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Mark Summers and the Serious Business of Political Cartoons

by Jeff Worley

Photo of Mark Summers

Mark Summers is never going to receive the Good Housekeeping Seal for Office Tidiness. When you enter his office, you have to pick your way carefully around and through the maze of manila folders that rise an impressive three feet or so from the floor and prop each other up. You realize right off that a careless elbow might touch off an avalanche of precariously balanced stacks—on desktops, tables and shelves.

"Heavens, no—I don't have any idea what's in some of these folders," says Summers, a University of Kentucky professor of history. "Occasionally I'll dislodge one of these folders and what's in there comes as a complete surprise. And there are some things I know are here, but a team of archaeologists would be hard put to come up with them."

Some of the folders contain classroom lectures Summers has given over the past 20 years at UK, some hold notes he's taken on various historical issues from as far back as his grad school days at Berkeley, and others are stuffed with political cartoons. Lots and lots and lots of political cartoons.

"Here's Fred Morgan of the Philadelphia Inquirer, 1905, very nice stuff," says Summers, unwedging a yellowed folder from one of the stacks. "And here's Thomas Nast, 1873. And this one"—he pulls a fat file from the stack that teeters under the watchful eye of a small rubber frog perching atop his computer—"is full of cartoons from 1944, lovely things."

When Summers discusses political cartoons, their artistry and their value, he talks like a man who's just hit the lottery.

"Not only are some of these artistically stunning, but they can also be very, very powerful," says Summers, whose six books on American politics in the 19th century include discussions of cartoons that ridiculed civic and political leaders, and that in some cases affected the outcome of elections.

"There are so many good examples of the power of these creations," Summers says. "One that comes to mind is the fate of B. Gratz Brown, a senator and then governor from Missouri and a relatively important character in the 1860s and 1870s." Brown, born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1826, was Democratic nominee Horace Greeley's running mate in the 1872 presidential election. When political cartoonist Thomas Nast wanted to draw a caricature of Brown, however, he was stymied because he couldn't find a drawing or photo of him, so Nast drew him as a little tag on the back of Greeley's coat.

"So throughout the campaign, newspaper readers continually saw Brown as nothing more than this little tag, this little insignificance," Summers says. "The effect was that at the end of the campaign, after Greeley and Brown lost to Ulysses Grant, B. Gratz Brown was less known than he'd been before he ran for vice president—he was seen as completely irrelevant and pointless."

Nor was Greeley spared the sharp jab of Nast's pen during the election. "During the campaign, Nast, a Republican, produced a series of cartoons attacking Greeley, who commented that the venom of these cartoons was so bad that he scarcely knew whether he was running for the presidency or the penitentiary," says Summers. Greeley died soon after the election, and one friend claimed that Greeley had been crushed by the unmerciful ridicule Nast had heaped on him.

James G. Blaine is another politician who was forever branded by a cartoonist's pen. In his third try, in 1884, for the Republican nomination for president, Blaine was portrayed by cartoonist Bernhard Gillam in Puck magazine as a man whose scandals and sins were so much a part of him they were tattooed all over his body. "Little Rock RR Bonds," one tattoo announces, alluding to a well-known railroad scandal Blaine was implicated in. "Corrupt Lobby" and "Anti-Chinese Demagogism" read two others.

Bernhard Gilliam's cartoon "Phryne"The caption for Bernhard Gilliam's cartoon reads: Phryne Before the Chicago Tribunal. Ardent Advocate.— "Now Gentlemen, don't make any mistake in your decision! Here's Purity and Magnetism for you—can't be beat!"

Gillam's cartoon is a parody of the painting titled "Phryne," by Jean-Leon Gerome, in which the Greek orator Hyperides attempted to defend the courtesan Phryne against charges of prostitution by revealing her breasts to the jurors [the entire story is too complex to go into here]. So in addition to having Blaine's misdeeds tattooed on his body for all to see, he was also alluded to as a prostitute.

"After this cartoon appeared, it wasn't easy for people to ever associate him in any other way," Summers says. Blaine did win the nomination that year but lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland by an extremely slim margin—three-tenths of 1 percent of the popular vote—in the election. "It's impossible to say to what degree Gillam's portrayal of Blaine translated into votes against him, but it certainly played some part in the election's outcome," Summers says.

Sometimes a cartoonist can turn politicians into such figures of ridicule that they can never be taken seriously again. Former Vice President Dan Qualye is a good, contemporary example, Summers says. "His idiotic remarks [Quayleisms: 'It's wonderful to be here in the great state of Chicago'; 'I love California—I practically grew up in Phoenix'] were easy fodder for cartoonists who depicted him as a bubblehead. He was a perfect foil."

Political cartoons, Summers says, can carry a wallop that even the best editorial can't manage. "For one thing, cartoons are a lot easier to read," he says. "I heard somewhere that the average time a reader spends with a cartoon is eight seconds." Summers adds that cartoonists can put their message in simple story form to hammer home an idea in a plain and obvious way; an editorial might make a lucid and convincing argument, but the form is almost always rhetorical, not narrative.

Summers's interest in political cartoons began when he was 8 or 9 years old, and he started collecting them in scrapbooks. His father, a professor at Yale, would take his son along with him to the university library for four- or five-hour stretches of time, and young Mark would "make a beeline" for the shelf that held Thomas Nast's cartoons. "I was just entranced. All those bright colors from the Gilded Age! All that wonderful art!"

Summers recalls a day about this time when he was home sick from school and found a book about Reconstruction on his father's shelves. His intense interest in this period of 19th-century American history, already fueled by Nast's cartoons, was to become a lifelong passion. "Reconstruction had such marvelous villains and wonderful heroes," Summers recalls.

His interest in history, politics and cartooning dovetailed nicely, Summers says, and he began to draw his own political cartoons in seventh and eighth grades. He published cartoons in his high school newspaper and then in the college newspaper at Yale when he was an undergraduate.

"I never really learned to draw in any formal way, and it shows," Summers admits. "But I kept at it and kept paying close attention to other people's political cartoons—and it was great fun." (For Summers's artistic comment on President Gerald Ford, see below.

Mark Summers cartoon of Gerald FordHe adds that although his drawing and publishing cartoons was politically motivated, it also served as a way to let off steam.

"It was the '60s and I was upset and angry about a lot of things that were happening. The war in Vietnam was getting worse and worse and stupider and stupider, and there didn't seem to be any way out of it. The administration was digging us in deeper, and everything that was coming out of the White House was a lie."

Underlying all of this discussion of American political cartoons is what Summers says is the most important reason for their existence: political cartoons are serious business. "If you do it just for laughs, you abdicate your responsibility. You become an extension of the funnies page. It's important to have a sense of indignation and anger—a political point of view that's consistent."

Among Summers's favorite cartoonists, besides Nast, are Herb Block (who died in 2001 at the age of 91), Mike Peters, Tom Toles, and Ben Sargent. "Toles is dazzlingly good, very artistic, and Ben Sargent is one of very few who can do a political cartoon that makes me fall on the floor laughing. And Joel Pett [Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader] is doing exactly what political cartoonists are supposed to do," Summers adds. "I think his Pulitzer Prize was entirely deserved."

There's nothing easy, Summers says, about being a professional political cartoonist. You have to be politically savvy and insightful, clever, funny, and unique—and you have to understand the power of the image. Cartoonists with major daily newspapers usually have to produce five cartoons a week all year long. And there's the omnipresent "fringe benefit," Summers says wryly, that comes with the territory: lots of people aren't going to like you.

"If you're doing your job as a political cartoonist, you're offending lots of people day after day after day," says Summers. "It's one of the fastest ways you can imagine to get lots of hate mail."

Unpopularity and the pressure of daily production are major reasons, he believes, that many cartoonists are tempted to do a comic strip instead. "A comic strip means an awful lot more money for one thing. You can get syndicated in many papers, and comic strips can be collected into books and sold in stores. Also," he adds, "it'll cut way down on your hate mail."

Why aren't political cartoons collected into books?

"They're very transitory for the most part," Summers explains. "Their purpose is to speak to present-day issues, and the result of that is after these issues are either resolved or disappear from the public scene, the cartoons don't hold up that well." There are some exceptions, he says. "'Doonesbury' comes to mind, and I think it transcends the years primarily because people come to care about the running cast of characters."

Summers makes it clear that his professional life isn't all about political cartoons. He loves the collegiality of being a professor and he loves teaching. Among the classes he's taught at UK are frontier history, Civil War and Reconstruction America, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the Age of Jackson, and, of course, the History of Political Cartoons.

"I'll do most anything to get my students interested in the topic," he admits with a shrug. "I've been known to jump on desks, wave my arms around like a crazy man and clamber from desk to desk. I do whatever I can get away with. I give 'em the best show I've got."

Students might see their professor walk into the classroom dressed in a Colonial outfit, a "very lovely, big broadcloth coat," or maybe a Lincolnesque top hat. Summers also plays characters in class to enact historical moments. He's done Lyndon Baines Johnson (a terrible imitation, Summers admits) rounding up votes, and he's portrayed a Vietnamese interpreter with an American investigator. He's even done dialogues between a Vermont farmer and God—playing both parts.

It was both his teaching and research that earned Summers the first Thomas D. Clark Endowed Professorship in History, according to David Hamilton, history department chairman. The recipient holds this honor until he or she either retires or leaves the university.

"If it weren't for his annoying habit of whistling opera tunes as he walks the halls, Mark Summers would be a perfect colleague," Hamilton says with a grin. "Mark relishes reading the work of his colleagues, and with his superb editorial skills he invariably returns the chapters of a manuscript with page after page of comments and suggestions for revision. And if the department needs an extra class taught, he can't volunteer fast enough. Mark may end up teaching as many students as Tom Clark did."

"I don't do teaching overloads because I have to; I do overloads because I enjoy teaching," Summers says. "Teaching is a thrill. I'm very happy when the school year begins and very depressed when it's over. It's a wonderful complement to doing research. You can't just do research all the time or you turn into a hermit crab—and hermit crabs aren't much fun at all."

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