MATT WUERKER - EDITORIAL CARTOONIST, POLITICO
Pulitzer-prize winning political cartoonist Matt Wuerker wears clear, acrylic glasses, and today – like most days – he wears his shirt partially unbuttoned, sleeves rolled to his elbows, a function of 1960s California cool if not necessity. Wuerker spends his days, after all, hunched over a drafting table in the back of Politico’s newsroom, sketching and painting cartoons that will soon appear in the print magazine and online. Wearing anything fussy would get in the way.
Last week, Wuerker was generous enough to let me join him at Politico for conversation and a cup of tea.
The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
LB: How did you become a political cartoonist?
MW: I always wanted to be a cartoonist, going back to the sixth grade. I was always told I could draw well, and when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I realized I could impress the other kids, particularly the girls, with my drawing skills in school. So, ever since then, I've been trying to do the same thing. I cartooned in junior high school for the little junior high school paper, in high school, for the college paper. It's hard to get a regular staff job, like this one here at Politico. The market and the media landscape have changed. When I got out of college, I didn't want a regular job, I wanted to do different things besides just cartooning, so oddly I've worn a lot of different artistic hats over the course of my career. But the one 'through line' through all of that was doing political cartoons, yet it wasn't until I was 50 years old that I actually got a staff job like this here at Politico. 11 years ago, Politico hired me as a full-time cartoonist and then I just stopped doing the other stuff. I devoted all of my energy to cartooning.
LB: You mentioned having other interests - what were those other interests?
MW: I grew up in the 1960s, it was a very political time, you know, Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate, the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement. I grew up in a political family, my mom was very active in the League of Women's Voters, and we went to anti-war demonstrations when I was a kid. We also worked in campaign offices. So I was bit by the politico, political - I do that, I slip up! - bug at an early age. I also really liked political history and things like that. I would read books and watch documentaries, stuff like that.
LB: Do you have a favorite political memory from your childhood?
MW: I always liked political satire, as a kid. I remember going to an anti-war demonstration in Los Angeles, where I grew up. There was this goofy guy running around; he'd made this crazy uniform with sort of cartoonish epaulets and a crazy general's hat. He was dressed up as a kind of cartoon version of McArthur, and he called himself General Hershey Bar. He went around and handed out these Hershey Bars that were all about how much money we were wasting on military spending, and I remember thinking, ‘that's kind of brilliant, it's kind of fun, he's kind of a walking, talking cartoon.’ And so I've always been fascinated by the intersection of art, drawing, humor, and politics, and the place where they all really come together is political cartooning.
LB: What does your creative process look like?
MW: I've been doing this for 40 years, so my creative process is weirdly automatic. You can train yourself to do stuff over time and then it becomes habitual, ritual, routine. I'm constantly thinking about cartoons, when I'm reading the news or listening to the radio or watching television. The edge of an idea can be something somebody said, something I thought about because someone said something, or something somebody tweets. Political cartooning can sometimes be a simple little pun, and other times, they're more insightful metaphors that you apply to something that maybe someone's never really applied to before. My favorite ideas, and often my best ideas, are ideas that come to me in my sleep. I think my brain is now just stuck in this rut, and I'm always sort of looking around for metaphors or symbols or puns or whatever. A lot of my favorite cartoons are there in the morning on the tip of my brain when I'm waking up, and I've learned to really pay attention to my subconscious. I think that everyone should pay more attention to their subconscious. I think your subconscious is working on all sorts of questions for you, and if you pay attention, a lot of the time the answers are right there.
LB: You've been drawing for such a long time – since fourth grade, at least. Have you seen your style shift?
MW: When I started out, in the olden days, everything was black and white. The world was black and white for cartoonists, if you were lucky enough to have a newspaper print your stuff... I started out at a little free weekly in Portland, Oregon. So you draw, you'd submit it, and then you were at the mercy of the printing press. So you couldn't get too detailed, I do lots of cross-hatching in a very old-fashioned style. If it gets too dense, the inks bleed together on the crappy newsprint so you had to keep it somewhat simple. Even then I was probably overdrawing for that. Over time, the platforms that the cartoons appear on have opened up new things, and back in the 1980s, newspapers started using color on print, on newsprint, so suddenly you could do color but you still had the limitations of newsprint. Now the biggest audience for cartooning is all digital, so people looking at retina displays on phones and tablets and stuff mean that you can get quite refined and nuanced with stuff like color in a way that you couldn't, 10 to 15 years ago, and I think it's pushed me into a more painterly vein, which I love, I really really love.
LB: What's keeping up with the news cycle like? It seems like there's something new every single day, every single moment.
MW: It's really, really hard. Some of it is the news media speeding up, and part of it is people's attention spans are just shrinking, and we can't seem to focus on a given idea or issue for more than 24 hours, sometimes it's 12 hours, sometimes it's three, and everyone just gets kind of jerked around.
LB: How do you filter through the noise?
MW: I don't very well. I mean it's terrible, it's hard to shut out the noise. I used to read long articles, I used to read long books... now I find myself sitting there, reading a book for half an hour, and then I want to go see what's happening on Twitter. And then I get sucked into that noise. It's one of my resolutions, I need to get more disciplined about that, I need to start thinking about things that take more than 140 characters to consume. It's bad, it's really bad, a modern disease that's screwing all of us up. I literally have to put my device in the other room and go, 'Okay, now I'm going to block out an hour and read a long New Yorker article.' Then in half an hour I'll get out of my chair and go into the other room and check Twitter, because it's pavlovian and pathetic.
LB: You've been here for 11 years, and you've seen three presidential administrations. How has covering the different presidential administrations differed?
MW: There are certain obvious things, Obama didn't use Twitter, he was much more guarded and maybe guarded to a fault about the way he spoke. Trump is all over the place and completely unpredictable. That's probably the biggest change. One of the things that started to happen under Obama (and probably preceded him, too) is we've become so much more tribal, and there's a general consensus that the mainstream news media was fair. No fake news, daily newspapers were trying to be objective. Fact-checking, reporting only what was solid. Now we’re all in these partisan silos. I’m in this funny position here in the newsroom in that there’s only two of us here at Politico who are entitled to have overt opinions about stuff that doesn't have to represent the opinions of everyone here at Politico. I come from this long tradition of I'm an opinion monitor and that opinion is mine, don't mistake that as the opinion of Politico. I don't represent Politico: they just like the way I draw and now they have pretty pictures to put in the magazine.
LB: How do you keep cartoons thought-provoking and necessarily critical without erring on the side of unnecessarily inflammatory?
MW: I think there's too much in the media now that's unnecessarily provocative. In the war for eyeballs and attention, provocation always works. It gets people's attention. I think it's a cheap trick. I do think that journalism and political cartooning and even political satire were all part of this civic conversation, and it's important to be civil in it. Sometimes I get a little edgy, and I'll look at other cartoons that people are doing, and they'll be withering and I'll think, 'That's really great.' That's just not the voice that I want to use. In the current context of political tribalism, I don't want to feed it. I mean, I could, I don't think that that's constructive. If some people want to do that, that's their choice. I'm not going to say they shouldn't do it. There's just too much. In the internet age, you garner conflict and provocation.
"I think that everyone should pay more attention to their subconscious. I think your subconscious is working on all sorts of questions for you, and if you pay attention, a lot of the time the answers are right there." – Matt Wuerker
LB: Have there been any recent cartoons that you believe you messed up?
MW: I did one just this year, it was a little too soon. It's a perfectly good defensible cartoon, it's about Hurricane Harvey and Houston. Breitbart went crazy about it, fed it. It was a perfectly valid cartoon, it was about the irony of Texan secessionists expressing thanks that the federal government was pulling them off their roof. They were still rescuing people in Houston when I did it. It's not a particularly original insight, any time that there's a national disaster cartoonists will do a piece about libertarians being happy to see the government. For some reason, everyone went apeshit on me. I've had smaller storms like this happen, but this one was completely out of control. I got torrents of hate mail on Twitter and Facebook, Fox News went crazy with it. You just have to put your head down.
LB: Did you apologize?
MW: My editors were wonderful, and we issued a statement explaining what the cartoon was about. Like, if I did a cartoon showing Nazis marching in Charlottesville, that's not saying that every Virginian is a Nazi. Maybe it should've said, Texas Secessionist Headquarters instead of Houstonians, something on the side... I could've focused it, but I thought it was obvious it was then point. It was a good exercise in making sure that your editors have your back. It was awful though – I started to get death threats, in my email box and physical letters.When I went home at night, I looked around me. I was worried for my safety.
LB: Tell me about the Pulitzer.
MW: Completely surreal, completely wonderful and surreal. The most surreal was the first time I was a finalist... never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would even be considered. Then I was a finalist again, and the year that I won, the possibility had crossed my mind, "God, I was a finalist twice, maybe I could actually win this." It was a purely a function of having the frame of Politico around my cartoons. I've been cartooning up to 30 years at that point, and Politico gives me a platform where people take me more seriously which was nice. I owe a whole lot of it to the people who hired me here. No, it's really great. It's a great prize because you get to go to Columbia University and pick up your certificate – it's really more of a diploma – and a paperweight, and they don't want anything else. You're not allowed to speak, you're not supposed to give a speech, you just get to go pick up your Pulitzer Prize and go have a really nice dinner in New York, and enjoy having a really over-inflated ego for a while.
LB: How do you measure your success?
MW: If I do a cartoon that's really cool – social media has changed it so much. It really gave you the ability to see instantaneously if you've hit a nerve. Politico will tweet my cartoons, and we have over three million Twitter followers now or something crazy. If I've really touched a nerve or sparked something, you'll see it hit right away. Hundreds of people will like and share it. If it's a mediocre cartoon or you somehow messed up, it doesn't have that effect. That's the sort of thing that I live for, where I feel like I've managed to capture something that a lot of people are thinking or feeling, it resonates with people and you see that and it's like, bingo, I managed to capture it. That's the most satisfying thing by far.
LB: That's a relatively new thing with the advent of social media. How was it before you had that instant gratification?
MW: You didn't know. Once upon a time, the only reaction you'd get were letters from the editor. Or the random thing of walking into someone's house that you didn't know, and seeing your cartoon cut out and stuck on the fridge with a magnet. That kind of thing was gratifying. There were no real metrics, and social media has totally changed that, so that part's good. Social media also changes the velocity of a cartoon; I could finish a cartoon, scan it, it goes up on Politico's website immediately, it's not like you have to wait for the printing presses like the old days, and then it's Tweeted out and stuff pretty much immediately. You can hit something pretty much right away. Everyone's attention spans are so short.
LB: Can you talk me through what you're working on today? Is this what you're working on?
MW: This one is for a symposium at the University of Minnesota. I'm double-dipping here - this is something that would work for them, and something that would also work as a cartoon. Let me try this on you - do you get a sense of where I'm going? It'll be more colorful. This is about 75% here. This is about the strange life of the political satirist in the era of Trump. If you're a jester and you're trying to create cartoons and political satire, in this era of the flamboyant joker... it's really hard. You can't keep up. I thought about this caption being, "I can't keep up." But I like this better. Would you identify with the jester? Yes. Is this a self portrait? Yes, that's sort of a self portrait. I'd have to put bigger bags under his eyes. It's exhausting, I have to say. I mean, it's really... trying to keep up with Trump and the velocity of the news is tiring. And it's also... It's. kind of exciting, I talk about this with other cartoonist friends, you hope, I grew up in the era of Watergate and Nixon and Vietnam, you kind of hope that you may live through interesting political times, and here we are. It's a very interesting political time, it's unique, but it's exhausting. A lot of it's fun because there's so much energy and so much public interest in politics, much more so than usual, but there's also a sad aspect of it. I talk to a friend of mine who's a columnist at the Post, and I ran into her a couple of weeks ago, she came up to me and said, “How are you holding up?” I responded, “I'm holding up okay, how are you holding up?” and she said, “The weirdest thing happened to me the other day. I wrote a column, ran it past my copy editors, everything was okay, I went back into my office and closed the door and burst into tears.” And it was like, “I know exactly how you feel.” It's sort of, It's funny, it's a circus, but it's also... we're talking about nuclear war with North Korea. You're kind of thinking, this is madness. This is real stuff. You can make light of it, you can make cartoons about it, stuff like that, but you lose sight that this is real stuff. We're talking about real horrible things like nuclear war, you can trivialize it too much if you're in this business, and that's a mistake.
LB: Do you think turning current events into art helps you process what's going on, or does it help you push it away and make light of it?
MW: Maybe a little bit of both. Ideally, the thing that I'm trying to do is make you process, make you think. It's an old cliche, shedding light but not too much heat. A good cartoon brings a little bit of heat to a topic that is otherwise isn't funny. It has to have a little edge, it should also have a little light to it... it should have people think, or see an issue slightly differently than they did before. And move them towards something. •••
all images courtesy of POLITICO.