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For Whom the Cowbell, Toles?

Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Tom Toles talks about Republican demagoguery, life in the nation’s capital, and his new career as a rock-and-roll drummer.

Tom Toles is perhaps the most distinctive editorial cartoonist of his generation for his sparse drawing style and unsparing commentary.

Toles is a 1973 graduate of the University at Buffalo, where he was on the staff of the Spectrum. He began his professional career with the Buffalo Courier-Express, and when that paper closed he joined the Buffalo News, where he had a celebrated 20-year run. He was hired a decade ago by the Washington Post to succeed the legendary Herblock. Toles not only draws for the Post but writes a daily blog, as well.

He has won virtually every editorial cartooning award there is, including the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. His cartoons are syndicated in some 200 newspapers. A Hamburg native, his contract with the Washington Post allows him to spend his summers in Buffalo and he retains a strong affinity for his hometown. While at home recently, Toles spoke at length on WGRZ-TV with Jim Heaney of Investigative Post, on whose board of directors he serves. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation.

Heaney: You’ve won just about every award there is in the business. What distinguishes your work? What’s your approach to the job?

Toles: Well, it’s not about winning awards. Awards are great, but the work is about the work. I try to bring two things to cartooning, which I always have: Keep it honest, say what you really think, and try not to think too much about what the audience is expecting. And secondly, just bring, via the writing and the via the art, bring my own quirky personality out there—just make it clearly Tom Toles’s style.

Heaney: What’s the future of editorial cartooning? There’s fewer and fewer of you guys around.

Toles: As you know, the whole nature of media is changing now and it’s going to continue to change…Newspapers themselves are fairly old in history, but not ancient, and the contemporary form of traditional journalism is 100, 200 years old. Editorial cartooning is maybe 150. In historical terms it’s all pretty recent. It’s kind of jelled into a form. The whole business—the medium, the format—everything is changing, and it will probably end up 20 or 30 years from now looking very different. But there will always be some kind of political satire that has a graphical component, and if you want to call that political cartooning then it will continue, but it may not look like anything it looks like now.

Heaney: There’s been a big dropoff with papers who have full-time cartoonists.

Toles: Well, yeah, cartooning is suffering the exact same trajectory as reporters. It’s a cost in a business that’s having trouble generating the same kind of revenues that it did. I mean, newspapers as a business model for a while were just cash machines, and that cash got thrown at a lot of quality people. Now it’s harder, so cartoonists are getting cut and a lot of other people are too.

Heaney: Talk to me about what your working life is like at the Washington Post.

Toles: It’s like three circles. The center of the circle, where I’m sitting at my desk doing my drawing board drawing, that’s pretty much exactly the same as it’s always been. It’s a pretty individual job. Most of it happens inside my head and the rest of it happens right out here in front of me.

The circle around that is the people I’m working with—the editorial board, the newsroom. That’s been a great experience for me. The Washington Post is populated with a lot of really smart, really hard-working, really dedicated people. It’s a collection of great journalists. It’s one of the great places of journalism in American history, and just being able to talk to them and watch the way they work and listen to the kind of questions they ask and listen to the way they talk about things and listen to the way they approach subjects [has been] very, very useful to me, very fascinating and helpful.

And then outside that, right outside the building—the building is four blocks from the White House and not that much farther from the Capitol, you just inadvertently—people are coming in and reading the paper or going out into the community attending events. Without making any particular effort I’m running into all the people I cover, and most of the time it’s just, “Hi, how are you?” But sometimes it’s getting a chance to talk to them. You get the feel of how people are or how they look up close and just the whole ethos of the system and it’s fascinating to see, great to see it up close. You learn a lot. And the danger is the same danger that everybody says about it—you’re there long enough and you start feeling like you’re part of that ecosystem.

Heaney: Have you ever run into somebody who you really skewered?

Toles: I don’t know if I want to name names. I was sitting next to somebody, and he was a politician. Politicians tend to be nice no matter what. But this was somebody that I didn’t want to be sitting next to and I didn’t want to talk to this person. It was somebody who I did not respect as a politician or much else. And I was talking to the person on the other side of me for 20 minutes and I thought, “I’m gonna have to do it. I’m gonna have to turn and introduce myself.” And I did. It was a name you would recognize.

Heaney: Initials? At least give us initials.

Toles: No, no. There was a “T” in one of the names. It wasn’t Toles. I introduced myself and he said, “Oh, very nice to meet you. I love your work.” And I looked at him and I said, “That’s not possible.”

Heaney: And how did he react?

Toles: Well, you know, what could he say? It was an awkward thing for me to say and there really wasn’t any gracious way to reply to that, but it was just odd. Things like that just happen to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t keep my mouth shut.

Heaney: Let’s talk about the national political scene. Let me name some figures here and get your rapid-fire response. What kind of job has Obama done in his first three-and-a-half years?

Toles: You’re asking the wrong person. First of all, a political cartoonist should never have anything good to say about any politician. But I’m gonna break that rule. To me, Obama has done a pretty spectacular job playing a pretty nearly impossible hand of cards. I have to say, he brings to the presidency the kind of traits I wish to see a politician or a public figure bring to the job. I think he takes it very seriously, I think he’s certainly smart enough and I think he has the trait of running the radar over the whole spectrum of considerations and then working it down to reality and what you can actually do.

Heaney: A lot of people on the left have been disappointed because, on any number of issues, he has not hung as tough as people wanted him.

Toles: I think that hanging tough thing is close to meaningless because it’s all about political power and the way the government is set up, the way Congress works. He has a lot less [power] than people think. If I were to make one suggestion, I think he could have been better at shaping public opinion by speaking more, speaking regularly and at some length. He’s really good at it. I don’t know why he doesn’t; he just made the calculation that people stopped listening to policy talk.

But in terms of just working with a difficult Congress—you know. he got the healthcare thing through. He did not get climate change and I don’t think he could have. But as far as the budget goes, what’s interesting is going to be the situation if he gets re-elected, the hand he’s going to be working with right after he’s elected—the fiscal cliff they’re talking about. This will give him a very high degree of clout and position, and that’s when it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

Heaney: How about the Republicans? You’ve been pretty critical in your work.

Toles: Well, I mean, the Tea Party is hard to define exactly what that is. It started out being portrayed or thinking of itself as sort of a nonpartisan, sort of budget-focused, everyman’s standing back and taking government back from the career politicians. It seems to have morphed rather quickly and not surprisingly into just another wing of the Republican Party, and social issues are right back in there with the economic stuff that they seemed initially to be based on.

The problem with the Republican Party now, aside from the shedding of even perfunctory connection to a logic or honesty in terms about what they’re about, is that it’s still operating off of this fundamental idea back with [Ronald] Reagan and Jack Kemp—this supply-side idea that the investor class didn’t have enough money to invest, and that the supply side of the economy was underfunded, and that’s what was holding the dynamism of the American economy back. And essentially the game plan of endless tax cuts is still playing to that original idea, when the landscape has so radically changed that it no longer makes any sense whatsoever in terms of economics, let alone social justice. That’s what I think is the problem with the Republican Party right now.

Heaney: How do you see the presidential election playing out?

Toles: Well, only fools make predictions, and so I’m happy to make one. I think Obama is probably going to win. It wouldn’t shock me if he didn’t, but they say the economy is the determinant thing and it certainly has been struggling, gasping for oxygen for his entire presidency. But I still think people have a residual memory that he walked into that, and it’s very gradually been getting better throughout his presidency, and I think that’s going to be enough. They say he’s more likeable than Romney. To me that doesn’t matter, but I think it matters to some people and I think it’s going to help him.

Romney is not a strong or interesting campaigner. There’s a high level of B.S. in campaigning, but when Romney opens his mouth it sort of sounds like B.S. You look at the way and the vehemence with which he has held in every position and you can’t do that forever. You can change your position, but you can’t act as if you always had that position and you really really mean it more than anything in the world. People are not always quick to catch on to this, but eventually they do, and he has presented himself as somebody who is not to be trusted, and I think that’s also going to cost him.

Heaney: Generally speaking, when you look at the economy, when you look at the paralysis in national politics, when you look at the environment, when you look at what’s going on in Europe and their economy, are things going to get worse before they get better? Are they never going to get better? What’s your long-range view?

Toles: Fundamentally, in the long range I’m an optimist. Short-term, I’m always a pessimist. People always have a high capacity for screwing things up in the short term and getting them right over time. I think both Europe and the United States have been swept up in the non-Keynesian idea that the way out of hard times is austerity, and I think that has been, and will continue to be, a big mistake and a drag. Europe already seems to be in a double-dip recession now, and it certainly has the potential of dragging us along with it. It could get worse, but my guess is I think we’re going to wiggle through and continue to see things get better.

Beyond the austerity fixation that is strangling the global economy, the big worry is climate change, which has been the major ignored issue for 30 years now. It would have been really easy to get started on it 30 years ago, very low cost, very high yield, and very low risk—there was no downside. Now we’re at the crisis point and we’re still paralyzed. We still have one major political party that is, again, absolute flat-out denying the reality of the situation, and humankind will survive it one way or another, but already you can see crop losses, and that’s just the beginning. You can see massive national instability, refugee crises, wars, the logical result of that kind of upheaval.

Heaney: You still come back to Buffalo every summer, correct?

Toles: Yes.

Heaney: You’ve been doing that for 10 years. What has struck you about Western New York as you’ve come back over this time?

Toles: Well, the first thing is—and this is easy to say, but it’s just so true—this is where I’m from. This is home. This feels like home. I just love it here. I just plain love it. It’s hard to know how much I would love it if I were from somewhere else, but I’m not from somewhere else, I’m from here. I love coming back. Summers here—it’s beautiful, especially compared to Washington, DC, which is just like a steam bath, even before climate change.

Heaney: The economy, the politics…

Toles: The economy just feels like it’s getting better finally. Through my whole life there was this feeling of erosion…Now I talk to people and walk around and look at some of the reviving areas of Buffalo, and talking to people I just have a different sense. The last two, three years, everything feels like the bottom was reached and now we’re building back to something really positive here.

Heaney: What sort of signs do you see that tell you, “Hey, things are starting to rebound.”

Toles: First was the neighborhoods around Elmwood Avenue. The housing prices were going up. You can’t argue with hard numbers like that. People tell me now that actually manufacturing is reviving around here. I don’t have the numbers on those, but that’s interesting. The unemployment rate, I believe, is better here than in a lot of the country. We didn’t have a housing bubble here, so we didn’t really have the crash. The art scene has always been interesting here. And just talking to people, it’s a different feeling. Before it was this gnawing sense, and now it’s a positive sense that I get. It feels genuine now; it feels good. And the other thing is, speaking of the city itself, cities were very unfashionable for the longest stretch after World War Two, and now they’re fashionable. People want to be in cities, people want to experience that kind of lifestyle at least part of the time. Even if they don’t live in the cities, they like to come into the cities, and that’s also working in Buffalo’s favor…It just feels better, it feels healthier, it feels happier here. I like coming back here more each year than I did the year before.

Heaney: For those who know you, Tom Toles is an introvert. But you’ve taken on a second career since you moved to Washington. You’re a drummer in a rock-and-roll band. Actually, you’re a drummer in two rock-and-roll bands. How did that happen?

Toles: You’re right, I am somewhat introverted. But someone at the Buffalo News once called me an introverted extrovert, that while I seem retiring superficially, that underneath it all [I’m] a superficial social butterfly of the worst kind. I met some friends in Washington, we were standing around and one said, “You know, I’d like to start a band. I’m looking for a drummer. You look like a drummer.” Now, he was probably just making this up, I don’t know what a drummer looks like.

Heaney: They look like Keith Moon.

Toles: The only drumming joke I know is, “How do you tell if the stage is level?” The answer is, “The drummer is drooling out of both sides of his mouth.” Anyway, he said, “You look like a drummer,” and I said, “Yeah, I’m a drummer.” I knocked a few without any training in high school one summer. I was in a little band, but that was enough experience. We got together. We didn’t have a singer so I did some of the singing and then started writing some songs and we stayed in my basement awhile. You always practice where the drummer lives because the drums are the hard thing to move around.

Heaney: So you’ve got two bands. You’ve got media people in one band that does covers and an originals band.

Toles: I wanted to do more originals. I had some ideas of the kind of music that I really wanted to write and perform. So this one was my initiative, I just gathered some people together, and that band does all originals. We’ve played out a few times and that’s also very satisfying. I can’t read music so it’s a bit of a challenge for me to write a song. But again, you can learn almost anything by doing it, and the thrill of playing music—anybody that actually does it, they know what I’m talking about. Music by itself is phenomenally rewarding, and doing it with other people, it’s almost like an addiction, and you can see why addictive personalities are drawn to it.

On Sunday, September 2, on WGRZ-TV’s Daybreak, Jim Heaney will interview Aaron Bartley of PUSH Buffalo. The show airs at 7:10am.

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