analysis - that may not exist in another 20, 30 years.

And maybe it shouldn't. I don't know. Editors have never been in love with cartoonists because cartoonists are trouble. And it takes a certain kind of editor that will put up with somebody that's causing his inbox to fill up with things he doesn't want to deal with. But I'm happy to hear that the Post is continuing the tradition. They've got a very strong tradition of political cartooning to keep alive.

MARTIN: I don't want to give it all away because you did post your final cartoon. It'll be available in the Sunday papers. But just want to give us a hint about what you think you might do next? You going to still keep causing trouble someplace?

TOLES: Actually, I hope to start an arts retreat. I've purchased a big old farm in Virginia, Eastern Virginia, and I would like to make an arts retreat and an ideas retreat that's based on a pretty simple proposition that we're entering an era where the robots are coming to do the work. I say, and let them do it. And I want to explore a life that consists of less work and more art and more creativity. And that's where I'm going to be putting my energies right now. And I think it's a pretty exciting thing to be looking at.

MARTIN: Tom Toles is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist at The Washington Post. He is hanging up his pencil next week after 50 years at the drawing board and 18 years at the paper.

Tom Toles, good luck. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TOLES: Thank you, Michel. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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