After joking about being "the only man in Astoria with a pin-stripe suit," political cartoonist Jack Ohman entertained a Columbia Forum audience Wednesday with accounts of his start in the business and the pressures of the creative process.
Ohman's presentation at the OSU Seafood Lab kicked off the latest season of the lecture series.
Ohman has served as political cartoonist for The Oregonian for 20 years, caricaturing the powerful and famous there and in newspapers across the country.
A political junkie from childhood, Ohman followed the Watergate scandal the way his friends followed sports, and as a teenager worked on political campaigns in his native Minnesota. That, and a penchant for drawing teachers and girlfriends in class, steered him into political cartooning. At age 17 he took a job as cartoonist for the University of Minnesota student newspaper, and two years later began getting his work printed across the country - the youngest nationally syndicated cartoonist in the United States.
Since then he's turned out an average of 320 cartoons each year. And despite more than two decades in the business, Ohman said it can still be a nerve-wracking challenge to fill that blank sheet of paper day after day after day.
"Every day when I come in, I think 'how am I going to do this again?'" he said.
Divine inspiration is rare, he said - usually it's a matter of looking for some usable feature in the big issues of the day.
For the cartoon in today's edition of The Oregonian, for example, he tackled the Bush Administration's tentative move away from its go-it-alone strategy in Iraq and its overtures to the United Nations for assistance. "UN" being the first two letters in "unilateralism" suggested an idea, and he eventually came up with Bush spray-painting out "ilateralism."
"So there you are - that's how you get to one idea," he said.
Oregon's political scene didn't provide very much good material when he joined The Oregonian in 1983, when the state's leading politicians included Mark Hatfield and the then-respectable Bob Packwood, Ohman said. "The hardest time for a political cartoonist is when you have good government going on," he said.
He said he's never faced any pressure from the Oregonian's management to take a particular political stance. The question of taste comes up more often, particularly in salacious scandals like the Monica Lewinsky affair, he said.
Ohman said he's more worried about the "cartoon of unintended consequences" that may inadvertently include some feature that offends one group or another.
Most cartoons get their point across with humor, so national tragedies like the Sept. 11 attacks "require a completely different mindset" for a cartoonist, Ohman said. He recalled listening on the radio to the coverage of the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. "Then you realize you have to go in and do something about it," he said. "That's when we really earn our pay."
Cartoonists take into account the national mood - in the aftermath of Sept. 11, he and other cartoonists shied away from portraying President Bush as the short, big-eared caricature that was common before the attacks, he said. But such deference didn't apply to all national figures - Attorney General John Ashcroft became the first administration official it was OK to attack, he said. "Everyone went after him," he said.
Ohman said he's pessimistic about the overall state of journalism in America. Television news has largely abandoned any serious analysis of important issues, and newspapers are trying too hard to cater to young readers with fluff while ignoring their biggest reader base. The average age for Oregonian readers is 56, he noted.
"People who are 56 do not want to read about Britney Spears," he said.
Journalism's decline is contributing to the public's loss of interest in public affairs, Ohman said. That, in turn, gives the moneyed interests that much more influence on the political process, especially given the enormous amounts of money needed to run for office these days.
"We've got to get back to lawn signs and leaflets," he said. "We would be better off if we read more and watch less."