Political junkies needing a break from election-return suspense Tuesday will find a perfect diversion in a TV biography of Paul Conrad, the famed cartoonist who’s thrown punches with his pencil for 50 years.
“Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire,” airing on PBS’ “Independent Lens” series (check local listings for time) shows the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner with his combative liberal spirit intact.
Conrad, 82, who’s taken on U.S. presidents from Harry S Truman to George W. Bush with his powerful, visually aggressive style, is the leading cartoonist of his time and possibly the best ever, observers and colleagues say in the film.
“Conrad’s work is immediate. It’s high impact. There’s emotion in it. If he were a boxer, he’d be giving body blows,” said Denver Post cartoonist Mike Keefe.
Tom Brokaw, the film’s narrator, said: “Every line he draws cries out to the powers that be, ‘We’re watching you.”’
In an interview, Conrad reinforced the image of a man who hasn’t mellowed a bit and sees no shortage of material for his four weekly syndicated cartoons. After starting at the Denver Post, where he earned his first Pulitzer, he worked for the Los Angeles Times for three decades, until 1993.
President Nixon made himself Conrad’s favorite target, according to the Iowa-born cartoonist. Among the examples included in the documentary is one showing Nixon’s helicopter leaving the White House after his resignation. The caption: “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”
Conrad doesn’t dwell in the past. Responding to a question about how he regarded Nixon, he brought the answer around to the current president.
“I felt two ways about Nixon. First, how did an idiot like that become president,” he said. “And, secondly, how soon can we get rid of him. Almost the same thing applies to Bush.”
Conrad’s work delights those of like mind and infuriates the opposition, although he also wields his wit against Democrats. After Jimmy Carter’s admission that he sometimes “lusted in his heart,” Conrad drew him mentally undressing the Statue of Liberty.
The film captures Conrad’s outrage at what he regards as the trespasses of the powerful and the sheer delight he takes in skewering them.
His career began when political cartooning flourished in newspapers. Now only about 3 percent of daily papers have cartoonists on staff, according to an expert quoted in the documentary from Barbara Multer-Wellin and Jeffrey Abelson.
The shrinking number dismays Conrad. And he’s no fan of those who have abandoned the traditional single-panel cartoon for a comic-strip approach.
“It’s dialogue, long conversations, from one panel to another. Some have a political point but when you get finished reading them you knew that in the beginning. So what am I doing reading ’em?” he said.
As for politically oriented strips increasingly found in the unlikely company of “Peanuts” and “Family Circle,” Conrad says, “Who the hell’s gonna go to the comic page to find out what’s going on with any given political subject?”
Age or industry changes notwithstanding, Conrad intends to stay in the game.
“I have no reason to quit. As long as I’ve still got interest, I don’t see any sense in quitting.”