Vietnam War Jabs and Washington Spending: The Art of Editorial Cartoons

Every day on the editorial pages of most newspapers in America, you will find political cartoons.

They may make you laugh, or make you mad, but a good one always makes you think.

Some of the best political cartoons in American history are on display at the Library of Congress and on its Web site beginning today. They are part of a larger exhibition called "Cartoon America," which includes 100 editorial cartoons from cartoonist Art Wood's collection.

The editorial was born in the 1870s as the result of a scandal that engulfed a New York politician named William Tweed. He was implicated in the disappearance of more than 200 million taxpayers' dollars.

The scandal cost Tweed his career and landed him in jail. Many attribute his downfall to a series of editorial cartoons by Thomas Nast called "Tammany Ring."

Tweed was attributed with exclaiming, "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can't read, but damn it, they can see pictures!"

Artists Attack Spending, Salaries and D.C. Decisions

The vilification of the editorial cartoon by a politician just sealed its fate in shaping political debate in this country. A tour of the exhibit reveals that history does, indeed, repeat itself.

There's one cartoon from 1965 that depicts a ferocious tiger and President Johnson holding on to the end of its tail for dear life. Splashed across the tiger's coat is the word, Vietnam, with the tag line, "but how to let go gracefully."

Library of Congress curator Sara Duke said this was an issue that's "on the minds of people very much at the moment."

Another drawing in the exhibit shows President Nixon on a podium with domestic oil companies nearby dropping dollars into an oil tanker labeled "political contributions."

"It reminds us that the more things change, the less things change," Duke said.

A perfect example of that sentiment comes in an Art Wood cartoon addressing the age-old question, "Why when I put so much money into Washington D.C., do I get so little back?"

The cartoon shows dollars being stuffed into a money changer that ultimately spits out just a single coin.

Long before current debates over national debts and spending, artists were tackling the issue.

A 1955 cartoon called "The Shadow" pokes fun at Congress for seeking a pay raise in the shadow of the increasing federal debt.

At the time, Congress wanted to almost double its salary from $15,000 to $25,000, yet the median income for average taxpayers was just $3,400 dollars.

Reflecting and Shaping Debates

Another timely cartoon by Patrick Oliphant called "Waiting for Reagan" shows a group of vultures sitting on a branch labeled "The New Right."

Duke believes the cartoon portrays the new right as preying on America and waiting for the "genteel" Reagan to get on board.

One of the few political cartoons in color is called the "First Woman Astronaut." Duke explained that color was rarely used in newspaper publishing because of the expense. But this cartoon, in addition to appearing in newspapers, was also used on TV and therefore in color.

However, Duke added, many cartoonists publish in color today for their online versions of their cartoons.

The "First Woman Astronaut" cartoon referred to the runaway inflation in 1974 that made food prices jump 15 percent, and the cartoonist drew a woman shopper skyrocketing to the moon fueled by her anger.

America's first "real" woman astronaut wouldn't actually go into space until 1983.

Duke said this cartoon would have shaped public and political opinion.

"A politician might not go shopping at a local supermarket and hear a woman complaining. If a cartoonist draws a cartoon about a woman's complaints, politicians stand up and notice," Duke said.

The best editorial cartoons not only reflect the political debates of the day, but often shape it.

And as the issues at the center of the cartoons in the exhibit demonstrate, history has a way of repeating itself.

For more political cartoons, visit our slideshow: Cartoons Through War & Scandal