Pat Oliphant Laughs at Our’Leadership’ With Stinging Satire
Most aficionados of Washington’s favorite pastime — politician watching — would probably agree that it’s been a protracted, arduous and at times angry presidential primary season. And with a long hot summer to go before a new tenant is chosen for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there appears to be no relief in sight.
But there is a temporary oasis in the heart of Woodley Park: “Leadership: Oliphant Cartoons and Sculpture from the Bush Years” currently on view at the Stanford in Washington Art Gallery is more about tickling funny bones than raising hackles. Nevertheless, Pat Oliphant’s cartoons, drawings and sculpture offer a sharp commentary on the Bushies and many other politicos, as well as a welcome refuge from the 2008 campaign rhetoric. “Leadership” is both a hilarious look and powerful punch at the antics of our so-called “leaders” delivered by the Australian-born Oliphant, who reputedly remains the most widely syndicated political cartoonist in the world.
The exhibition occupies Stanford in Washington’s entire gallery space, filling a serene ground-level viewing area, an upstairs foyer and a back room. There’s so much to look at that it’s really worth more than one visit. Along with pen-and-ink cartoons are wax and bronze sculptures, as well as monumental charcoal-on-paper drawings.
One of the most notable of these is “Hillary’s Nightmare” showing the screaming senator sitting up in bed as a smiling Barack Obama looms over her like a genie let out of its bottle. Among the sculptures, there is a dead-on and delightful wax bust of former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan with his characteristic oversize wire-rim glasses.
Oliphant, who has perfected his craft over a 50-year career, creates cartoons that come in two basic formats: a one-act play in which you must read through several frames before arriving at the punch line, or simple pictures that are worth a 1,000 words. Take, for instance, the images of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a dominatrix with a whip, former President Bush Sr. dressed as an Arab sheik, and former presidential adviser Karl Rove portrayed as Dr. Strangelove, all of which speak for themselves.
But in case you need elaboration, Oliphant’s trademark is a small penguin character named Punk that lurks in the corner of each drawing and makes a sarcastic comment about the subject at hand. Punk and Oliphant not only pounce on various personalities but on larger issues as well. Tackling the Iraq war, Oliphant pulls no punches as he sketches a cowboy-esque Bush holding a dying soldier and asking, “Would it make you feel better to know we had inaccurate intelligence?”
“The Rites of Spring” from 2002 is another stinging critique of a very different topic. With the self-explanatory subtitle “Celebration of Spring at St. Paedophilia’s Catholic Church — The Annual Running of the Altar Boys,” the cartoon is a grim depiction of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals, as an eager mob of priests chases its young prey. Though not everyone will appreciate the dark humor, the impact is undeniable.
A native of Adelaide, Australia, Oliphant won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1967, only three years after he moved to the United States. His cartoons can be found in more than 500 publications including the Washington Post, New York Times and the New Yorker. His work has also been exhibited at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Library of Congress.
The works in the Stanford show give both Republicans and Democrats a hard time. During the course of his cartooning career, Oliphant has caricatured numerous U.S. presidents of all stripes, and the prolific cartoonist has been referred to as “an equal opportunity offender.”
Oliphant, like his fellow political cartoonists, has also played a unique historical role of sorts in helping to define and explain major events in U.S. politics. For example, he is widely recognized for his superb cartooning during the Nixon era and Watergate scandal.
But judging by the collection at the Stanford Gallery, this master observer of political life has hardly come close to losing his touch. In fact, today’s new generation of political punching bags has only provided Oliphant with more fodder to once again demonstrate his keen eye for satire as he deals a powerful blow to our powerbrokers.
Leadership: Oliphant Cartoons and Sculpture from the Bush Years though July 11 Stanford in Washington Art Gallery 2661 Connecticut Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 332-6235.
About the Author
Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.