By: Dave Astor
Tom Toles plays drums for a band currently honing its sound in a basement. “We’re not ready for prime time yet,” he said. But Toles’ editorial cartoons have been ready for prime time for more than 30 years — five of which he’s now spent at The Washington Post.
Toles was hired by the Post in spring 2002, and started work that summer. “It was very daunting sitting in Herblock’s office,” he recalled, referring to the late cartooning legend whose Post tenure lasted from 1946 until 2001.
The Post promised Toles editorial independence — and kept its word. While the cartoonist and his editors agree on many issues, Iraq isn’t one of them. The newspaper’s editorials have basically backed the war, while Toles has been allowed to do cartoons opposing the U.S. invasion and occupation.
“Tom was sitting in the vortex of pro-war Washington with his own editorial board in support [of the war], and he kept doing cartoons brilliantly showing the whole enterprise was folly,” said Signe Wilkinson, editorial cartoonist for The Philadelphia Daily News and the Washington Post Writers Group syndicate.
“The divergence [on Iraq] could be seen as a problem, but it could also be seen as a big plus for the page,” observed Toles. “You’re getting two vigorously argued points of view.”
And the artist believes readers would have noticed if he were forced to go along with his paper’s Iraq stance. “You can’t get great cartoons if your cartoonist is in a straitjacket,” said Toles, whose work is distributed to nearly 200 newspapers via Universal Press Syndicate.
Unlike many mainstream-media commentators, Toles has also done numerous cartoons about environmental issues over the years. “I’ve been cartooning about global warming for close to two decades,” he said, by way of example. “I’m glad the issue is finally getting some traction, although global warming would have been easier to deal with if it had been addressed earlier.”
Indeed, the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner takes a more long-range, thoughtful approach to cartooning than some of his gag-oriented, issue-of-the-day peers. “The First Amendment isn’t there for entertainment, but to keep an informed citizenry,” said Toles, though he hastened to add that it’s also important for editorial cartoons to be “engaging.”
Toles finds many blogs engaging, and reads them — along with newspapers and magazines — to keep up with current events and find cartoon ideas. “I know mainstream-media types are supposed to be disdainful of blogs, but I find them interesting,” he said. “A blogger might raise a genuine public issue or highlight an area of wrongdoing before the mainstream media does it.”
The Post staffer is also interested in the Web animations a growing number of editorial cartoonists are doing, and said he “might try my hand at it sometime.” Meanwhile, Toles’ online presence includes sketched cartoons that are posted on WashingtonPost.com along with his finished cartoons.
But Toles, 55, is not pleased with the way editorial cartooning jobs are decreasing. He said cartoons are among the most popular elements of newspapers, and “controversy is what makes reading newspapers interesting” — meaning “editors are making a business mistake as well as an editorial mistake when they drop cartoons.”
Before joining the Post five years ago, Toles worked for The Buffalo (N.Y) News (1982-2002) and the now-defunct Buffalo Courier-Express (1973-1982). How did his time at those papers compare with his Post tenure? “I’m definitely in a much more high-profile position here,” he said, “but that doesn’t affect the work. When I’m by myself with my pen and paper, the surroundings blur away.”
And, with the exception of a 2006 Joint Chiefs of Staff letter slamming one of Toles’ Iraq cartoons (a letter now on his office wall), the cartoonist hasn’t gotten much flak from major Washington players.
After noting that Bush-administration officials “ignore, exploit, or destroy” their critics, Toles said, “I sort of fell in the ‘ignore’ category.”
The cartoonist also observed that working in Buffalo and then Washington during his career gave him the best of both worlds.
“Buffalo is the ideal place to develop a political cartoonist’s crucial tool — a B.S. detector,” said Toles, adding: “I had an outside point of view in Buffalo before seeing things up close in Washington.”
And Toles, because he still spends much of each summer in Buffalo, continues to see D.C. from both perspectives.