Magazine | December 7, 2015, Issue

Holding Up a Mirror

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Obamacare, by Michael Ramirez (Threshold, 288 pp., $28)

People know 18th-century London more from Hogarth’s drawings than from the work of any novelist. Indeed, the titles of his best-known picture series — “A Rake’s Progress” and “Gin Lane” — are part of our language. They define the age: We know the dissolution of Robert Walpole’s day through Hogarth to a degree we don’t from Samuel Richardson.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez is assuming the role of our Hogarth. Further proof appears in this second collection of his drawings.

These aren’t simply amusement. Often quite beautiful, they’re penetrating assessments of a gross, dishonest, and unwelcome period in our nation’s history.

Ramirez rightly directs his searchlight toward the man at the center: Barack Obama. But the cartoonist does not hold back from etching derisive portraits of a press and public that aid and abet a leader who, when not engrossed with his links handicap and his March Madness tourney bracket, employs the Constitution for kindling.

As Ramirez pointedly notes in his introduction, Obama has proclaimed that he is a better crafter of oratory than his speechwriters, knows more of the details of governance than his policy directors, and is a keener political director than his strategists. Yet, while the president is consistently shown not to be aware of the failures of his policies and the chicanery of his aides, Ramirez is, in fact, a real-life analogue of Obama’s self-image: He is a sharper op-ed writer than all but a handful of the best-known columnists, and he grasps more about politics than most strategists.

And he can draw.

It’s often difficult to say what it is that makes a caricaturist’s work memorable, though a high level of proficiency at draftsmanship plainly isn’t a necessity. To take but one example, almost everyone who has seen the work of Ralph Steadman, Hunter S. Thompson’s longtime collaborator, can identify his splotchy drawings, work that suitably complemented Thompson’s accounts of his debauchery, abandon, and anarchism.

But it’s hard to produce work that stands on its own, and that stands up over time, without a very high level of skill at drawing. How good is an illustration that doesn’t illustrate? Tom Wolfe was right that a novel gains in force and power through the novelist’s sustained capacity for rendering the minute details of its individual scenes, whether of paint-peeling courtrooms or sweat-drenched gypsy cabs. Similarly, a cartoon seizes us by the throat and holds tight at our gills not simply because it is clever but because its lines are apt, specific, and precise.

And no newspaper cartoonist in America draws half as well as Ramirez. When he presents a tsunami approaching a beachfront at low tide, his delicate cross-hatching displays the fineness of the sand while the lone figure on the shore, a slow-moving elephant, isn’t just a symbol but an actual plodding beast. The scene is ominous and real. Where another cartoonist drawing the same picture would simply be making a point about a likely changeover in the makeup of the Congress and the enervated condition of Republican leaders with an “Election Wave” swelling up behind them, what Ramirez offers us is palpable. It’s not an idea flashing past: It’s a fully rendered tableau that wakens our senses even as his critical commentary lodges itself in the back of our noggin.

Still, none of this would make much difference if he weren’t a man of ideas with something to say — and a wit. Ramirez is no latter-day Currier and Ives. He is not a picture-postcard or children’s-book illustrator. His work is in the tradition of Thomas Nast and Walt Kelly. Like them, he has certain recurrent themes, along with a belief that the artistry is in service to the message, not the other way around. Consequently, he will sometimes underplay his facility with pen and pencil, and some of his most devastating sketches are parts of series in which we see caricatures without foreground or background. In one, Ramirez presents the president’s narrow phiz with his large ears flapping out. Our focus is directed to the words the smug visage barks out: the president’s actual, repeated lies about Obamacare, and his misleading claims about foreign policy, the IRS, and defense.

But no issue reveals Ramirez’s outlook more than immigration. Although he is a son and grandson of immigrants who arrived from Japan and Mexico, he is very much in accord with the Tea Party and its enmity toward a Republican establishment anxious to compromise on immigration. What, he asks, is the point of having a republic if it so routinely displays bad faith toward its laws? Time and again, Ramirez refers back to the Constitution, and one of the best cartoons in the collection shows Obama denouncing a group of oddly dressed Oval Office visitors. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, Obama proclaims, are “extremists,” men who, for some inexplicable reason, are attached to the idea of limited government. That makes the book’s central point, that Barack Obama has — in the words of liberal legal scholar Jonathan Turley, quoted by Ramirez — been the president that “Nixon always wanted to be”: a self-crowned regent who extends his authority without regard to precedent.

In exposing Obama’s usurpations, Ramirez shows his own connection to Nast, who is considered the father of American political cartooning. Employed by Harper’s Weekly, Nast is best remembered now for his Civil War–era condemnations of slavery and his acerbic Gilded Age portraits of the Tweed Ring. Nast’s work continues to appeal, as it is artful and principled. Similarly, Ramirez combines skill with outrage.

His anger is most concentrated on Obama, but he also flays Reid, Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and the Republicans who have enabled them. Ramirez is incensed by their money-printing, and he repeatedly illustrates the problem with distorted views of the dollar. On one such picture, we see beneath the watermark seal the words “Made in China.” Signed by Hu Jintao, the bill features a picture of George Washington arching an eyebrow and gazing back quizzically at that phrase. As with so many of his cartoons, the simple joke works because his talent for drawing brings it to a higher plane.

The collection features a foreword by Dick Cheney, a “backword” by Rush Limbaugh, and an introduction by Ramirez that is one of the most effective and fact-filled takedowns of Obama’s administration yet written.

Although all of the book’s drawings are in color, it is apparent that the artist knows that many will be reproduced in black and white, and there is no doubt that he is a draftsman much more than a painter. Also noticeable is that his animals are typically more human, reflective, and intelligent than his people, the politicians especially. This isn’t to say that Ramirez is a misanthrope; perhaps it’s just more proof of the adage that a cynic is a frustrated idealist. After all, one consistent message in Ramirez’s art is love of — and belief in — our country. And, much as it may disappoint him, it has also given him honors and deserved fame.

That has been the reward for acting as a faithful recorder. For just as Hogarth left us with a picture of London’s crowded streets filled with drunks and highwaymen, Ramirez provides us with images of foreign despots, the feckless domestic leaders who prostrate themselves before them, and the seemingly omnipotent government bureaucrats who bend our laws to boost their own power. Crowded around these figures are a great many vividly depicted gadgets, machines, and devices, from supersonic jets to hospital control panels. Like Ramirez’s animals, the contraptions seem to have a life and energy lacking in all too many of the people.

In recent decades, liberals have adulated Garry Trudeau and Herblock, cartoonists who couldn’t draw a proper rectangle without a T-square to lay down the sides. But the primitive quality of their drawing has rapidly dated their work even more than has the want of sophistication in their thought. Ramirez provides the conservative movement with an artist who is indeed an artist, and we can and should celebrate his achievements — and heed his counsel.

– Mr. Leaf is a playwright and critic living in New York.

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