Tom Toles: Tempered by Time

President George W. Bush has famously described himself as a “compassionate conservative.” He will now have to start each day under critical surveillance by The Washington Post’s newly minted cartoonist, Tom Toles, who describes himself as “a liberal tempered by time.”


It may not be a joy ride for President Bush, for Toles not only has a keen eye, he has a notable sense of humor — as well as a sense of mission.


By his own assertion, he is a man of opinion — sometimes, as he puts it, “quite sharp and quite blunt.”




Toles, to his own surprise, has inherited the most powerful cartoonist’s podium in the country, succeeding the legendary Herbert Block, who reigned at the Post for more than 50 years, prior to his death last year. Herblock was 91 and still firing out his satirical drawings when he died in October 2001.


After an extensive search over a period of months, the Post hired Toles to join its staff.

Toles, 50, is a native of Buffalo, N.Y., and has spent most of his career as staff cartoonist at his hometown newspaper, The Buffalo News. He moved to the nation’s capital in July to begin his new job.


He hasn’t had time to unpack all the boxes at home or to put anything on the walls of his new office at the Post. Dominating the room is a large drawing table where Toles does his sketching. He sits at the table with his back to the windows overlooking 15th Street Northwest. He is only a few blocks from the White House.


Since he began cartooning in the early 1980s, Toles has built a reputation drawing pictures that skewer public figures. In one recent sketch, he had President Bush riding a missile that says “Die Saddam.” The Bush character, waving a big hat, is saying, “But I have made no decision.”


Winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, Toles is syndicated in 200 newspapers. His work appears on several websites and in magazines, including The New Republic and U.S. News & World Report.


Statistically, Toles is one of a small but hardy group of editorial cartoonists.


The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists has about 280 members in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, although only about 180 of them are published on a regular basis.

Only about 100 daily newspapers in the U.S. have their own staff editorial cartoonist, according to Editor & Publisher senior editor David Astor. That number has been shrinking. “We had over 200 newspaper staff cartoonists at one time,” Astor said.


Neither The New York Times nor The Wall Street Journal has a staff cartoonist. The Washington Post does and its location in the District of Columbia provides its cartoonist with a particularly powerful podium.


Toles talked with Poynter about how he thinks, how he works and how he feels about his new job.


Q: Herblock was very liberal, very pro-Israel. How would you describe your political orientation and how that plays out in your cartoons?


A. I am a liberal in that that tends to be my world view. My politics started forming during the civil rights era, and I sort of oriented myself as a liberal at that time. And I still think the free market is never going to absolve all my sense of what a society ought to be, so I guess I would still call myself a liberal.


But I don’t consider myself a blind liberal. I think that some things that liberals propose work better than others, and it is the obligation of somebody to keep an eye on how their ideology measures up against reality. So, I think I have described myself as a liberal tempered by time. I am pretty strongly pro-environment and I do a lot of cartoons on the environment. I would say that covers it.


I like to come at issues from more than one simple direction. I think some issues are revealed by being approached from various angles, and sometimes I will take more than one take on the same subject, sometimes in more than one cartoon, and sometimes even in the same cartoon. That being said, I don’t feel like I am reticent about my opinions. Some of them are quite sharp and quite blunt. But not always. I try to tailor my comments to how I genuinely feel about the issue at hand.


Q: How well did you know Herblock?


A. Only a little. I met him a few times, only enough to know what a sweet individual he seemed to be.


They used to have an annual dinner here for a handful of cartoonists and I would see him at that, but didn’t get a chance to speak to him at length at these.


Q: Did you ever imagine you would be here, working in Herblock’s office?


I guess the possibility crossed my mind, but I never thought about it seriously very often. It surprises me even now to be in here.

Q: Tell me how you do your job. How many cartoons do you do each week? What are your deadlines?


A: The number of cartoons I do right now is six a week. That has varied from five a week to as many as seven. My deadline is the end of the day, but I never get to the end of the day. I usually finish my cartoon around lunchtime or shortly thereafter.


I start work about 6 in the morning. I am panicky about coming up with ideas so I give myself lots and lots of time. Plus, there is a lot of reading that I do in the morning, every day.


Q: What do you read?


A: Right now I am reading The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Washington Times. Those are the newspapers. I am a serious New Republic reader and an occasional Time and Newsweek reader. And more for pleasure than work, I am a pretty careful reader of The New York Review of Books.


Q: Are you reading the papers on the Internet or in print?

A: Right now, I am doing all of them in the paper version, except for USA Today which I’ve been in the habit of reading on the website, but I am now getting a paper version of that, too.


Q: You get here to the office about 6 a.m. When do you start drawing?


A. I tend to read until 7:30 or so, and then I start sketching. At some point around 9 or 9:30, I select the sketch I am going to finish.


Q: What happens then?


A. The first sketches I do are pencil and very rough. Then, I get out a new sheet of paper, nice drawing paper, and do the final version in ink.


Q: What time is that finished?


A. Any time between noon and 2:30, usually.


Q: When Herblock was working here, he would take some of his sketches around the newsroom and ask reporters and editors what they thought, before he turned in one of them for the paper to publish. Do you do that?


A. Yeah, I do. I show them to a variety of people. They tend to be mostly editorial writers, because they know the subject and they are in physical proximity to me.


Often the reactions are very different, and then I am left to my own devices. Occasionally, there will be a sketch that nobody understands. That is an indication that it is probably not one I should be doing. Sometimes, there is a runaway favorite and that may push me that way.


Q: Is this the way you worked in Buffalo?


A. Yes. There, I had a very defined set of people I showed my sketches to. Here is more hit and miss, so far anyway.


Q: So you go home at 2:30?


A. Sometimes. Sometimes, there may be things that cause me to hang around here. There are a lot of things I want to be doing for work, either here at the Post or out in the city, just for personal education purposes. And I hope to do more of that, when my energy level gets back to normal, and my sanity gets back to normal, and my house gets back to normal. There are still unopened boxes sitting around the house.


I started work at the Post in late July, and we got here one week before that.


Q: As the Post cartoonist, Herblock had a free hand to draw what he wanted, even if it was in conflict with Post editorial policy. Do you have that same freedom?


A. For practical purposes, yes. The Post reserves the right not to publish a cartoon. Our understanding is that right will seldom if ever be exercised. And that has been pretty much the system I have worked under since I started cartooning in the early 1980s. I think technically that they had the right not to run Herblock cartoons as well. But I could be wrong about that.


Q: If they were to refuse your cartoon, would you have to do another one?


A. I don’t think so. It is not my intention to do another one.


Q: So, the Post can decline, but you don’t have to come up with anything else that is acceptable. Was that part of your negotiation with the Post?


A. Yes. I think we have that written down somewhere.


Q: Is that customary in the cartooning trade?


A. No, I don’t think so. I think it is what every cartoonist is looking to get, but I don’t think they get that level of autonomy.


Q: And so far no problem here?
A. No, no problem whatsoever.


Q: Currently your work is syndicated through about 200 newspapers, in addition to The Washington Post. Will that continue?


A. I have a contract with Universal Press Syndicate that runs for two more years approximately. And so that will be the same as it has been. And at the end of that time, I will either stay with Universal Press Syndicate or conceivably change to the Washington Post Writers Group, which has expressed some interest in my joining them. But I have not decided on that.


Q: There is also a website with your work.


A. Yes, and you can also get them off The Washington Post website.


Q: You read, and you say that helps you with ideas. But how would you describe your thought process as you go about the job of drawing a cartoon.

A. You can’t describe the whole thing because I don’t know exactly how it happens. But for me, it is getting a background and understanding of issues, and understanding of facts of the issues, and that comes from the reading.


And then I will usually make a list of possible topics and then I try to find in that list the things I have a genuine opinion about, not just a subject. Something I have a feeling about. I look for those first.


Sometimes there will be prominent subjects that seem to demand a cartoon that I don’t have a strong opinion on, and then I will occasionally try to do a cartoon that is more illustrative of the situation, hopefully humorous and hopefully try to point out some of the ridiculous aspects of the situation, but more often I try to find subjects that I have a genuine opinion on and construct a cartoon as a vehicle of expressing that opinion.


Q: Is there that much difference day to day in the topics?


A. Some days there doesn’t seem to be that much difference, and that is the hard part. Doing six cartoons a week is a lot of cartoons to bring out of what is sometimes a thin amount of materials.


There are some longer standing issues, involving the environment or the economy and the way that they impact people, that don’t depend on the day’s news. And there are other subjects that are a little more esoteric, that if you put a little more exposition in the cartoon, you can deal with those and still be comprehensible. But, sometimes it is a lot. But generally speaking, I do not find it insurmountable.


In fact, I have more sketches. I do more sketches than I need for publication, so theoretically I could do more than I do.


Q: You must draw very fast.


A. I have simplified my drawing style to a style that I think is recognizably mine, functional in terms of creating the tone and atmosphere that I want to create, but also fast enough to be done on deadline.


Q: The little character in the bottom right hand corner … is that you?


A. Yes. That is my personal comment, although often I am just an observer at that point of the cartoon. Sometimes, I will be saying something. Sometimes, I will watch someone else saying something. Sometimes, the character from the cartoon is speaking to me.


Q: This character and his comment — is this a way to give the cartoon another point?


A. Yes, to either amplify the point being made in the cartoon, add an additional point, qualify it in some way or make a humorous remark about it.


Q: One of the ongoing conflicts at The Washington Post has been the tension between local news and national news. Have you run into that?


A. We actually had a specific conversation about that. Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor, would like me to do, and I would like to do, at least one regional cartoon a week, and that is what I have been aiming for. That is a good thing.


Q: Only one a week?


A. That seems to make them happy. And one local cartoon a week seems to be a good match to the issues that people are talking about. Some weeks it is more and some weeks less. But one a week is a good match.


Also, I am doing more of those than Herblock did.


Q: What was the routine in Buffalo?


A. One local cartoon a week was what I was doing.


Q: In your comments about keeping up with the news, you talk about reading the papers and some magazines, but you didn’t mention television news or the Internet.


A. I spend about half an hour on the computer in the morning. Part of what I read on the computer is wire stuff available on the Internet or in The Washington Post. Some papers I do read online — USA Today. Depending on the mail, I may read The New Republic online. And depending on what time the papers arrive on the fifth floor, I may read The New York Times online as well. I often look at Salon online.


As far as television, I try to watch the local and national news on television at night. I can’t say I am a heavy viewer of news shows on TV because I find them frustrating in terms of getting information. If there is somebody talking that you know what they are going to say, or you aren’t interested in what they say, you can’t skip ahead to the next person. You have to wait until they are finished.


Q: In the decision you made to go into cartooning, what was your objective? And what is your objective today?


A. My objective was not to be a cartoonist in the first place. That was an editor’s idea. He sort of got me into it. And once I started, and once I was given a certain amount of freedom, the objective became wanting to contribute something to the public discourse by way of expressing my opinions in a way that was engaging or compelling, and I guess that is still what my objective is.


Q: Do you feel you have achieved your objective?


A. Yeah. I think mostly. I think regular readers of my cartoons — reasonably careful readers — sense that I am trying to say something most of the time, that I have a fairly high regard to making sense in what I am saying, and saying something that might not be obvious, but nonetheless might be a contribution to the discussion.


I don’t view the cartoon merely as a vehicle for topical humor. But, in the context that I am a human being, there is an actual coherent sense of the world I am trying to convey and a genuine conviction of what I am trying to say. And I also hope to be somewhat entertaining in the process.


Q: What should a young aspiring cartoonist know and understand as he or she is starting their career?


A. They should understand that there are two aspects to cartooning. One is the point of view. And one is the humor. They should at least be clear in their own minds of what they are trying to do and that there is a difference between those two things.


As I said, I try to lean toward the point of view side of it and have the humor as the adjunct. Other cartoonists approach it the other way around. But I think the cartoonist should think about which it is they are trying to do and be clear in their own minds which it is. Because they are two different things.


Most cartoonists either figure it out themselves or figure out how other cartoonists have done it. It’s not like there is any hidden aspect to a political cartoon. You can look at it and see what it is that is there. You can’t always see how it is arrived at, but you can always see what it is.

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