By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
“You really haven’t read your autobiography?” I asked.
“No,” he said, leading me up a small flight of stairs, past a television set that had a UHF dial on it that was as smooth as a seashell, to the small, round kitchen table where his dog, Benjie, and his coffee were waiting for him.
“Well, didn’t you write it? I mean, where did the publishers get the words that are in it?” I said, needing to make the clarification because most of the book was cartoons.
“I didn’t write anything for it,” he said, falling into his chair, his impartiality to the power of the written word revealed by something he said 50 years earlier: I have no idea what the readership is of written editorials, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the readership of editorial cartoons. “They just came out and asked me a bunch of silly questions, over and over again.” I looked down at the silly questions listed in the open notebook that I’d just laid on the table and felt a little like a cheap date.
“And who are you again?” he said, lighting his pipe.
“Wayne Booth,” he said confidently, like so many people do, including many of my wife’s relatives who have known me for 20 years.
“Dwayne,” I said, clarifying, like I always do, except with my wife’s relatives. “Mr. Fish is the name that I use on my cartoons.
“Mr. Fish?” he repeated, his facing saying, Should I know your name from the frozen-food section of the grocery store?
“Yup, Mr. Fish,” I said, setting up my tape recorder and wishing that my name was Wayne.
Conrad offered me a cup of coffee by pointing me toward the pot and hollering directions, once I’d left the room, as to where a mug could be found. Pouring my cup, I hollered back that I, like him, was a twin and, in fact, had often wondered if all the attention that I’d gotten growing up had something to do with why I’d become an editorial cartoonist, having developed the expectation that people would always be interested in me and, therefore, that my opinion mattered. “What about you?” I said, sitting down and pressing the recordbutton. “Do you think that the automatic celebrity of being a twin gave you a sense that you had, not so much something to say, but a guaranteed audience who would at least be there to listen?”
“Maybe, although I did most of my drawing [growing up] to spite my father and older brother, Bill, who were right-wingers,” he said. “[My twin] Jim was more of a middle-of-the-road Republican. That is, until they elected this asshole.
“[Bush] is a fucking nut,” Conrad continued, packing his pipe. “I think he borders on the insane.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
I should say, also, that I brought up Nixon not because I’m such a lazy student of American history that I’m only capable of comparing one alleged worst president of all time! with another, but because Nixon was to Paul Conrad what the unshaven, slouched and disillusioned GI was to famed WWII cartoonist Bill Mauldin: not just his bread and butter but also his mortgage and the college tuitions for his children.
What I did refuse to do, however, was to ask the Nixon question that has appeared in every interview with Conrad ever since 1973, namely, What do you consider a greater accomplishment, receiving the Pulitzer Prize or appearing on President Nixon’s enemies list? I wanted to avoid asking it because not only did I already know the answer (can you guess?), I didn’t feel that it truly revealed the relevance of Conrad and his art. Nixon’s enemies list was little more than a ridiculously detailed suicide note from a public figure torn to pieces by his own insecurities. Having your name added to such a list is meaningless.
Similarly meaningless is a quote from the late Gerald Ford that has appeared nearly as often as the Nixon question in profiles done on Conrad: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and you’ve been the subject of a Paul Conrad cartoon.” Likewise with the enemies list, when one recognizes that the most complimentary thing that anybody could think to say about Ford at the time of his death was “he was a man who led by asking questions” and“he used to toast his own English muffins,” suddenly the observation becomes something less than magnanimous.
No, Paul Conrad is not flattered by absurdist criticism or imbecilic praise, but has rather gained all the accolades that he rightly deserves by moving the hearts and minds of his readers with a precision of thought and a generosity of spirit that has remained remarkably steady for more than half a century.
What I did ask him was this: “Your disdain for Nixon’s politics is well documented, but what did you think of his piano playing?”