Today, we’re going to look at a cartoon featuring former President George W. Bush. I chose this cartoon for a number of reasons. First of all, I audibly laughed out loud. As you may have realized by now, a cartoon that makes me laugh is more likely to make its way on my blog. Second of all, there’s a lot of great subtle references that I’d like to tease out. And finally, there are a lot of not-subtle references in there. Layers, people, layers!
Here’s the cartoon:
This cartoon is predicated on understanding two things: one, that Bush didn’t come across as particularly intelligent and two, that Bush didn’t come across as particularly modest. Those things might be completely inaccurate — maybe Bush is the most modest and intellectual person out there — but the general public, like cartoonist Pat Bagley, did not see him that way.
This is an important reminder. While political cartoons are primary resources, they aren’t primary resources that necessarily give an accurate depiction of the subject. Instead, they are primary resources that give the readers clues about how the subject was perceived by members of the public. (This can also be applied to all sources, as nothing can be perfectly objective. But I don’t want to get on a soapbox…)
So let’s look at those subtler references. First, there are quite a few references to Bush’s supposed stupidity, including various misspellings — “flite soot,” “stachoo of me” — and the fact that the former president is writing in red crayon, like a child. Also, there’s a tiny bookshelf in the corner labeled “Books (IF NEEDED). (Keep in mind that these are the blueprints of the George W. Bush Presidential Library.) Similarly, there are egotistical references, most notably the “Hall of ME,” but also the statue, and the “Picture of Me.”
On top of that, there are political references, including the conveyor belt from the records room to the incinerator, the stairs to the Dick Cheney dungeon/rumpus room, and the Holy Bullhorn of 9-11. These refer to the “lost” records of Bush’s military action, the violent tendencies of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and the famous bullhorn speech of 9/11.
The more blatant references are scattered around the blueprints: “Foreclosure; Lost Medical Coverage; Record Jobs Loss; Recession; Bankruptcy; 401Ks Tank.” These are not shrouded in humor, and do not need to be decoded. To Bagley, these arguments against Bush’s presidency are important enough to just plainly state.
This cartoon is interesting in that way. It’s not just a light-hearted and funny cartoon about the stupidity of Bush. It has elements of that, and elements of more serious humor. But it also has strong accusations and demonstrations of fault that are devoid of humor.
Political cartoons are editorial pieces. Like prose, they have central arguments based on evidence. Unlike most prose, they often make you laugh. This is what makes them strong. They can entertain, can be easily digestible, but can also make you think.
Feature image by Flickr user DonkeyHotey. License information at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode.