Tim Newcomb draws cartoon conclusions about Vermont political history
Capital City cartoonist Tim Newcomb has a confession to make: A lifelong liberal, he admits he’s “secretly happy” that Gov. Jim Douglas won re-election. Not because he agrees with the governor’s politics, but because “he’s been absolutely my favorite person to caricature; I love drawing Douglas. He’s just kind of a fun character to have in a cartoon.”
Sporting his signature hiked-up pants and big round glasses, Douglas figures prominently in the first, self-published collection from Vermont’s only regular working political cartoonist. Richard Snelling, Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin also get the graphic treatment in A Gaggle of Governors, which is culled from cartoons published in Seven Days, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and, more recently, the Waterbury Record.
Still wondering about the evolution of Howard Dean, from scowling conservative Democratic governor to guitar-playing presidential candidate? It’s all documented right here, in chronologically ordered historical cartoons that date from 1983 to 2008. It’s no wonder the Dean campaign asked to see all of Newcomb’s Dean depictions when the former Vermont governor had his eye on the White House.
But Gaggle isn’t limited to gubernatorial subjects. For every big name that appears, Newcomb resurrects four or five that have gone the way of yesterday’s headline news: Remember John Easton? Didn’t think so. Michael Bernhardt? A flash in the political pan. “There were cartoons that I pulled out and thought, Who the heck are these people? What was this issue?” Newcomb says, describing the process of choosing from his collection of almost 1500 panels.
Some of them were too obscure for inclusion. Others demanded a short, clarifying caption: Fred Tuttle’s victory over Jack McMullen in the 1998 Republican primary; Leahy getting cozy with the chemical companies that made bovine growth hormone; George H.W. Bush’s harassment of Jim Jeffords years before he became an independent with a capital “I.”
Newcomb admits there are advantages to being a sole practitioner. “Nobody else is really drawing these people, which makes it challenging,” he says. The only competition comes from syndicated cartoonist Jeff Danziger, who used to live in Vermont and still contributes to the Times Argus on Sunday. Newcomb makes sure he sees Danziger’s cartoon before he heads out to the studio, “armed with coffee and chocolate,” to draw his own weekly piece. And he sits down knowing that nobody else on Earth is going to be documenting Shap Smith’s new Speaker of the House job, or the latest Vermont Yankee mishap.
Working on such a local level limits Newcomb’s marketability. It’s also lonely. “One of my ongoing disappointments is that I couldn’t make a living doing this, that I couldn’t just be in the newsroom, being part of the whole crowd,” Newcomb laments. His successful graphic-design business has subsidized his cartooning.
Newcomb welcomes the pressure of having to come up with an idea every week, on deadline. And he’s still got a Republican to kick around. Newcomb says that of all the politicians he’s drawn, the Rs have it for good nature, and Douglas in particular has been the “most gracious.” Other Green Mountain governors have demonstrated less of a sense of humor. “Kunin always got really pissed off if I did something critical, even though nine out of 10 cartoons were supportive,” Newcomb recalls. “Dean just always seemed so grumpy. He almost punched me out the last time I saw him.”
There’s a story behind every picture. Newcomb inks in a few of his faves.
1: 1985, Killington
There was a bill going through the legislature to allow the ski areas to spray treated sewage through their snow-making machines, which was a way around an Act 250 clause. When Killington saw this cartoon, they just totally hit the roof. They sued the Times Argus for running it. I had an art show at the time, a cartoon exhibit with Ed Koren and Jeff Danziger, that was traveling around the state. As it turned out, the next stop was the Moon Brook Art Gallery in Rutland, and they called and specifically asked that I hang the cartoon in the show. I got it framed up and put it in the show. So Killington turned around and sued me personally. There was no way I could afford a lawsuit against anybody at the time, much less a big corporation. So I went to the ACLU, and they jumped all over it. They just did a fabulous job. It became this big news story that was picked up all over the country. It was the first cartoon ever to appear in The Wall Street Journal. That was kind of cool.
Meanwhile, Will Hunter, a legislator from down south, realized the implications of the lawsuit: Even if Killington lost, the cost to a small publication would be devastating. He wrote what was called the “Times Argus Bill,” saying if a corporation brought a lawsuit that was deemed frivolous and without merit, that the person bringing the suit was to not only pay their own legal bills, but those of the defendant as well. It was a pretty important bill for Vermont journalism.
In the end, it all worked out: Killington dropped my personal lawsuit and they lost the one against the Times Argus. And the bill passed. That was my 15 minutes of fame. I felt like, This is great. This is what it’s all about.
2: 1990, Ralph Wright
House Speaker Ralph Wright was such a bizarre character, a Massachusetts politician. His hardball style really hadn’t been seen in Vermont. There was some kind of legislative convention that was going on in Nashville, and Sara Gear, who was the Republican House Majority Leader, had been planning on going. She canceled at the last minute. Then he canceled his own reservation and tried to get under hers. He figured he’d save a few hundred bucks. He really pressed the issue to get a room. It was such a bizarre thing to do. I just liked the image of Ralph Wright in drag. It’s my all-time favorite.
3: 1991, Changing of the Guard
When Madeleine Kunin became the first female governor of Vermont, she brought so many women into the administration. It was such a big deal . . . Then, after all the work that Kunin did, bringing women into government, when she left office, that was it. Snelling came back in with his guys. He couldn’t wait to wipe out what she had done.
4: 1992, Jeffords
This was the beginning of Jim Jeffords really breaking with the Republicans. And Bush senior, he was just so frustrated because he could not count on him to vote the party line. He did say something like this: “You know, this is going to blow up in your face. If you’re an independent, people are going to hate you. It’s the end of your career.” He had a long track record of being a very independent vote. But I’m not sure anybody saw that he was going to bolt from the party.
5: 1992, How Do Politicians Respond to a Crisis?
My office is right in downtown, and my building was pretty severely flooded. My poor landlord had just set up an electronic equipment repair shop in the basement. He lost everything, and he wasn’t insured. It was horrible. In the meantime, the politicians got word of this, and it became this excuse to show off. Ralph Wright actually went through town standing in the bucket loader like that; he actually did that. That’s Jeb Spaulding and Bill Doyle in the back of the truck, waving to the crowd. There was no reason for it. You could see what was happening with the flood. You didn’t need to be in a boat. But they acted like it was a parade, going in and out of the streets, making themselves visible. The whole thing backfired.
6: 1993, Gov. Howard Dean
I was kind of astounded going through the old cartoons and realizing how constant a subject this was: how totally frustrated the Democrats were with Dean. He was so far right of most Vermont Democrats that he really might as well have bagged it and become a Republican. When he ran for president, I remember everybody thinking, Who is this guy? We never saw this person. Twelve years just went out the window. I just think everybody was so proud that a Vermonter — somebody from Vermont, anyway — had gotten so far along. Certainly the image of him being a conservative governor never made it into national media.
7: 1998 Bread and Puppet
Going to Bread and Puppet was always an annual festival and celebration; in the summer, we’d bring our kids, everybody would, and have a picnic. It was always a great event. But word just got out about it, and it became this destination for a lot of unsavory people from out of state. The last couple times we went — seeing some really obnoxious people, fights breaking out, people breaking bottles over rocks — I kept thinking, This is not the spirit. I guess somebody got murdered. It was really sad.
8: 2004, Wind Power
Nobody really wants to see a ridge top developed, but you’ve gotta put your environmental money where your mouth is. It’s a very clean source of power. People talk about the visual blight, but they don’t notice power lines. When you see what a town would look like without all these wires running all over the place, you realize what a horrible visual thing we’ve done, well, all over the world. They are an ubiquitous, horrible visual blight, and yet you don’t notice it. As much as you’d like to see unbroken ridge lines, in the scope of things it’s pretty tiny. This drawing could have been a lot better, but I’ve always liked it, just for the concept.
9: 2006, Bush Eating Crow
I really try to stick to Vermont cartoons, but I’ve got some national ones sprinkled throughout. I’m looking for an excuse to draw George W. Bush, to work on that caricature.
10: 2007, Gay Marriage
I can never understand why people get so worked up about this issue. It’s between two people. It’s their own private business. It doesn’t affect anybody’s life at all. There are so many different cynical angles you can look at it, I’m not sure all of them got into this.
11: 2008, Dean on Stage
I was trying to do as many cartoons as possible up to the end of the election. Right up until the last minute, I didn’t trust that Obama was going to win. This seemed like a good closing scene.