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Ben Sargent

INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 15, 2003
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Dave Gumpertz and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2257

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s October 15, 2003, and we’re in Austin, Texas at the—the headquarters of the Austin American Statesman. And we have the good fortune to be interviewing Ben Sargent who for many years has been an editorial cartoonist here, and in fact won a Pulitzer Prize for his work. His cartoons comment on many issues, but among them are environmental problems and controversies. I want to thank him for participating and explain some of his trade.
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BS: Thank you. Glad to do it.
DT: I thought we might start this interview by talking a little bit about how you might have gotten started in the newspaper business and an interest in commentary on politics.
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BS: Well, I was—was sort of born into the newspaper business. Both of my parents were newspaper people up in the Texan Panhandle. And I learned the printing trade from my dad, and when I was about twelve-years-old and just kind of didn’t ever know there was any other business to go into. I got a journalism degree from the University of Texas and started out as a reporter, and did that for about five years and sort of fell into doing political cartooning. I had been drawing all my life, I guess, but I never really thought about doing it for a living until I found myself doing it. So—and I have—have also had—had a lifelong interest in—in politics and it was also an interest of my parents and frequent topic of dinner table conversation. So—so it was two things that sort of naturally gravitated together.
DT: You mentioned that you were a reporter…
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BS: Mm-mmm.
DT: …for The Statesman I gather.
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BS: Well, for various—yeah, for various places I was working as a reporter for The Statesman and began doing some little drawings on the side to—to illustrate features and so on. I left The Statesman, went to work down at the State Capitol for UPI. But I kept doing the drawings for The Statesman, and after a couple of years they came back and asked if I wanted to come over and draw fulltime. And—and I thought, “Well, I’m kind of a mediocre reporter. I’ll give this a shot.” And my career still stalled at that point nearly thirty years later.
DT: What were the things that you learned in—in general reporting for The Statesman or—or being a capital stringer, I guess it was, for UPI that helped influence or inform what you draw and how you draw it?
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BS: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I—I think it—that my time as a reporter was—was invaluable in terms of having sort of seen the beast from the inside and particularly the Texas legislature and Texas politics and government, and giving me that—that perspective on it, and also giving me, you know, sort of a journalist’s take on—on things that are going on and—and a way—a journalist’s way of—of—of processing and organizing, you know, the information. So yeah, it–it was very valuable, I think, to have come to this from the journalism side because to my mind as—as political cartoonist we’re editorialist first and cartoonist second. I mean it’s what we are about is, you know, is making opinions and what we’re doing is as serious as the guys out in the next room who are writing editorials or columns, and we’re all doing opinion journalism, just in different media.
DT: That’s perfect. Maybe you can tell a little bit about the distinction between being a straight reporter and being an editorial writer or cartoonist.
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BS: Well, yeah. The—the distinction is—there is fairly—is fairly simple between our—our part on the editorial page and—and the rest of the newspaper or the rest of journalism. All of us in the—in—in journalism are obligated to be fair, complete, accurate, and—and when you’re on the news side, objective. Well, when you get over into the editorial page you’re still obligated to be fair, complete and accurate, but you don’t have to worry about being objective anymore. We can say—we can take one’s—on the editorial pages, take one side of an issue. We can say what we really think, or the
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merits of some question of the day and—yeah, it’s—it’s an exhilarating thing to be involved in. I—it’s—you’re—you’re at the center of the public debate and, you know, you sling out a lot of heat and you take a lot of heat and it’s—it’s—and there’s always—always something new, you know. You think after you’ve been doing opinion journalism for thirty years that things would start to sort of repeat themselves but it’s astonishing what people in public life can come up with that’s new.
DT: Well, can you talk maybe about some of these themes, those that are traditional and continuing and some of the controversies that might be new that you’ve covered?
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BS: Well, it’s—you know, you—it—especially when you do it for a long time you begin to see sort of the—the rhythms of it and how—how things swing back and forth and in terms of—of—who is exercising the power, who’s, you know, what political philosophies are in vogue and—and—and it’s an interesting thing to take a long look and see how those—how those flow and develop and—and grow, and—but there’s always—always—things taking an unexpected turn, you know, that—that keeps it very interesting. And—so it’s—yeah, it’s—it’s a fascinating area to be—to be in the middle of.
DT: Well, how—how do you, out of all these themes that you might be following, how do you pick out a topic that you think would—would suit you both what the public would understand and something that’s of interest to you?
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BS: Well, my—my colleague, Herb Block—of course, he died a year or two ago at the Wash—he was at the Washington Post for many, many years, and was probably the Dean of American Editorial Cartoonist. He used to say that the way he got his ideas, he would go through the paper until he came across something that made him say, “They can’t do that.” Then he knew he had his idea for the day. And that’s—that’s kind of what it is. You—you try to make yourself aware of—of what’s going on as you can, you know, and absorb as much news as you can and—and as an editorialist you then kind of weigh the things that are going against your—your political fundamentals and your—your principles and just see—see how they measure up, see how they compare, see—and in
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the case of doing editorial cartoons, see what draws your particular outrage, you know, because political cartoons are—are on the editorial page but they’re pretty much a distinctively different medium than written editorials or columns because they’re just a lot more of a visceral medium in their effect. They don’t have the luxury of explaining things in—in much detail or—or depicting subtle shades of meaning. So—so an issue on which you have a pretty much a black and white, literally, opinion is probably best suited to a cartoon, because a cartoonist doesn’t really have the luxury of saying “on the other hand” like an editorial writer does.
DT: I’ve noticed that you’ve spoofed and commented on things that range from, gosh, campaign finance, that I guess would be sort of generic topics that affect all sorts of, you know, issues and policies at the Capitol, to things that are very specific to the environmental world where there’s air pollution or climate change…
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BS: Right.
DT: …water pollution. Can you talk about some of the things that you look for within those themes that give you offense or interest?
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BS: Well, I think—I think the—the environment in particular is—is an area that—that I’m certainly interested in, both just, you know, for it’s own sake and—and then as—as a very integral part of the political process because the political process is—is how as a society we deal with our stewardship of the environment. It’s—it’s an issue that has—has for me fairly deep and fairly simple, you know, just philosophical, and even theological routes that we are—are here as stewards of—of the—of creation and—and the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has an interesting little prayer that says, “in—in giving us dominion over things on—on the earth you made us fellow workers in your creation.” And that’s—that I think is—is kind of, I guess, my attitude towards it, that I feel like as human beings that we do have a special, you know, place in—in the created
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world and—and—and—and we do have dominion over creation if you will, but that give us a very special risk and very heavy responsibility to take care of—of the created world and—and to be a steward of the environment. And—and—and so I think people have—is—when they—when they deal with—with the environment and in life they have varying motivations, you know, for the way they—the way they deal with it and a lot of times those—those don’t fit in with good stewardship and—and—and that’s where the political process comes in, because it’s—it’s something that—that we—that people have to deal with on a societal level and—and that’s—and that involves the political process and involves the government because the government is—is to my mind the way that—the society takes care of itself and takes care of its responsibilities. And—so, yeah, I’ve done—done a lot of—a lot of cartoons about environmental issues over the years. Clean air, clean water, development and so on.
DT: This may be off base but it seems to me that many of your drawings may be talking about campaign finance reform or about these specific things; air pollution, water pollution, but that they often boil down to questions of almost the Seven Deadly Sins or vices, you know, the greed and sloth…
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BS: Mm-mmm. Yeah.
DT: …you know, of deceit. Is that a fair take from your cartoons?
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BS: Yeah, I—I guess—I guess it would be. I—I think, you know, that at—at the heart of political questions or—or usually profoundly moral questions and philosophical questions, so that, yeah, that probably would be a fair assessment of it.
DT: Something else I’ve noticed that may distinguish, you know, your work from say a beat reporter…
BS: Mm-mmm.
DT: …or even from an editorial journalist is that—a writing journalist, that is…
BS: Mm-mmm.
DT: …would be that you often have to depict individual people, you know.
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BS: Mm-mmm.
DT: You can’t pin these policies on…
BS: Right.
DT: …(?) on an agency. You need to pick out somebody, you know, whether it’s the president or the governor or, you know, a particular leader. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you find these characters and how you (inaudible).
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BS: Well, that’s—yeah—yeah. That’s—that’s true. In—the way you have to—the language of—of cartoons is symbolism, and it’s—that’s why to me, you know, cartoons sort of are talking to the reader’s unconscious because the language of the unconscious is—is symbolism, Professor Jung would tell you. And so I think—I think cartoons have a particular ability to sort of reach the reader on a real inner level, you know, in where his—where his basic feelings and fears and prejudices and—and principles live. So what—what we’re dealing with is—is symbols and so a—a car—a given cartoon is really a—a system of symbols that—that are carrying across the message that you’re trying to—trying to convey. And so to—to depict a certain—certain element in your—in the
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opinion you’re—you’re giving you—you pick a symbol and—and a lot of times it really gives it punch, gives it power, if that symbol is—is a person, you know, because that’s—people relate to—relate to people. And so if you make it—make it the president or the governor rather than just like say some sort of faceless entity, that both gives it punch and I think helps, and—and I think this is useful certainly in a democratic political system, it helps put responsibility back on those people for their policies if they are made the—the—the center and the symbol of the policy that’s being carried out.
DT: I guess on the flip side of that you’re saying, yeah, it gives it punch but I guess it also can give offense, and I was wondering, what sort of reaction do you get from your cartoons? What’s the spectrum and what are the comments that you get back?
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BS: Oh, yeah, you get a lot of reaction. I was just culling out a few e-mails before I came over here. People who were upset about—about cartoons. And—and that’s all part of—of strong opinion journalism. I mean if you’re not getting adverse reaction then you’re—you’re not doing—something’s wrong, you know, that you’re not—you want to be doing it in such a way that you spark some reaction, get some debate going. And I think that’s kind of the way a newspaper editorial page fits in with our political system is sort of stirring up—stirring up the pot, if you will, and bringing things to the—to the floor and starting—being a starting point for debate, because that’s—that’s how our system works is people, you know, hashing things out between each other. But yeah, we get lots of calls, letters, e-mails, and—and to me it’s—it’s an encouraging thing. It—it both tells me that I’m hitting a nerve. I’m obviously putting out a strong opinion and it’s—it’s encouraging to me to see people in the public, you know, caring that much to—to express their opinions.
DT: Well, when you hit a nerve do you get just “ouch” coming back, or do they have some sort of reasoned discourse with you or what’s the reaction?
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BS: Well, I don’t—sometimes reasoned discourse and sometimes loony discourse. A lot of times it’s just kind of a—a—an emotional reaction, you know, like, you know, “How dare you,” and—and, you know, “You’re stupid, you’re traitorous, you’re this. You’re that or the other.” And—and occasionally you’ll get reasoned discourse. People say, “I disagree and here’s why.” But a lot of times it’s—it’s—it’s more emotional than that.
DT: And are some of the reactions from the people you’ve depicted or are they generally from just the public?
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BS: Generally from just the public. I think it’s people find it interesting who—who are not in the cartoon business that—that the people that you depict in the cartoons rarely have an adver—at least have an adverse reaction that they express to you. I—and I’ve—I’ve always found that interesting and—and I’ve always thought that probably it’s because these people are professional politicians. They have big egos and thick skins and—and they probably like to see their picture in the paper under whatever circumstances it is. But also I think because professional politicians understand the role of fair comment in the—in—in the system, and they—and they understand that on the editorial page we’re not taking a personal shot at them, that it’s that we’re criticizing
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what they do in—in public life and in public policy, so—I did have a—a governor of Texas who had bought a dozen or so original cartoons from and he sent them all back one day when after—with instructions on where I could stick ‘em after I—after I’d done a cartoon that had particularly aroused his anger. But that’s—that—that was sort of a rare example there of—of getting a—an adverse reaction from somebody who was actually in the cartoons.
DT: Are there some places that it’s just considered even among the guild of cartoonists you can’t go there? Like for example, during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky thing, they knew—they could anything but you don’t talk about Chelsea. Like—it was like certain—certain “Do Not Go” kind of thing they answer to today?
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BS: Yeah. There are—yeah, there are—there are areas—and—and we at least like to think that—that we pretty much are—are unfettered in the—in the things we can deal with. Certainly we—we’re pretty much confined to—one thing that confines the subjects you deal with in a cartoon is just what—what is of public interest and what will the reader recognize in the cartoon, because the cartoon doesn’t have the luxury of explaining what’s—what it’s about. The reader needs to look at it and—and pretty much in a nanosecond know which story it’s about. So that kind of limits you to the—every week to the five biggest stories, you know, that—but—but in terms of—of what’s ferboten, what’s taboo, what’s off limits, I—I think we’re pretty much just constrained by, you know, by limits of taste of what would be—be in good taste and—and a, you know, daily newspaper of general circulation. And—and we like to think that—that we could, you
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know, weight in on any area within those boundaries. Now there—there is sort of another limitation on editorial cartooning that, as we discussed before, it’s kind of—it’s really kind of a black and white medium. It really works best with an issue where you feel all right on one side, you know, and—and the other side is all wrong. If there’s an issue that has a lot of nuances, a lot of facets, a lot of complexity, that’s difficult to deal with in a cartoon just because it’s—it’s a medium that needs to communicate very quickly and in—in symbols and—and—and—and there are some issues that—that you don’t see many cartoons on because they’re just—they’re complex. And—and it’s hard to—and—and you feel like if you do a hard-hitting cartoon on one facet of that issue that—that then you sort of ignore other complexities that are part of it. So that’s—that’s another kind of limiting factor on what—what we can deal with.
DT: You talked about some of the reactions you’ve gotten from the political personalities involved, and for the public. Can you talk at all about the reactions you’ve gotten from your editors and publishers and the syndicators? I mean I remember when Doonesbury got pulled from some cartoon page, comic pages, and put on the editorial page because it was, you know, controversial, and I was wondering if that ever happens to you.
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BS: No, it hadn’t happened in years and years. I mean, years ago I had some cartoons that the—the editors declined, you know, to do and because we would have a disagreement on that issue, but it’s been a long time. I’ve been real fortunate in, you know, working—this is the one paper I worked in in my political cartooning career and it’s a paper that’s generally along the same lines as I am politically. And we’ll diverge and vary on various issues and at various times, but we’ve always been—The Statesman and I have always been real comfortable with each other. And—the editors—all the editors I’ve had have been—have been real supportive of my work and—and in—including times that I think that they were uncomfortable with the cartoons themselves. And we’ve had, you know, like with my current editor, Rich Opple, who—he’s—he’s a very frank person and he’ll—he’ll be real straight with you and we’ve had some—some disagreements, you know, over what—what ought to go in there and what the tone of the cartoon ought to be and what the general run of cartoons ought to be. But—but I think
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there’s a—a mutual respect there that—that we’re able to—to work without, you know, censorship or—or refusing cartoons or—and anything like that. I know there are a lot of my colleagues who work in much more difficult situations than I do in that regard, where they’re on a paper where they are at odd with their editor a lot of the time and it’s—it must be kind of a difficult way to work. It’s something that I’ve never really had to—had to worry much about. And the—and The Syndicate—The Syndicate does not really exercise editorial control over the political cartoons they get. I think they feel like that that filters is—because practically every editorial cartoonist works for a newspaper. I think they feel like that the cartoons are filtered through editors out there and that—so they’re—what—what they get they—they distribute, so…
DT: Perhaps you could talk a little bit about how you take one of these complex issues and boil it down to something that is black and white, and then maybe move on and talk a little bit about the mechanics of how you would lay out and sketch a cartoon, and, you know, we could talk about some of the specifics.
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BS: Okay, well, I guess the—the process of getting ideas for cartoons is—is a very—is still a mysterious process to me after thirty years. And I’m not exactly sure where they come from. It’s—like we said before it’s really, I guess, a matter of—of—taking—trying to stay aware of—of—events that are going and—and kind of measure them against your opinions and—and see—see what you come up with. Coming up with opinions, you know, is—is not—is not really hard, but trying to express those opinions in some—in—in graphic forms is sometimes—sometimes tough. Occasionally cartoon ideas will just leap into your head full-blown, all too rarely, and usually it’s more—more a situation where you’re really having to sit there and scribble and kind of grind it out, you know.
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It’s—it’s a process of—of deciding, you know, what—what issue first, what issue you’re going to deal with that day, what—secondly, what you want to say about it, and—and then third, you know, and maybe the hardest part, of finding and—an image that will carry that opinion in a strong and—and clear and readily understandable way. And so it’s—it’s really just you kind of—kind of turn your—turn your brain loose on it and see, you know, what associations it may call up. And—I—I usually work best, you know, with just, you know, a yellow legal pad and a pencil and just kind of sketch around and—and—and try to find an image that—or a situation that will—that will carry across that—that opinion in a symbolic way. An editorial cartoonist is really like the producer of a play. I mean, he’s—he’s—he’s got a little—he’s got a little stage there in his—in his, you know, space. He’s got to put scenery in there. He’s got to people it with characters.
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He’s got to write dialogue. He’s got to—and make it all flow, you know, as—like a play would on a stage. So it’s—it’s—it’s a process and you’re—you’re glad usually when you finally kind of—when it all kind of gels and you—and you come up with something and can just—when you’re at the point when you can actually begin to—to draw it, you know, that’s kind of—you can kind of relax and—and—and just execute.
DT: But do you usually start with a text then? And you—might be with the captions and then later (inaudible)?
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BS: Well, they—they really—they really start all different ways. I mean sometimes they’ll start with an idea for a picture, an image. And sometimes they’ll start with an idea for—for the words. And—and sometimes you’ve just got an idea of kind of what you want to—the opinion you want to express. Sometimes you—it’s very frustrating. Sometimes you—you don’t get that far. You’ll know I want to do a cartoon about X event but I don’t know what my take is going to be on it, you know. And that’s—and—and so sometimes you’re juggling all those things, you know, at once. But somehow—somehow it all comes together. And sometimes it’s—it’s—you’re really proud of it and think it’s really brilliant and sometimes it’s something you’re not particularly proud of but you know you’ve got to get it in the paper and move on. That’s the—in my lifetime
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in the newspaper business I’ve—am—am very familiar with the peculiar rhythm of the newspaper business, which is that it, you know, it happens every day. And I guess it’s unlike most businesses in that every day you have a whole fresh clean chance to do something, and—because if you do a brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning cartoon today, you know, tomorrow it’s going to wrapping garbage, and—and if you do a piece of crap today then you know that tomorrow you’ll have a—a fresh chance. So—so it’s—yeah, it’s—it’s an interesting rhythm of—of work. But—but you just—you know, you’ve got those five spaces to fill every week and you just keep moving on.
DT: Well, why don’t we go through some of these cartoons that you’ve done and maybe you can tell us, you know, the controversy there describing and…
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BS: Right.
DT: …and the point of view that you’re trying to present.
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BS: Okay. Well, a lot of—as you can imagine—and this one was more local, but most of these are about the way that the current administration deals with the—with the environment, and—and I think that—that—the—the approach that they have to the environment relates to their whole—to George Bush’s whole approach to government, which is I think to my mind, as we discussed before. Government is a mechanism by which society takes care of its needs, and takes care of the common needs of everyone without regard to, you know, whether it makes a profit and whether it—or anything like that, but just to what to the society determines through the democratic process that it’s needs are and whether it’s environmental protection, health, education, welfare, whatever. I—I don’t think that George Bush views government like that. I think he sees it as if it helps private capital make a little bit more of a profit then government it’s a good thing. And however it can be harnessed to—to enhance the fortunes of private capital, that’s—that’s a good thing to him, and—and I don’t thing he particularly cares about any other function of government. So I think when—when he and his
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administration approach environmental protection their first thought is how—how can we structure this so that—so that the profits are protected, so that the people who are using the environment, using the resources in the environment, how they can make the maximum return on their investment. And so I think the approach is—is turned on its head. I don’t’ think protection of the environment and the benefits that that has for society are particularly paramount in their mind. So that’s—that’s the approach, you know, in a lot of my cartoons. Well, here’s one that—that does it pretty—pretty directly. This was after they had issues some particular fatwa about the use of national forest and how they could be clear-cut and logged and—and you see a sort of desert here of stumps and the last lumber truck going over the hill and—and there’s a poster, “A la the
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Familiar Smokey the Bear” poster for the last fifty, sixty years says, “Georgie the Bear says, “Remember, only profit can prevent forest fires.” So as you can see there’s no possibility of a forest fire in this desert that they’ve clear-cut. So—so that’s—that’s, yeah, an example where it—it says something about their—their approach to—to the environment using, you know, where you take a familiar image and—and use that—turn that into a symbol of—of what you want to express. I think here’s one about The Clean Air Act, and it shows some of my stock characters here. The Big Fat Capitalist here which—could have seen in a lot of cartoons over the last thirty years, as representative of—of the big money interest. And in this particular one they’re in—in a rather posh office and you can see out the window there an industrial complex belching all kinds of pollutants into the air. And here we see the cleaning lady who’s President Bush with the Clean Air Act in the trash can and she’s saying—he’s saying, “All clean, sir.” And the
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executive says, “Good help is so expensive, but man, is it worth it.” And—and in that way kind of relating not only the administration’s approach to the environment but the political—the political and financial support that—that—that these—that these interests have given to his—to his administration and how those—brings those two things together, so—so those are some of them. One—here’s one that kind of deals with—I tried to deal with anyway—just kind of the—the approach the administration has taken to the problem of global warming and atmospheric problems like that. And their approach is primarily—there’s a news stand down at one end and it says, “Whitehouse Global Warming? Get used to it.” Which is kind of their approach, that, “Yeah, it’s a problem, but we’ll just have to deal with it,” you know. “Buy more sunscreen.” And this is a—a familiar tool that a cartoonist will use is of taking something like that and just kind of turning it on it’s head, kind of applying it to other situations to show the absurdity or the
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irony of it. So next door—so we’ve drawn a whole little street of stores here, dry cleaners, a gas station, a café, police station, where they’re taking—where, you know, you see what would happen if those kinds of entities took the same approach. The dry cleaner’s saying, “Why clean it when it’s just going to get dirty again?” Or the gas station man saying, “Oh, I could fill it up but it’ll just be gone in a week.” And the restaurant owner saying, “Why eat? You’ll just get hungry again.” And police officer saying, “A crime? Yeah, well, those things happen.” So that’s—that’s a fairly familiar technique with cartoonists.
DT: That’s good. Please. Keep going. This is great.
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BS: Oh, okay.
DT: Thank you so much.
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BS: Here’s one I guess that gets back again to that—basic issue of—of the relationship—of the business approach that the administration takes toward the environment. This was after Governor Whitman had left the EP—the EPA because disagreements she was having with—with the Whitehouse over house they were enforcing the environmental laws. And you see the Whitehouse over here and the voice coming out saying, “Now that Christy Whitman in her weird obsession with clean air and clean water are gone we can focus our environmental policy on protecting our really important species.” And—so this is—you’re using the familiar image of endangered species here, and you see a tree over here with various creatures, most of which look like my little fat cigar-smoking capitalists here, and it’s creatures like the Giant Prophet, The
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Bottom Line, The Net Gain, The Great Honking Dividend and the Galloping Exploitation. So that one was kind of fun. I had to make up all those little animals. And this last one is—was when they’ve—when Mike Levitt was—Governor of Utah was nominated to be—to replace Governor Whitman at the EPA, and this is one where you just—it’s where you just—it’s fairly simple but you take a kind of a strong image and—and—and hope that it—that it conveys what you’re trying to say. It says, “EPA Parking Only” here. And then “Mike Levit, Administrator.” And then to symbolize his approach to the environment I just put a giant, you know, bulldozer there parking in his space, because he’s—his policies in—in Utah have certainly been geared toward seeing that development occurs first over—over protecting the environment. Also, that, you know, occasionally a cartoonist gets to revert to being like a ten-year-old boy and does—and do
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stuff like draw this bulldozer. The other one—this one related to a local issue in Austin. After we—the—the—it was a—it was fairly controversial and went back and forth in the—over where their Barton Springs, which is sort of the—regarded as sort of the Crown Jewel of Austin’s environment. It’s a spring-fed swimming pool that’s been—been down there in Ziker Park for—for nearly a hundred years, and which the environmental interests in Austin are very anxious to keep—to keep it clean, both as—so that people can—can swim in it and—and because it’s kind of symbol of—of—and kind of a canary in the coal mine of—of how—how good a job we’re doing in—in Central Texas in—in taking care of the environment. Our newspaper had a series of stories saying that the—and I think it was not the water so much as it was the sediment at the bottom of the water that—that they had discovered significant contamination, probably from nineteenth century industrial activity upstream. And this was just a—a cartoon they ran on the—on the first day that that story ran kind of with it that shows a—a swimmer
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here saying, “This can’t be good.” And then the lifeguard is in a—like a—a moon suit there with the breathing device and so on. As it turned out the—as—as the story developed it became much—it increasingly complicated and the city was involved and the state and national environmental people were involved and everybody had a different opinion of whether the—what was contaminated and how—how greatly it was contaminated, and I think it’s—still hadn’t been straightened out. But the—but that’s what that cartoon related to.
(There is a break in the recording.)
DT: I thought we might continue discussing some of the cartoons, only a few out of the seventy-five hundred or so that you’ve draw over the years, but maybe some sample them.
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BS: Mm-mmm. Well, this one is another that was on the—on the Bush Administration’s approach to global warming and—and climate change. It’s a drawing that took a while to do but I was pleased with it when it was done. It shows Washington with a sort of half submerged in the ocean here, and there’s tornadoes and—and all sorts of heavy weather going on. And out on the top of the Capitol Dome is—is the president who’s lying there on his beach—beach towel and there’s a man standing there wearing a Sou’wester and, in fact the Statue of Freedom I think has a—an umbrella and a Sou’western heavy weather gear, and it says, “Are you worried yet about global climate change, Mr. President?” And he says, “Hey, for the robot—rowboat, sandbag and sunscreen industries things have never been better.” So that was another one where we’re able to bring together both sort of their insouciance when it comes to climate change and—and the way that they’re thinking about environmental issues always comes back to “who’s going to make a profit on this.” So—that one—that was kind of the approach on that one. Here’s one with the familiar symbol of Uncle Sam, who’s a very
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useful symbol for a cartoonist because he can represent the United States as a whole or the government or—or just about whatever you want him to. In this case he represents the American Energy Consumption, so he’s very large and obese, and he’s in the bookstore there and he’s throwing away a book called Diet and Exercise and has sort of a gluttonous look on his face. He’s picking up a volume called Cooking with Lard, and so that—that’s one where you take—just try to take a simple image and kind of boil down a—a fairly complex issue to—to one graphic image there. Here’s one—this is a—a technique we use in cartooning quite a bit of—of, you know, of taking things to a logical—sometimes logical, sometimes illogical end, but just by their own internal logic, this one says, “Domestic Production.” And as—the first two panels have pictures of a couple of pump jacks there that one of them says, “Texas, five hundred million barrels a year. Alaska, four hundred and thirty million barrels a year.” And the last one is Detroit. And it shows a—a little car that gets forty miles to the gallon, and it says, “Detroit, one
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thousand one hundred and sixty-eight million barrels a year.” Well you’ve got kind of turning that on it’s head and saying that if we were to drive cars that could get forty miles to the gallon and that probably would not include my large pick-up truck, I have to admit, that we could—that in essence that would be like—like finding a billion barrels of oil every year. This is one that I did—what year was that? I guess it was a couple of years ago when—I did—I did a whole series of cartoons on and issue that I—that I felt very strongly about. The issue of Rail Transit in Austin. Austin is—has tremendous traffic problems. It’s—it’s a city that’s grown very fast. It’s a municipal area now that’s well over a million people and when I was taking urban affairs over at the University of Texas we learned that if you have a city with a million people it’s ready for rail transit. Well, we’re—we’re there. And I think if we’re not to just drown in our own traffic that—that
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that’s the next thing that needs to come. And it will come to Austin. I think it’ll be in the form of—of heavy commuter rail. But at this time we were—there was a proposal for light rail that was voted down by the—by the voters, but by a surprisingly small margin. I think everybody thought it would just be—be killed, and—and there was a lot more support for it than—than anyone had supposed. But I did a whole series of cartoons in—in support of the light rail proposition and in this one is a—is sort of—is trying to be supportive of—of rail transit by—by going back to the turn of the century when the automobile first began to appear on American street. And you see in the background a streetcar of those days. And there’s a couple in this—in this early automobile and—and the man is saying, “Just wait. We get enough of these babies we can spread out a whole streetcar load of people over a quarter mile of pavement moving it a fraction of the speed and using six times the energy.” So it’s—it’s going back to an earlier time to compare
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the—the—the energy efficiency and—and just space efficiency of—of—of mass transit as—as opposed to individual, random, destination vehicles. And the woman is saying, “Progress is an astonishing thing.” We will get there but we just haven’t yet. This one was one that had to do with pipeline safety, which has been another big issue in Austin because there was an old crude oil pipeline that went across Central Texas—went right through south Austin at what—when it was built in the ‘40s it was just farmland. Now it’s a suburban residential area. And the people who owned the pipeline wanted to carry gasoline in it—refined gasoline. And actually that was a controversial proposition when you’ve got a large pipeline carrying gasoline in your backyard. So it—it sort of—that story developed into whether the—the Federal Office of Pipeline Safety was—was up to its job because the people who were—who were promoting the pipeline said, “Well, it’s okay because it’s federally regulated.” We began to look into how well the feds regulate pipelines. We had a series of stories that said—that were very good and—and won
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several prizes that said they do not regulate them well at all, and in fact they were pegged to an event that happened in Central Texas where a pipeline blew up just out in the country in the middle of a camping area and killed a bunch of people. And—so they—they did a—a fairly thorough investigation of the U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety and found that it’s—it was not what we might want. And the cartoon shows a—a crude oil pipeline coming up in the middle of this woman’s kitchen and she’s on the—on the cell phone and—and the recording on the phone is saying, “You have reached the U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety. For Tsk-tsk, press one. For Tut-tut, press two. For Wow, tough break, press three. For Good luck, you’re going to need it, press four.” And trails off and—and that seemed to be there—there approach. But again, using a familiar image of, you know, voicemail hell to—to get across the point of the cartoon.
DT: You’ve been cartooning since, I guess, the early seventies. Is that fair (?)?
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BS: Yes. ’74. Summer of ’74.
DT: Most of these cartoons are really just from the last two—three years I gather.
BS: Mm-mmm.
DT: Can you tell me how your—your style and the kind of issues you’ve created have changed over those—that generation?
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BS: Yeah. I guess—well, I guess when you first start doing this you’re—you’re drawing style sharpens up real quickly because, you know, suddenly you’re having to draw everyday and that really—that really does sharpen up your style. And I guess my style has…
(There is a break in the recording.)
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BS: Well, I was—I was just saying that my—my drawing style I guess varies over the years if you went back looked. I’d—I like to think that it’s improved and sharpened up. I’d—I have a—a drawing style that I am told is fairly distinctive and I guess it’s because I didn’t really set out to become an editorial cartoonist. I just fell into doing it. So when I fell into doing it I just had to draw in the style in which I’d drew in at that time. And sometimes I’ve regretted it. It’s what my colleague Lee Judge in Kansas City calls my—my little postage stamp, steel engraving, cross-hatching style. And it does take a—it takes me about an average of about four-and-a-half hours to—to finish a drawing—to do a drawing. Once I know exactly what I’m going to draw, to rough it, ink it, and then do all the cross-hatching and stuff, four or five hours work. And so I was kind of miffed
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when I found out that most of my colleagues take about an hour to do their drawing. And I thought, you know, if I’d thought about it I would have adopted a style like, you know, Mike Peters or somebody and I just put those things out in half an hour and be done. But it’s—but, you know, I’d—I always enjoy the way they look when—when I’m done. And—and I guess it does slowly evolve over the years, but on doing drawing every day whether you’re a political cartoonist or an illustrator or something is—is—is an interesting process, mostly of sort of trial and error you find some graphic trick technique or something that—that works and you add that to your toolbox and you find other things that don’t work so well and you drop those out, and so it—it does evolve slowly over the years.
DT: And—and as you evolved I gather politics have changed? We’ve seen the legislature here go from…
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BS: Yeah. It’s—it’s—it’s…
DT: …democratic to republic and other changes I imagine.
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BS: …very different. Yeah. Very different from the world—the political world in Texas when I was covering the legislature and when I started doing this. I—I distinctly remember when—when I’m talking to a reporter when I first was doing cartoons and—and we were talking about politics she was saying that she was from Illinois and that everybody in Illinois was a republican, in rural Illinois where she grew up. And I remember thinking that just—I couldn’t even imagine just regular people being republicans, you know, because having been born and grown up in Texas everybody was a democrat, and most of them very conservative democrats, but it really has—in some ways it’s changed, like in—in these party affiliations. In other way, and—and I’ve had a discussion with my editor about this and I think he was kind of surprised because he was wondering, you know, well, how, you know, wasn’t it a lot different, you know, thirty
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years ago in the legislature. I said, “No, it’s really kind of the same guys, the same crowd. They just had changed their party label.” It’s still, you know—and—and in fact I think what sparked our conversation was I did a cartoon where—you know, and I did—I did sort of a side-by-side of the old leg—democratic legislature and the new republican legislature and it was—and I did it with a—a—a Xerox machine, you know. I did—did the little drawing and then it was the exact same bunch of people. So in some ways that has—has not changed, that it’s still a very conservative state. It’s still very much in the clutches of it’s—of it’s larger economic interests. And—but there, you know, there are demographic changes in Texas, I think, that are going to be very interesting over the next generation. And it will be interesting to see how all that plays out.
DT: What do you foresee for the environment in Texas?
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BS: Well, for the environment in Texas it’s—it’s—for a long time it’s going to be a struggle, you know, to make people—Texas I—my sense of to—to be in such a conservative state has a—is a fairly good record of environmental protection. It’s—it’s certainly not perfect and it’s been a struggle for the people who are committed to it. And it will be for a long time to come, but—because the—the urge to make a profit is really more—much more natural here than—than the urge to protect—protect our environment. So—but—but it’s, you know, it’s—it’s a growing state. There are various, you know, the—the—the demographic phenomenon of the—the last generation is people moving in and moving into the republican suburbs. And that’s been the big growth in—in Texas
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politically. Now you’re going to have an ever larger percentage of—of the Hispanic population and—and it remains to be seen how that will play out politically. So there, you know, there are always lots of changes going on and it’s—it’s a fascinating process to watch and it’s—it’s one where if you’re an editorialist you’re just always, you know, sort of on your guard to see—see what kind of nonsense they come up with next.
DW: How about as you had discussed earlier moving from subjectivity to object—objectivity to subjectivity being editorialists, then how about the move from (?)? Objectivity to subjectivity, subjectivity to advocacy. Now you say peop—you want—you keep on guard for the nonsense, but likewise, do you also get the way an editorial board is lobbied?
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BS: Mm-mmm. Sure.
DW: I work with advocate groups and we try to set up meetings with editorial boards. Well, do editorial cartoonists get lobbied as well by groups on the other side? Is that part of the process, too? If you could just address (inaudible).
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BS: They—yeah, cartoonists probably not as much as—as—as written editorialists get—get lobbied by—by various pressure groups. I—I know I get a lot of, you know, e-mails and people trying to convince me of one—one thing or another, or pr—pr—present me with some information. It may be that cartoonists are regarded as just kind of, you know, the crazy aunt in the attic and maybe it’s—so we don’t get nearly as much. You know, we don’t have people coming and—and asking to meet with us like editorial boards regularly do. But—but I think it’s—it is interesting to get the views of—of
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advocacy groups and—and I think our—our editorial board within the time that it has does a pretty good job of trying to listen to as many, you know, give time to as many people as it can because you can almost always learn something from—from someone who comes in to advocate a position on whatever side it is. And it helps to sort of broaden and deepen the—the fact base from which you’re drawing your—your—your opinions and your—your advocacy. So it’s—it’s helpful.
DT: Just sometimes thrown your way? One thing that we’ve talked to folks at smaller papers at The Texas Observer, and they talked about journalism in general, and they said that there’re a number of sort of brewing forces in the industry, so they sort of watch as a spectator because they’re such a smaller paper. But they were saying several things that were interesting. One is that fewer and fewer people read the newspaper. More and more people rely on TV. Second trend, I think they mentioned was that there’s this conglomeration going that, you know, a smaller newspaper is (?)—afternoon papers are getting bought out, but morning papers are vice versa. Do you see any of these changes in the industry affecting who reads your paper and how much influence your cartoons have and what kind of effect they might have?
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BS: Oh yeah. It’s—I don’t—there–there are huge changes in the—in—in our—both the newspaper business and just the information business in general. And it’s not that people want less information. If anything they want more and more information. But the media from which they get it is in really in flux right now, particularly with the availability of—of digital media, of on-line information. And—I—I am not one. I know there’s a lot of people in newspaper management who are very much doom and gloom about this, that, oh, we’re going away. We’re going out of business. I don’t—I don’t see that. I think that newspapers are something that people are going to need and want for the foreseeable future. I think that it’s something that people—it’s a way of getting information that people like and—and will continue to do. And—and—and it’ll change,
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you know. The nature of it will change, but I—I think that the newspaper is—is going to be around for a long—a—a long time. The—sort of the—the computer aspect of it I think is—I don’t think anybody knows how that’s going to play out. It’s—it’s a very interesting—the way my brother, who’s a copy editor at The Dallas News and is very much more into the computers than I am, he says right now it’s that—that the internet is sort of like a very large but very disorganized library. He said there’s lots of information out there, some good, some bad, and there’s not really a good way to sort it out at this point. So I think all that is—is very much in flux, and it will be interesting to see how that—how that plays out. And I know that newspapers are trying to sort of get a toehold in it. You know, every newspaper in America now has a web site of—some very good, some—some not as good—to try to, you know, reach people through that—through
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medium. So I think that’ll probably be the—the real big story of—of how information is disseminated over the next generation, is—is just how that—how that becomes a part of people’s lives and how it fits in with they’re, you know, daily gathering of information that they do. I—I think a lot of times in the newspaper business that people in—in the management of it tend to kind of set themselves up in their minds against other media which—which I always think is kind of a mistake. I—I think that if you jut ask a person who’s not in the news business where did you hear about X event, you know. And they say, “Well, I’m not sure. Maybe it was in the paper. Maybe it was on TV. Maybe I saw it on-line.” So I think that, you know, that the information media is—is at least in the public’s mind just kind of one—one thing, and—and so I think we shouldn’t approach it
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from the standpoint of us against them, you know. It’s—it’s just the matter of working with other media to try to give—give the public the best—the best information product, you know, that we can because the problem you—you have with so much information is organizing it, you know, filtering it, figuring out what’s true, what’s not true, what’s, you know, and—and trying to put it in a way that’s useful for people. So, yeah, it’s—when I think back on what the newspaper business was like when I started in it it’s—it—this has been just a—an incredible earthquake in revolution in—in how we do our business. But, it’s—you know, it’s not over yet. It’s—we’ll see how it all shakes out over the next—probably over the next twenty or thirty years.
DT: Well, speaking about the next twenty or thirty years, maybe you can just close by speculating on what the editorial cartoonist will be drawing, you know, a generation ahead.
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BS: Well, if—if my experience over the last thirty years is any indication some themes will still be there, you know. We’ll still be—be drawing about political chicanery and dishonesty and, you know, environmental degradation, and—and things like that. And—and—but a lot of the things—and you’d think that over thirty years that—that everything—you would have seen everything. Everything had come around. And some things do come around again and again. But then just—just when you think that they’ll come up with something totally new and amazing, you know, to—to add to the—the mix of—of public life and political life, so—so it’s—it will be an interesting ride. And, you know, like I say, with a lot of themes that will continue to repeat themselves and—and—and probably some new—some new inventions that’ll—that’ll keep political cartoonists, you know, working for the foreseeable future.
DT: I hope you keep working for many years.
BS: Well, thanks.
DT: Thanks very much.
[End of Reel 2257]
[End of Interview with Ben Sargent]