Most mornings Patrick Oliphant gets up and turns on the Today show while he’s getting ready for work. When he reaches his office in downtown D.C. he sits down and quietly reads the morning papers and maybe a magazine. He calmly stuffs and lights a pipe, hardly speaking to anyone. Finally he picks up a piece of newsprint and takes a pencil in his left hand.
So much for the mild-mannered, soft-spoken 42-year-old commuter from Virginia. What follows is a furious foray of sketching that produces a political cartoon often iconoclastic and merciless—earlier a flubadub Gerald Ford, now an ominously leering Jimmy Carter. A critic once posited that “if Pat Oliphant couldn’t draw, he’d be an assassin.” The truth is that he regards his calling as a license—nay, a mandate—to kill.
“It makes no difference whether I am right or wrong,” he believes. “I feel quite positive about being negative. The party in power has to be the enemy, and it is my job to search out the flaws. Mine is an unfair art,” he admits. “The editorial writers feel duty-bound to point out all sides of the question, to weigh and balance, to present the facts. But in the great negative art of cartooning, you’re only going for the Achilles’ heel.” (Which is possibly why the self-importantly responsible New York Times does not carry a daily cartoon.)
Accentuating the negative has paid off for the Australian-born Oliphant. His cartoons in the Washington Star are syndicated five times a week in about 300 newspapers around the world, bringing him roughly $130,000 a year. He has won a Pulitzer, four Reubens (the National Cartoonists Society’s equivalent of an Oscar) and even an award from the National Wildlife Federation. His style is now the most widely imitated in the profession. Oliphant’s hallmarks are horizontal (rather than the traditional vertical) layout, detailed but clean-looking drawings, plus asides on the bottom border from a little gnomish penguin he calls Punk (to lure comic-book readers and to make a second point, he explains).
Oliphant has inevitably earned a lot of enemies too. Outright crank mail runs from 50 to 100 letters a week, the most vicious inspired when his cartoons criticize the FBI, the CIA or the church. “That’s all part of the job,” Oliphant says. “It’s what Jim Bellows [the editor of the Star] calls ‘stirring up the animals.’ ”
Like most cartoonists, he also has vehement critics among newspaper word people. When he lampooned Jimmy Carter barely two weeks after the 1976 election, editorial page editor Ray Jenkins of the Alabama Journal in Montgomery called Oliphant a “malevolent and obsessed man,” promised to “force-feed him grits come January” and chided him as an “immigrant who came to this country from Australia scarcely more than a dozen years ago.”
Oliphant did, in fact, arrive from Down Under in 1964, and until recently didn’t apply for U.S. citizenship papers on the grounds that restrictions on Americans’ travel, now disappearing, made an Australian passport advantageous. (He has always paid U.S. income tax, of course, and maintains that it entitles him to register his alienation publicly.)
Pat started his newspaper career less visibly immediately after high school in the port city of Adelaide. His dad was a map draftsman for the Department of Lands and, recalls Oliphant, “pushed me in the right direction from about the age of 3 on.” His first job, as a copyboy at Rupert Murdoch’s Adelaide News, earned him $6 a week to start and—when he hadn’t received a raise after a year—to finish, since he thereupon walked. (Media conglomerator Murdoch now owns the New York Post, which runs Oliphant competitor Herblock. “He’s still squeezing me,” says Pat.)
The Adelaide Advertiser was more hospitable, promoting him within a year to the post of press artist, which Oliphant defines as “the man who retouches the testicles off bulls for a family newspaper.” He had been studying drawing and scrawling political cartoons all the while, so when he got a chance to emasculate bigger game on the Advertiser editorial page at 22, he was ready.
His work was immediately well received. So well that the Advertiser magnanimously agreed in 1959 to send him on a round-the-world trip to absorb background. It was Oliphant who became absorbed, and upon returning he began scouring American help-wanted ads. A blunderbuss campaign of application writing hit a bullseye in 1964 with the Denver Post, whose star Paul Conrad had just defected to the Los Angeles Times. No less pleased was Pat’s wife, Henny, a Dutch-born former swimming champ he had met when her family emigrated to Adelaide.
Within three years Oliphant had assimilated himself enough to win his Pulitzer. Having studied previous winners’ cartoons and determined that rabidly pro-America themes seemed to be popular, he calculatingly submitted a suitable one of his own—a drawing of Ho Chi Minh that impugned the sincerity of North Vietnam’s peace proposals. Pat soon regretted his truckling, and in his acceptance speech he explained his system to the less-than-enchanted judges and press powers assembled. Nevertheless he continued to be courted by newspapers all over the country and, though he was reluctant to leave Colorado, finally surrendered in 1975 to the Star’s offers of more money and a chance to be where the malfeasance was.
Not that Oliphant shows much enthusiasm for personal contact with government officials. “All politicians are bastards and have to prove themselves innocent,” he once said. He does occasionally skulk off to the Capitol “to watch the rascals at work,” but he avoids meeting them in person, having been thrown off balance when he met Barry Goldwater after the 1964 campaign and found, to his dismay, that the same reprehensible reactionary he was always savaging turned out to be “a tremendous guy.” In turn, while politicians bridle at his cartoons, Oliphant finds that “the fellow goes home, slams the doors and eats the carpet, but when he sees you he’ll ask for a copy for his scrapbook.”
Oliphant doesn’t have any more use for journalists. “He tends to go his own way,” says one Star editor. It isn’t shyness. “Watergate,” declares Oliphant, “was the worst thing that ever happened to people in the news business. They all believe the sun shines out of their asses now and they can do nothing wrong. Everybody, including the copyboys,” he adds, “is now an investigative reporter, when in reality most of them should be driving elevators.”
He is equally contemptuous of some of his fellow cartoonists. When he was quoted as referring to his imitators as “those bastards,” Ronald Searle, one of the British cartoonists Oliphant modeled his own style on, was prompted to write, “Could it be that the Denver air is too heady for some?”
A Washington-based colleague, Jim (“Berry’s World”) Berry, notes that “while he can be very, very charming, he can also be very, very perverse and do something like not show up for an appointment or cancel at the last minute. Sometimes I think he is such a loner because it fits into the mystique of the artiste, which is the way he views himself.” Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times, his closest crony, disagrees, observing, “Underneath, he really does have that heart of gold people talk about.” (Mauldin concedes, however, that Oliphant is so incensed at imitators that when—as sometimes happens—he receives a check for reprint rights to cartoons actually drawn by someone else, he goes right out and cashes it.)
Perhaps it’s just as well that Oliphant doesn’t need a lot of company for his favorite leisure activities. One of them, when he begins to feel overwhelmed by Washington, is to take off for Denver or Santa Fe or L.A. He flies the long hauls commercial but, having become a licensed pilot, is now negotiating to buy a part interest in a Cessna 172 for local outings. Mauldin, another flyboy now working out of Santa Fe, says they often “get together to go out on the desert, sit under the ironwood trees and drink beer, or go flying. But I won’t go up in his plane,” Mauldin cringes. “His idea of a good time is to take a plane up, put it on its back and fly around upside down all afternoon.”
Oliphant paints too, acrylics and oils that sometimes seem like Ben Shahn-influenced elaborations of his cartoons, with hard-faced, aging politicians coldly ogling naked young women, or fecklessly staring ghetto inhabitants. His canvases command up to $4,000, and the Smithsonian is currently sponsoring a traveling exhibit of a dozen of them, along with 200 of his cartoons.
Since he and his wife separated two years ago (she lives in Maryland with their son and two daughters), Oliphant has lived alone in an 80-year-old house in Falls Church, Va., where he tends a huge flower garden and sometimes cooks his own largely vegetarian meals. (He eats fish but no red meat, having decided that “rotting flesh” does not appeal to him.)
Of course, his carnivorous appetites are well sated in his work. His Kissingers used to look like bloated rodents (“There’s a certain self-indulgent obesity I like to get in there,” he once said), and he found Richard Nixon almost too easy a target to be challenging. Yet Oliphant still jokes, half wishfully: “Don’t sell him short. Like the Second Coming, I believe he’ll rise again.”
Expectably, Oliphant hasn’t gone soft on the present White House occupants either. “There’s something very cold in Carter’s eyes,” he says. “And in Rosalynn’s too.” Still, he is not holding out much hope that Carter will provide as much cartoon fodder as the last two administrations. “I’m afraid we’re in for a quiescent period,” he sighs. “That may be good for the country, but it’s hell on cartoonists.” Then, too, Pat will face a personal crisis before this Administration is over. When his citizenship comes through in 1978, for whom in the devil can Oliphant possibly vote?