Today I want to talk about one of the inspirations for this blog: Richard Nixon. Nixon had a variety of cartoonists drawing him in a variety of different ways, but the one I want to focus on today is Herblock’s “sewer cartoon.”
This infamous cartoon, actually entitled “Here He Comes Now,” was published in the Washington Post on October 29, 1954, and it demonstrates two really important points about political cartoons. First, it establishes a political caricature early on in Nixon’s career. Second, it is exemplary of the onion-like layers of the political cartoon, something I talk about in a post about how to analyze a cartoon.
But first things first: let’s talk caricature. As a communication and history scholar, I’m really interested in this idea that a politician can be limited to an easily identifiable caricature. People are complicated and nuanced, while caricatures are simplistic and broad. And yet, caricatures about politicians are everywhere. Even more surprisingly, stagnant caricatures about politicians are everywhere.
When I started this endeavor, I assumed that I would be seeing cartoons about Nixon pre-Watergate as a spectrum of negative and positive. From the beginning of his political career, though, cartoonists like Herblock identify Nixon as an efficient, but slimy politician — a caricature that lasts even today.
This caricature contributes to the narrative of Nixon’s career. I had always assumed that the public, a monolithic group, liked Nixon and was betrayed by Watergate. This caricature, however, points to another story. Some of the public had already pegged Nixon as a dirty politician, and that opinion was simply reinforced by Watergate.
This political cartoon, and others like it, help us understand a more refined and accurate version of history. And while caricatures can sometimes be oversimplified and incorrect, we should take the caricature seriously. A developed caricature can clue us in to the fact that someone felt this way at the time. A sustained caricature can help us understand how a popular trend grew into something more.
So we can understand how important cartoons and caricatures are for historical purposes. Now let’s talk about those layers.
When I first saw this cartoon, I understood the sewer to be a symbol of scum. While it is a symbol of scum, it also depicted more. According to Herblock himself, it was also a depiction of the idea that “[Nixon] was figuratively criss-crossing the country by sewer” (Herblock Special Report by Herbert Block, pg. 39). Therefore, the depiction is also the depiction of the pervasive and widespread nature of his politics.
Like most art forms, the reader can pick up interesting elements that the creator may not have intentionally included. Likewise, we can be blind to things that the author did consider while creating the piece. Political cartoons are editorials, and have arguments. They have a lot of hidden depth to consider.
This is why it’s so interesting to listen to what the cartoonists actually were thinking when they created the cartoon. We can understand exactly the argument that they were trying to make.
But on the other hand, we don’t need to listen to what the cartoonists actually were thinking. The challenge of their medium is conveying meaning in visual form. Political cartoons are therefore valuable even without additional commentary. This is the power of layers.
The “sewer cartoon,” therefore is a really great political cartoon for us to look at. Not only does it develop a lasting caricature that helps us understand the history of Richard Nixon, but it also is a great example of layers. Plus, it has Richard Nixon climbing out of a manhole. What more could you want?
Feature image courtesy of the National Museum of the Air Force.