If witty words are a rapier, mightier than a normal sword, political cartoons are a newspaper’s blunt object.
When executed well, they can be subtle around the edges, but they get their power from the force of fictionalized art, smacking a reader in the face like a cricket bat across the chops.
Pictures can do what words cannot. And cartoons can do what photography cannot. They can say things that language is incapable of expressing.
They are, at their best, direct and biting, thought-provoking and sharp.
And they can raise the ire of a community in a way no tepidly written editorial page endorsement can.
As Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ ill-advised 12-year-old phone call — in which he apparently pressured a purportedly pregnant patient to have an abortion — created headlines and made it to The Colbert Report, it prompted smoothly massaged words and razor-sharp vitriol on editorial pages, slick snark on the blogs and sour satire on cable.
All are effective weapons, but Chattanooga Times Free Press political cartoonist Clay Bennett had no need for finesse.
He polished his cricket bat of an artist’s pen and drew a simple cartoon: a caricatured DesJarlais (red-white-and-blue button on the jacket, just to make sure he was properly identified) with a revolver in his mouth. The caption: “The Character Assassination.”
It harkened back to allegations from DesJarlais’ successful 2010 run for Congress, when reports from what must have been an epically messy divorce emerged, including that the doctor put a gun in his mouth and threatened suicide.
The cartoon also hinted at DesJarlais’ defense in his latest scandal that the release of the phone call transcript is naught but, you guessed it, character assassination.
In a later editorial, the paper’s managing editor Alison Gerber said a DesJarlais’ staffer called the cartoon “inappropriate” and told her he’d called the Capitol Police, who surely have better things to do than investigate a political cartoon.
Gerber rightly pointed out that free speech is not pretty, and it protects rude and tasteless speech as vehemently as it protects the most soaring oratory and the most beautiful poetry.
Shakespeare, South Park and Howard Stern all share in the amendment’s protection.
In 2012, editorialists often aim for the soft middle, fearful of alienating readers who have abandoned newspapers for TV’s simplicity and the reassuring echo chambers of blogs both left and right.
But there are cartoonists like Bennett who have no need for the subtleties of prose or the safety of the center.
They’re happy to smack you across the face.