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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Role of Satire in U.S. Elections

Matt Wuerker, Cartoonist, POLITICO
Philadelphia, PA
July 27, 2016

Date: 07/27/2016 Location: Philadelphia, PA Description: Political cartoonist Matt Wuerker talks to foreign journalists about the role of satire in U.S. elections at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. - State Dept Image

12:00 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: (In progress) remotely at Foreign Press Centers. This morning we’re very pleased to have a briefing that’s a little bit different from our usual pundits and spokespersons. We’re very pleased to welcome back to the Foreign Press Centers Matt Wuerker, who is the cartoonist, the political cartoonist for Politico magazine. And today we’ll be talking about satire in America in these elections of 2016. We hope that you’ll have a fun conversation, and we welcome you to keep him working.

As you all know, for all briefings at the Foreign Press Centers, Mr. Wuerker’s remarks and opinions are those of his own – excuse me – and not those of the U.S. Government. Thank you very much. And without further ado, Mr. Wuerker.

MR WUERKER: Thank you. Hi, everybody. I also want to also emphasize that not only do my comments not reflect the U.S. Government, but they also don’t reflect the political position of Politico. I work as the editorial cartoonist for Politico, and as such I am entitled to express my opinions in my cartoons, and they’re not the opinions of my editors or the people at Politico.

I’ve been here at the convention. I was also in Cleveland, doing a slightly different thing. I’ve been doing live cartooning at the Politico hub, and I’m – it’s sort of a combination of a campaign sketch diary and stream-of-consciousness cartooning as things happen around the convention. And we’ve been posting that on Politico. We’re calling it a cartoon cloud. And I’ve got one up for each day from Cleveland at the RNC, and I’m trying to keep up with one each day here at the DNC.

And I’m not alone. There’s – in America, we like to refer to the cartoonists as the ink-stained wretches. And there’s a contingent of us here, maybe 12 different cartoonists from different publications around the U.S., who’ve all come to cover the shenanigans of the convention from a cartoonist’s point of view. My friend, Ann Telnaes, from The Washington Post is here, Rob Rogers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, KAL from the Economist. I know I’m leaving a bunch of people out. A bunch of people from a great new cartoon publication called The Nib, which is part of the Intercept media venture. In fact, the Intercept people have a gallery space for The Nib over on Cherry Street and Third with a bunch of cartoonists – Jen Sorensen, Tom Tomorrow, other people who are chronicling the convention. If you want other cartoon points of view, there’s a bunch out there.

And you might wonder what the heck cartoonists can bring to the journalistic coverage of a big, big event like a national convention. And I think, in some ways, that that question was answered last night by Bill Clinton, who, in his speech, was telling people to ignore the cartoon image of Hillary Clinton. And I guess he was saying something sort of disparaging about cartoons, so I’m – I take it a little bit as a compliment, and at the same time I want to rebut Bill Clinton and say you should pay attention to the cartoons of Hillary Clinton.

I mean, in some sense – I mean, being here and being in Cleveland at the Republican convention, what these conventions are, are they’re this giant, multimillion-dollar extravaganza to erect a cartoon character of the candidates. I mean, each campaign has raised millions and millions of dollars, and most of that is directed into crafting a cartoon character, a public image of the candidate that they think is going to be a winning candidate. And at the same time, they’re creating a negative cartoon character of the opposing candidate. So basically, these cartoon conventions are all about – I mean these political conventions are all about cartooning, if you think about it.

And the real difference is there’s the – there are these official cartoon images that are created by the spin doctors and the professional image shapers, who buy all the advertising to make you think warm and fuzzy things about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or the reverse of that is to make you be scared of Donald Trump or scared of Hillary Clinton and all that. But those are all sort of – that’s the paid cartoon campaign. People like me, the ink-stained wretches that are here covering the campaign, we’re sort of – we come from a great tradition of political cartoonists in that we’re free agents; we’re sort of free radicals floating around, and we don’t answer to any campaign, and we get to create our own untethered image of the candidates and what’s going on in the campaign.

So anyway, that’s why I’m here. That’s why a bunch of my other cartoon buddies are here. And I’ll just offer a few thoughts about the current campaign and what’s been going on. This has been – as if you all didn’t notice this – a real one for the history books in terms of how crazy and unexpected it is. I mean, having a candidate like Donald Trump show up and provide everybody with the level of entertainment and vitriol that he’s continually doing is a godsend for journalists in general but cartoonists in particular.

And at the beginning, nobody thought that he was going to get through the first few months of primaries, and then he prevailed. And I remember I did a cartoon back when the Pope was showing up, and the cartoon was a picture of Donald Trump like Godzilla sort of steaming through Washington, and some people kind of going, oh my God, this is a crazy campaign, what could happen next, and then in parachutes the Pope. And now, this week we have Russian hackers parachuting into the campaign and leaking things about the Democrats. So it’s been a crazy, cartoonish campaign up till now. We still have three and a half months to go, and it’s going to be a lot of fun cartooning.

If you want to see the cartoon cloud thing that I’m doing for Politico, it’s on the Politico website. I can give you links to that. And then we’re also posting our usual cartoon roundup of different cartoons from around the country covering the campaign.

So those are sort of my general thoughts. Anybody have any questions?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR WUERKER: Any questions on satire? None? Okay. Well, you must have cartoonists --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)


QUESTION: (Off-mike.)


QUESTION: So different cartoons are – yeah hi. My name is Vincent Yi from the BBC. So different kind of cartoons are interpreted differently in different cultures.


QUESTION: Then you are now talking to a wide range of correspondents from different countries.


QUESTION: I think from the foreign perspective, we want to know where does your publication in the U.S. as cartoonists stand on this election, and how your messages can influence voters in this election? Thank you.

MR WUERKER: Yeah. No, that’s a good question. I mean, there’s an old expression that we use a lot about bringing hopefully more light than heat to a conversation. And cartoons are somewhere sort of the in middle there, where we bring a little bit of heat. And I’m aware that different countries have different traditions of political satire, and some have a higher tolerance for political heat. Some of the, say, English cartoonists bring a lot of heat and vitriol to their cartoons. In the U.S., we don’t get that hot. We wouldn’t be quite as mean as an English cartoonist at the candidates. But we do try to bring a certain amount of levity to the campaign. It’s not a civil war. It’s two political parties deciding who’s going to run the country. I think a really good cartoon – when I feel like I’ve done something good, it’s a funny cartoon that brings a certain amount of sense of humor and a little point of view to it.

My own politics are to the left probably, but again, I don’t represent Politico. Politico’s a very mainstream news organization, in the same way Tom Toles, who draws for The Washington Post or Ann Telnaes who draws for the Washington Post – they’re just expressing their own opinions.

It is really interesting cartooning in this day and age. I’ve been doing – the first cartoons I did were for when Jimmy Carter was president, so I’ve been at this for a while. And way back then, if you did a cartoon for a paper in Portland, Oregon it stayed in Portland, Oregon. And now with the internet, I do something for Politico and it’s just as available to anybody on the planet the minute the cartoon is published. And it’s a strange thing for a cartoonist to sort of juggle. I mean, my audience is national, so I’m really using humor and tropes that are appropriate to an American audience. But I – but a lot of our audience is overseas. And I know that sometimes when I’m doing a cartoon nobody overseas will understand it because it’s referring to some small minutia of American culture or something. And other times, I’m really happy when I do a cartoon that transcends language and culture.

There’s – one of the cartoons I did of Donald Trump in the last month of so was one of those I liked where – you know the musical Little Shop of Horrors? I think it’s sort of international. It has a big, horrible man-eating plant to it. And the cartoon I created was a picture of the Republican elephant is in this nursery and he’s been feeding the cartoon plant all of this sort of birther-ism, and anti-Obama vitriol. There’s fertilizer and stuff around, and this giant plant has reached up and it’s about to swallow the Republican elephant, and it’s got Donald Trump’s hair on it. And I think it transcends culture. I mean, I think that it works even if you don’t know the musical. And also cartoons like that that are more visual I think are more fun.

So thanks.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m a reporter with China Business Network. A question about – we all know that the reality in political – the election here and now is very ironic, very crazy by itself. So how do you satirize --


QUESTION: -- this already crazy reality? And when you have some unconventional politicians like Donald Trump --


QUESTION: -- what is the different approach when you want to do a cartoon with such unconventional candidates compared with other conventional candidates?

MR WUERKER: I mean, it both makes the cartooning and the political satire both easier and harder. I mean, once upon a time when you would do a cartoon and you’d have a candidate that – once upon a time being like a year ago – saying – a presidential candidate saying something really outrageous that was clearly satire, and everybody would go, “Oh, that’s satire.” And now Donald Trump is already out there, so you can just quote Donald Trump and you’re already in sort of a satirical zone. So in some ways, it’s hard to keep up with him.

And then the other part that’s very unusual and kind of a gift from Donald Trump is his propensity to tweet everything he’s feeling. So I mean, usually there’s lots of filters on a candidate. And say what you will about Trump, it’s kind of amazing that you get this unfiltered regular tweet directly from Donald Trump. And that’s often – those often will be perfect kernels for cartoons and stuff. So it’s entirely new territory for all of us, I think.

QUESTION: Then Hillary Clinton there are lot of filter, you think?

MR WUERKER: Yeah. In fact, I think in some ways it could be a hazard for the Clinton campaign, because I think that – I mean, traditionally, she has always been so carefully scripted and she has – I did a cartoon back in the beginning of the campaign. And it was a picture of a room, sort of like this gigantic media tent, and you’re looking down this media tent, and there’s a big banner saying – over it saying – it’s the committee to let Hillary be Hillary. And then there’s one area that’s like Hillary’s haircut; another one is Hillary’s pantsuit; what Hillary is saying. I mean, she has this very large machine of people, I mean, not only that can – have been – are helping her with this campaign sort of messaging, but these are people that have been working for Hillary and Team Clinton for 25, 30 years.

So she’s so carefully scripted and so, I think, really cautious. The contrast between that and Donald Trump I think actually can be problematic for her, because I think people really – one of the things that’s resonating out there with Donald Trump is the unfiltered authenticity of the guy. You may or may not like it, but you feel like you’re getting it; whereas Hillary, for different reasons and probably out of habit, has a very big team of spin doctors and people carefully crafting her image. And in this day and in this sort of media environment, there could be a downside to that for her, I think.


QUESTION: Yeah. This is kind of follow up for the first question that she asked. I mean – and this is Thomas Gorguissian with Al Tahrir, Egypt. We met before in D.C.

MR WUERKER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: The whole question is the so-called political correctness and the possibility of a woman becoming a president. So how you as a cartoonist going to handle this issue without being labeled as a sexist or whatever?

MR WUERKER: A little gingerly, I think. I mean, it’s interesting. It’s a choice that every cartoonist has to make when you’re doing caricatures. I mean, the – we struggled with this with Obama as the first African American president. And you can do a mean cartoon that ventures into something where some people might sort of go, “Hey, you’re being racist.” And in Hillary’s case, you could venture into the territory where you’re making her look uglier, fatter, older than she is, and then people are going to say, “Hey, you’re getting into sort of a misogynistic image here.”

And the cartoonists that are drawing, say, for hard-right publications just go there. They’re just giving their readers the red meat that they want. Most cartoonists are interested in reaching a more general audience. So the choice you make as a cartoonist is does that get in the way of the humor, does that get in the way of the message. And it’s a practical decision. I mean, maybe I want to be really mean to Hillary, but I’m not going to be that mean to her, because I don’t want people to stop and not look at the cartoon because all they’re seeing is, “Wow, he’s really mean to that woman.” And there’s similar issues. But that’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of cartoons out there doing very mean Hillary’s. It’s easier to – it’s also – it’s, frankly, easier to make fun of Donald Trump, because no one’s going to call you racist or misogynist if you’re making fun of the orange man. Although he is a man of color, if you think about it, many colors.

Any other questions? If you want, I can – I’ll send links to anybody who wants links to some of the cartoons, and you’re welcome to use the cartoons from Politico and check out the cartoon cloud. And there are other cartoonists around. You’ll see in the arena – you may well see cartoonists sketching up there. Like I said, there’s about a dozen of us, so don’t – we don’t bite. I know that cartoonists are considered radioactive these days, but we’re really friendly, so you can approach us. It’s okay.

Thank you. Thanks very much.

MODERATOR: I can vouch for that. All right. Thanks so much Matt Wuerker, as always. We always warmly welcome you at the FPC. Stand by. We’ll be ready for our next briefing at 1 o’clock on polling demographics and the latest in the elections.

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