Cartoonists Recall 50 Years of Confab Visits: From Robert Plant to Nixon

By: Dave Astor

Editorial cartoonists had a memorable 1988 encounter with singer Robert Plant, whose many Led Zeppelin credits include “The Song Remains the Same.”

That incident will be described later in this story, but the Zeppelin song (and film) title has some relevance to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists as it nears its 50th-anniversary convention July 4-7 in Washington, D.C. — where the AAEC held its first meeting in 1957.

“Some of the problems then are the same problems now,” noted AAEC President and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/United Media editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers, who said one of those issues is job losses. Also, there continues to be debate about what’s the best cartoon style (for instance, hard-hitting or joke-oriented?).

But some things have not remained the same over the past half-century. One example is the rising number of cartoonists now tackling animation and doing blogs to find new creative challenges — and try to increase their job security.

And, while the AAEC (like editorial cartooning) remains mostly white and male, female and African-American creators began joining the organization in the 1970s. The AAEC also was apparently more cozy with politicians in its early days — even making then-Vice President Richard Nixon an honorary member during its first convention.

The AAEC was forged through the efforts of men like John Stampone, an Army Times cartoonist who grew alarmed after seeing a Saturday Review magazine story about editorial cartooning’s alleged decline. Stampone contacted his peers, and more than 80 cartoonists turned up for the first convention to discuss their craft and hear speakers such as Nixon, according to V. Cullum Rogers, the AAEC’s current secretary-treasurer and a cartoonist for The Independent Weekly of Durham, N.C.

Cullum Rogers spent a lot of time this year researching the AAEC’s history, including burrowing through the organization’s archives at Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library and looking at decades of Editor & Publisher magazines stored at Duke University.

Much of what he found appears in the “Golden Notebook,” a special 112-page edition of the AAEC’s “Notebook” magazine that will be distributed at this week’s convention and also made available for sale to libraries, cartoon fans, and others who are interested. The anniversary publication — put together mostly by Cullum Rogers and J.P. Trostle (who’s also news editor of AAEC’s EditorialCartoonists.com site) — includes pieces about each convention since 1957, along with scores of photos and other content.

“Some shots have never been seen before,” said Trostle, who noted that cartoonists dug deep into their closets to unearth some of the pictures.

Cullum Rogers said Nixon was by no means the only major political figure to speak during an AAEC convention. Cartoonists met John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden in 1963, were addressed by Lyndon Johnson several times, and even visited Johnson’s ranch during their 1971 meeting in Austin, Texas. “LBJ was a huge cartoon fan,” Rogers noted.

AAECers traveled again to the Rose Garden to hear Ronald Reagan in 1987, listened to Al Gore in Memphis in 1991, were addressed by Ralph Nader in Toronto in 2001, and chatted with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Sacramento in 2005.

The Reagan encounter in 1987 led to a brouhaha in which one AAEC member suggested the Rose Garden gathering be adjourned when Sam Donaldson and other Washington correspondents began asking the president about the Iran-Contra scandal. Later during that convention, a majority of attendees voted to rebuke the cartoonist for protecting Reagan. “It was the only time the AAEC ever passed a motion critical of a specific member,” said Cullum Rogers.

He added that the AAEC also experienced internal differences 19 years earlier. A majority of convention attendees voted to express condolences after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a resolution that also was supportive of the civil rights movement. Some southern editorial cartoonists — who were either opposed to the content of the resolution or opposed to the idea of the AAEC taking an organizational position on any issue — threatened to walk out of the meeting. Ultimately, they didn’t.

Then there was the convention during which the political and entertainment worlds met in a bizarre way: Israeli official Shimon Peres shared the stage with crooner Wayne Newton at the AAEC’s 1998 meeting in Las Vegas.

There also was that aforementioned 1988 encounter with former Zeppelin frontman Plant, who happened to be staying at the same Milwaukee hotel as AAEC conventioneers. Several cartoonists (including Rob Rogers) were having drinks with the singer when J.D. Crowe — then of The San Diego Tribune — decided to play a joke on the rock legend. Crowe made believe he thought Plant was singer David Coverdale of Whitesnake, a band considered somewhat derivative of Led Zeppelin. An enraged Plant proceeded to head-butt Crowe.

Plant didn’t have a “Whole Lotta Love” for Crowe at that point, but the two ended up burying the hatchet and posing with Rob Rogers for a photo. “Just as the picture was being snapped, Plant, who’s a good two or three inches shorter than Rob and I, hoisted himself up to appear taller,” recalled Crowe, who’s now with the Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.

Of course, AAEC conventions aren’t all about politicians and crazy encounters with rock stars. Each year, trends, issues, and other topics relating to editorial cartooning are addressed in speeches, panel discussions, and casual conversations among attendees.

“The real legacy of the AAEC is its conventions,” said president Rogers. “Most of us work in one-newspaper cities with one staff cartooning position. There aren’t a lot of chances to bond with other cartoonists during the year.”

Trostle said he enjoys the gatherings, too: “Editorial cartoonists are some of the smartest, funniest people on the planet.”

This week, attendees will hear such speakers as King Features Syndicate columnist Helen Thomas, Creators Syndicate columnist Mark Shields, Washington Post investigative reporter Dana Priest, and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. There will also be a Cartoonists Rights Network International dinner on Friday, and a pre-convention “Cartoonapalooza” for the public Tuesday evening. Ten cartoonists are scheduled to speak at that event.

Convention attendees will also see a slide show of photos from the AAEC’s history — and hear some words from the organization’s longest-term members.

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