Saturday, August 8, 2015

Oliphant on Nixon

Streakback Saturday this week falls on the 41st anniversary of the night President Richard Milhous Nixon announced his resignation. Nixon was a caricaturist's dream -- you could put those ski-slope nose, heavy jowls, and widow's peak on anything at all, and it was instantly recognizable as the 37th President of the United States.

By the time he was elected president on his second try in 1968, he had been Vice President for eight years, an ambitious Congressman before that, and a failed gubernatorial candidate in California, so established American cartoonists had pretty much settled upon how to draw him. There is little change in the Nixons drawn by Paul Conrad or Herb Block, for example, other than that famous "free shave" the latter gave the president-elect.

Patrick Oliphant, on the other hand, had come to America from Australia during Nixon's years in the wilderness, and it's interesting to see how his version of Nixon developed over the ensuing decade.

These are tracings I made in ballpoint pen of Oliphant's Nixons back in the distant days of my youth. (I wrote about Oliphant's Ford cartoons back in April.) They are by no means a complete representation of Oliphant's work, but only those cartoons I had in my collection of newspaper and magazine clippings started in 1973.

In Oliphant's cartoons from the 1968 campaign through Nixon's first term (above), all Nixon's major features are there, but the caricatures are on the gentle side. His face is stern in only two of these cartoons (in the December, 1970 one, Nixon himself is a bomber over Hanoi; in the June, 1972 one, he's jealous of Henry Kissinger at a state dinner.) Even dripping wet in February, 1969, he's put out, but not scowling.

It isn't until Nixon's second term that Oliphant's drawings of him start to acquire a monstrous quality.
I've skipped ahead to 1973 with these in order to play up the differences with what came before: the jowls are big enough to hide a muskmelon in each one. His eyes are often hooded, and his mouth almost disappears beneath that (presumably sweaty) upper lip.

The last of these Nixons is from a cartoon in the final week of his presidency, as the most damning evidence from the Nixon tapes convinced even his most ardent defenders that he had to go. In a black shirt and pin-striped suit, Nixon is cast as the hardened mafiosi from a '70's flick, offering one last, improbable defense, that he didn't know the smoking gun in his hand was loaded.

There are a few more Nixons from immediately after his resignation on this sheet, but most of them are from a single cartoon -- unrepresentative of the overall trend -- depicting Nixon as each of the characters at the Mad Hatter's tea party in Alice in Wonderland. Aside from that cartoon, Nixon tends for a while to appear as a forlorn, embittered figure in Oliphant's cartoons, often appearing only from the nose up peering over the wall around his San Clemente estate. Later on, he becomes an evil, shadowy figure offering devilish advocacy to later presidents, or merely as a counter to the eulogies that followed his death in 1994.

Once I started buying Oliphant's books (starting with Oliphant! in 1980), I didn't see much point in ruining them by tracing every caricature of every president in them, so I didn't keep it up. Besides, I eventually had my own cartoons to draw.

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