Steve Kelley: "People, it seems to me, are a lot friendlier in the South, not as pushy, they don’t seem to be as self-possessed as people in the North are."
Twenty-seven-year-old Steve Kelley became chief editorial cartoonist for the San Diego Union in June of 1981. Since then Kelley has been named Headliner of the Year by the San Diego Press Club, has won honors as runner-up, and this year was winner of the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s top prize for editorial cartoonists. He appears regularly on Channel 8’s public affairs program This Day.
Kelley was born in Richmond, Virginia, where he attended public and private schools before going north to enroll at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. At Dartmouth Kelley set the school pole vault record (fifteen feet, six and one-half inches), majored in English, and graduated cum laude. Also while at Dartmouth, Kelley and several others, in dispute with the campus newspaper, left its staff to found and edit the Dartmouth Review, a controversial publication supported by William F. Buckley’s National Review and monetarily by a conservative foundation chaired by former U.S. Treasury Secretary William Simon.
The Dartmouth Review soon became embroiled in bitter, sometimes physical conflicts with liberal elements on the campus over articles and events that student and faculty councils condemned as “racist and sexist” and “abuses of journalism.” Those conflicts continue today: this month the college began proceedings to suspend ten Review editors and staffers for their part in the destruction of shanty huts erected on the campus as part of a protest against apartheid. Unhappy with the school’s administration and certain members of its board of trustees, Review sympathizers among the alumni are circulating petitions for the removal of two Dartmouth trustees, one of whom would be replaced by Kelley.
While at the Union, which employed him immediately after his 1981 graduation from Dartmouth, Kelley has steadily gained attention for finely drawn, if sometimes savage attacks on taxation, congressmen (mostly Democratic), and the Soviets, whom he generally portrays as deceitful and warlike. But most of his notoriety was gained last September for his drawing of a very fat San Diego City Councilman Uvaldo Martinez, labeled “The Freeload Bandito,” shouldering a serape and with a Visa card in his holster. The cartoon drew intense changes of racism from a broad spectrum of Union readers and an apology of sorts from Union editor Gerald Warren, who promised in print that he was “taking steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Kelley’s office inside the Union, where this interview took place, is covered on one wall with political memorabilia and mementos, including the following doggerel from the 1870s, attributed to Innes Randolph:
- “I am a good ol’ rebel.
- Yes, that’s just what I am.
- And for this land of freedom I do not give a dam'.
- I’m glad I Fit again ’em And I only wish we’d won.
- And I don’t ax no pardon For anything I’ve done.”
Are you a Yankee or a Reb?
Oh, I’m a Johnny Reb all the way. I hated Yankees. [Laughs] I didn’t hate them, but I really prefer the South to the North, and it’s a product of my environment, I’m sure. People, it seems to me, are a lot friendlier in the South, not as pushy, they don’t seem to be as self-possessed as people in the North are. Am I insulting you? Are you from New York?
No. I’m from Phoenix. I was raised in Phoenix. It’s more Southern than anything else. But self-possessed? I never understood the meaning of that.
Self-possessed meaning they’re more into themselves, in furthering themselves. Self-possessed means conceited or pompous...
Right. I mean looking out for Number One. I really find people in the North less tolerant than people in the South, and yet the South has the image of being a bunch of close-minded bigots. Go to the North, for example, and they don’t suffer a Southern accent.
I'm reminded of an old definition of conservatives and liberals. A conservative hates mankind and loves his neighbor and a liberal loves mankind and hates his neighbor. Does that fit your view of the South?
I would hate to hypothesize that the Southerner hates mankind. I don’t buy that.
When did you first become aware that you were what is called conservative?
That all started taking place in college.
Were there any blinding flashes, like Saul being knocked off his donkey and turning into Paul?
No. I think people sooner or later become aware they fit into one category better than another. And the categories to me are kind of worthless. I don't say, “Well, I’m perceived as a conservative, and so here’s the conservative reaction to this or that and I’ll adhere to it.” I look at issues as they come along and try to be rational about them, look at them, and decide what’s right and what’s wrong and make up my mind.
Still, I see that there’s a button up there on your bulletin board that says, “Kick Liberal Butt,” and maybe...
How about “First Strike Now”? You missed that one.
Would you say that’s conservative? “First Strike Now”?
No. We call this humor. I mean, this isn’t serious, for God’s sake. It’s the same with “Kick Liberal Butt.” These are things that people sent to me.
Well, I guess the question I was raising was, if liberals can be identified, then I suppose conservatives can be... defined.
You can list a number of positions that conservatives adhere to that liberals don’t. But I don’t think you can then start plugging people in categories just because they fit one or two of those distinctions.
Can you define the conservative list?
Yes, I'll tell you what conservatism generally means to me. We believe in a smaller role for government, less government intervention in the private sector. We believe, or conservatives believe, that the marketplace works best when it’s left alone ... to determine the price of things and in what quantity they should be supplied. We believe in a strong national defense because in order to ensure freedom, you’ve got to be willing to defend it.
Okay, so on the way to becoming a kind of American conservative, were there any books you'd say were most significant and that opened your eyes?
This is terribly embarrassing because I’m really not that well read. I have not read a lot of politics and economics simply because, well, for one thing, I read very slowly and I have to be very selective. I rely on instincts for most of my political stands. I do read a lot of newspapers and magazines.
Well, to arrive at a cartoon — let’s say you ’re starting the day, or whenever you start thinking about the next one — do you read editorials or the newspaper? You said you rely on instinct, but I guess instinct must be informed by something, right?
Well, of course. What I mean is, once I’ve read everything that I can get my hands on about that issue, I then rely on my instincts as to how I should feel about it. I don’t call William Buckley and ask, “Well, how do you feel about this?” I read editorials all the time. I read them in our paper, in the Wall Street Journal, and in The New York Times, not exactly a bastion of conservatism.
I was just wondering if there were people you particularly enjoy. Let’s say...
George F. Will. I think Will is one of the finest writers today. People label him a conservative. I don’t think he’s a conservative. In some regards he is, and in many respects he’s not.
How ’bout Emmett Tyrell?
I don’t read Tyrell much. The columnists I read on a regular basis are the ones we run [in the Union]. I read Pat Buchanan. Not a great spectrum here. Evans and Novak.
There was a Don Freeman column [in the Union] not too long ago in which you were quoted as saying Jeff MacNelly was the guy who opened your eyes to cartooning. What is it you like about MacNelly?
Three things, mainly. He’s a brilliant draftsman. Secondly, he’s very funny. He takes a lighthearted approach to heavy issues. And, finally, he’s very subtle. He never condescends to his readers. So you have to do your homework before you go to a MacNelly cartoon.
What is there about cartoons that makes them [distinctiveJ, or at least the humor in a cartoon is not like spoken humor? Is there a kind of humor that fits with cartoons that doesn ’t fit elsewhere?
From time to time I’ll go over to the Improv and do standup comedy on amateur night. If you read the newspaper, you get ideas for funny things that won’t work in cartoons, and yet they work in standup.
Does your standup routine have political content? Could you do just a little bit, maybe a minute or three now?
My ambition is not to be a standup comic. I do this for a number of reasons. As an editorial cartoonist, I never get to hear people laugh and yet ...that’s why I’m in here. I’ve always felt if I could just assemble all of my readers in the parking lot in the morning and say, “Okay everybody, open the page now,” it would be very gratifying. So I accept invitations frequently to go out to speak to groups. Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, press organizations, and I show slides and I can hear people laughing at what I’m doing. And in order to be better as a public speaker, I thought it would be good to get up in front of the most hostile audience imaginable, which is any comedy club in the country, because they’ve paid money and they dare you to make them laugh.
So I’m not going to get you to do two minutes of a bit, huh?
Well, I can tell you the kind of jokes I do. For example, the difference between living in Virginia and living in Southern California. I was brought up with Colonial furniture in my house, so when I got out here I wanted the same sort of thing, and when I went into a furniture store imagine my surprise when I saw a sign that said, “Early American Computer Table.” I’m wondering, is this a reproduction of the one Thomas Jefferson used when he wrote the Declaration of Independence on his word processor? Then there’s the place I live, which has a Jacuzzi. It’s about three feet deep, has cement steps and benches and a metal handrailing. Well, there’s a sign on the wall that reads, “No Diving.” You don’t have to be Greg Louganis to figure that one out.
Okay. I’m interested in how you got out here. Did you apply out of the blue or did [the Union] recruit you?
They had an ad in Editor and Publisher. They did, the Omaha World Herald did, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune did, and they were three I thought I might be able to work with. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had already hired a guy,and they said, “No thank you.” The Omaha World Herald brought me out and interviewed me, offered me the job, and I accepted it. Then I called the San Diego Union [and] told them I got a job and to throw away my application and they said they had wanted to interview me. So I thought, “Hey, free trip to San Diego. I’m in college. Let’s go.” So I came here, liked it very much, and they were kind enough to offer me the job. And when you're choosing between Omaha and San Diego, it’s not exactly a coin toss.
Whom did you interview with here?
Ed Fike [editor of the Union's editorial page] picked me up at the airport [and] brought me in the next morning. I interviewed with Ed, I met all the editorial page writers and Jerry Warren [editor of the Union). I even drove out and met Helen [Copley, publisher of the Union and the Tribune] because they’d had some, uhhh...
She had to approve?
She had to approve. And, well, they’d had Lee Judge out here [as the paper’s previous cartoonist], and that was sort of an unhappy philosophical marriage.
What specifically did she ask you about your politics, and particularly your positions on drugs and abortion and pornography?
As I recall the interview, it was brief and cordial. You have to remember I was just freshly out of college and was not really aware of what the exact job and responsibilities of a cartoonist were. I had the idea that a cartoonist was one of the hired guns of the newspaper. The newspaper would point you in a certain direction, and you would go off and hit the mark they wanted you to hit. Of course, since that time I’ve grown away from that notion.
I think that he should stand on his own a lot more than I did when I first entered the profession. And they have given me a great deal more freedom.
Okay, but on the question of those specific areas — pornography, abortion, and drugs — did those come up?
I don’t believe that they did. Again, we talked in very broad, general terms. We didn’t discuss particular issues.
So how long was the interview [with Union editors]? What were the interviews like?
Uhh, I swear I can’t remember. It was five years ago. We were just kind of feeling each other out a little bit. We didn’t get into deep philosophical discussion. I was just looking for people I could get along with, who I thought were fair and even-minded, who weren’t going to be domineering about things. And they impressed me that way. And I suppose I impressed them as eager and hard-working, in a sense, malleable. I don’t think they wanted to hire anyone who had hard and fast political convictions in the wrong direction, or who might have been at the apex of a career.
Well, how would they have determined that?
They looked at my work. And they could see that I had conservative instincts.
Is a cartoonist the person who pictorially represents the newspaper’s editorial views?
Gee, I don’t know how to answer that question. When I speak to groups, I typically ask the question, “Do you believe the cartoon represents the newspaper’s opinion or the cartoonist’s opinion?’’ And it splits about fifty-fifty.
Did you feel you could have screwed yourself up [in the interview with the Union] if you hadn't given the right answers?
No, because I had the luxury of having accepted a job in Omaha.
Well, how soon did you know' you were kosher?
They had seen my cartoons, they had mailed me their editorial pages, we’d talked on the phone before. It was like setting up a blind date.
When you were hired, did you have the option of being a member of the Guild /the union to which newspaper writers belong/ or not a member?
No, I was just made management. I would have been opposed to being a member of the Guild anyway.
I don’t believe in collective bargaining.
Do you work above scale here?
What does that mean?
The Guild has a scale for journeymen, five-year veterans, and scale is the minimum. The minimum you get here as a journeyman is something like $700 a week.
What is that a year? $35,000?
So are you working above that scale? $35,000 a year?
Gee, I’m not supposed to talk about my wages.
Well, maybe not specifically, but is it above $35,000?
I just don’t know whether I should answer that. I mean, really. I don’t want to tick anybody off.
You worried about the IRS?
God no. I’m not worried about them. They pay me fine here. I’m not worried about it.
How many sketches on how many subjects do you do?
It all depends. Some days you walk in here, and there’s only one issue, such as the day of the shuttle explosion. There’s not but one issue. And although a lot of my colleagues will do a lot of roughs on four or five subjects before going in to the editor, I tend to go through the weeding-out process in here [his private«office] so that when I come up with those fouf or five ideas, I throw out four of them and rough out the one and take it in there. And Ed [Fike] and I have a very good working relationship. He has an uncanny ability to see in a rough the diamond, which I give him a great deal of credit for. If I get a good idea, I draw it, and I know he’s going to like it. If I get a bad idea, I know it’s bad. I don’t need Ed to tell me that it’s bad.
On the average, how often are you rejected? How often do you have any Icartoons] killed?
It’s very rare. I’ve worked here long enough to know what's going to pull his chain. I know what’s within the bounds of good taste, though a lot of my readers would disagree with that. Now, from time to time I push that and dance around on the outer limits, and that’s when Ed and I sometimes cross swords, and usually he wins.
What about Gerald Warren [Union editor]? When does he become engaged?
I’m to show Jerry the cartoon after it’s been approved. He’s not involved in the weeding-out process. [Anything else] is a prescription for very bad cartoons; it's cartoon by committee. The cartoonists who were here before me had to show to four or five people, and you’re never going to do a cartoon that four or five people aren’t going to have mixed opinions about.
It seems to me most often your cartoons have negative types in them, be they nerds carrying signs, or bloated congressmen, or...fat wives, hippies ... and I was wondering why it is necessary to have types, and above all, why it is necessary to have so many negative types?
Okay, I’ll tell you exactly. You’re dealing with a graphic medium. You want to eliminate words as much as you can. Stereotypes, symbols, known images convey a great deal. So, if you’re showing a fat guy, people will say, “Oh, here’s a guy with no self-restraint.’’ If you’re drawing a bureaucrat, you draw him fat, and then that makes people say, “Well, here’s a guy who likes to waste money and resources.’’ If you draw, well, someone who is the embodiment of liberalism, you draw some Sixties radical with long, stringy hair...
Can you also draw, let’s say, the antithesis of the hippie, the conservative activist?
I did the nerd. I had a cartoon showing a Sixties radical carrying a sign that says, “We’re doing in Nicaragua what we did in Vietnam,” and the nerd is saying [on his sign], “Yeah, we’re losing.” Okay? I did him with horned-rim glasses, with an argyle sweater vest on, and he was wimpish.
Take congressmen. Almost always, as far as I can tell, you have them overweight, with a sly look on their faces, and always they're in the position of being spoilers, the...
Yeah, and somehow screwing up the works. Why is it that almost all politicians are seen by you as odious, except for the leading politician of our day, Ronald Reagan?
Oh, but I depict Reagan in less than flattering light almost every time I depict him, simply because, and this gets back to your other question: the nature of editorial cartoons is that they are negative, period. We’re sort of the Dirty Harrys of the editorial page. We look out and find politicans that are screwing up and we say, “Go ahead, make my day.” And we blow them away. We are critics, and there’s no point in patting anybody on the back when he’s doing something right, because that’s what he’s being paid for.
When do you use Reagan, and when do you use Uncle Sam? How do you choose those characters?
I use Uncle Sam when I don’t want to put heat on Reagan. [Laughs.] It depends. If you’re talking about this country’s policy, I use Uncle Sam... about a specific Reagan administration doctrine, then I use Reagan. If I use the Russian bear, I want to use Uncle Sam. If I use Gorbachev, I want to use Reagan.
How would you caricature yourself? Have you done it?
[Kelley points to a self-portrait on his bulletin board.]
Oh. Well, you’re kind of nice to yourself, aren’t you? Your chin’s kind of long and your eyes are hooded, but that’s a fairly kind rendition.
Most people say I’ve been unkind in that. [Laughs.] I take that as an insult.
Well, a lot of people have been insulted by you. But I could see someone doing you with a sweater tied around your neck and a tennis racket in your hand and...
Oh well, I don’t know.
... with other accouterments. I mean, I don't know if you ’re a tennis-playing yuppie, but ... do you like Brie?
Do I like Brie? Yeah, I do. Good Brie.
Do you like German cars?
I have a Mercedes-Benz. [Laughs.]
I'm doing well so far. Let’s see. Do you like French cooking?
No, not really. They don’t give you enough food. I like cheeseburgers. I don’t fit the yuppie mold.
Except when it comes to cars and...
No. The thing about cars is, there’s a difference between ownings 450SL and owning a 1964 230SL [which is what Kelley owns]. I happen to be a car nut. Before the Mercedes I owned an Alfa Romeo, and before that I owned a ’57 MG. I’m a car nut. So it’s not the fact that it’s a German car, it’s the fact that is has good lines and I've always loved them.
Let’s get off this and keep going. What makes a person conservative?
I think that in general people are products of their environment. I think that it’s more than curious that people born to Jewish families end up being Jewish, and people born to Catholic families end up being Catholic. It’s the same way with politics, although you get into people who reject their parents’...
You didn't reject your background?
My background doesn't bespeak my lifestyle now. I didn't say, “Gee. I want to own a 1964 Mercedes, so I better go to an Ivy League college and become a political cartoonist.”
Okay, let’s go to Dartmouth then. That’s where your political awakening took place, right? You have a picture of William F. Buckley up there (on the bulletin boardf with three students. Among them is Steve Kelley, an editor of the Dartmouth Review. How did that come about?
I don’t know. I didn’t one day wake up and declare myself a conservative. I looked around and on issues that came up on campus I tended to side with people who... by the time it was done, I was conservative. We had a mural in an athletic dining room, and it had been there for fifty or sixty or eighty years. It portrayed the founder of the college going into the wilderness to teach the Indians. And a group of students on campus declared it was racist.
And the Indian, of course, was the symbol of Dartmouth?
The symbol of Dartmouth, and it was eventually dropped...
Dartmouth was founded as partly...
To educate Indians, or Native Americans, as they insist on being called. So the administration covered up this mural, they hung dry wall over it, and when wealthy alumni come to campus, they take down the cover from the mural so that the alumni think everything is hunky-dory. You know, “There’s Old Ivy just as we remember her.”
Wasn’t it a fact that in 1974 it was decided to drop the mascot?
No. The board of trustees decided the college would no longer use the mascot on official college publications or on athletic uniforms.
Was the Indian symbol popular with students?
It would be better to say how it was unpopular with a handful of Native American students on campus, maybe forty. All of a sudden they declared their opposition to it, they said it was a racist stereotype. And there were a lot of students who were sympathetic to what they were saying, and they said they didn’t like it either. But if a vote were taken, it would have been reinstated..
Well, some of the tactics that have been attributed to the Dartmouth Review are disturbing, frankly, if you can trust Newsweek and the New Republic and The New York Times on this. For instance, the New Republic reported at the time that the Dartmouth Review got behind the selling of doormats with Indian heads on them.
So what? Do you think that’s odious?
I think if I were an Indian I’d be offended.
This is what most people claim is an exercise in free speech. You, I’d bet, would defend a pornographcr’s right to publish any damn thing he pleases because of the First Amendment, yes or no? And I include child pornography and sex with animals.
Well, okay then, pornography. Pornography is fine but an Indian symbol is not?
I would never do it. I think to do it is to offend gratuitously and offend people whose only offense to you is their heritage.
Wait a minute. Their heritage is no offense to me.
Okay, then why would you wipe your feet on it?
I don’t think having it on a doormat is symbolic in any way. Anyway, I think the doormats came out after I graduated.
How about the quote, in the Dartmouth Review, ‘ 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian”?
Oh, I don’t know. Are you taking it out of context?
Okay, here’s something from the New Republic, quoting from the Dartmouth Review: “Genocide means never having to say yo ’re sorry.
Again, I’m sure it’s taken out of context.
While you were there, was there an issue that featured an interview with a Ku Klux Klansman illustrated by a staged picture of a black hanging from a tree somewhere on campus?
Don't remember that? How about the quote “Feminism causes warts”?
The trouble is, you’re holding the Dartmouth Review to standards of journalism for a metropolitan newspaper. You’ve got to remember this is a college paper. If you want to see outrage, go to the Harvard Lampoon .... No one ever complains about that.
Well, I’m interested in all this because I think it might shed light on what you became famous for having drawn here in town, the caricature of Councilman Uvaldo Martinez with bandoliers and...
I think there are striking similarities between that cartoon, the arguments over that cartoon, and the arguments over the Dartmouth Indian symbol, and I think you could really get into this and shed light on it, even though you won’t agree with me.
Good, let’s go. Because to me, Uvaldo Martinez does not look like the man depicted in your cartoon, except there is some sort of a vague notion, that comes out of what I believe is racism, that Mexicans are fat and they’re foolish.
Now wait. Uvaldo Martinez is obviously overweight. And he was much more overweight when the [cartoon was drawn]. I understand he’s lost about forty pounds since all this credit card stuff came out. Either he’s trying to look lean, or he’s just not eating because he’s upset. To say the caricature was a gross exaggeration I think is unfair.
Well, in the same year as the Uvaldo Martinez cartoon was the one with three mariachis, one with a hat labeled "Drugs," one labeled "Illegal Aliens," and a third one "Sewage," watching as a fourth danced on the stars-and-stripes top hat of Uncle Sam. And three of the four Mexicans in that were fat, and none of them was Uvaldo Martinez.
Everybody I draw in a cartoon is fat.
Ronald Reagan is not.
What do you mean, he's not [Kelley takes out a Reagan cartoon.] Look at this.
That’s just square.
Well, he’s certainly broad for the size of his head. Okay, everybody I draw is not fat, you're right. However, most of the people I draw are fat.
Well, what would be a positive view of a Mexican, or of a Mexican-American?
I don’t deal in positive views.
What’s good about Mexico?
I don’t do nice-guy cartoons. How many times do I have to tell you that?
You take a whole country? I mean, this is a depiction of a country, and it’s a neighbor of ours. A lot of people here enjoy Mexico, and that’s why they ’re pissed off.
Terrific. And I enjoy Mexico, and I love Mexico, sure.
Do you go down to Mexico?
I have been to Mexico. Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t enjoy being down there. I'm uncomfortable down there.
Well, I have a hobby. I call it constitutional rights. I like having them.
So how many times have you been down to Mexico and had negative experiences?
Well, I’ve only been in Mexico three times, I think. I was uncomfortable there. I don't think driving through the border and down to Rosarito to get lobster at eight dollars is really that big a bargain. It was good, I had a nice time, I saw lots of mariachis, and most of them were overweight. For the record. You're not being fair. You’re not being a journalist. What you’re doing now is you’re trying to make something that isn’t there. You say I have negative feelings toward Mexico. Why didn’t you say, take the positive feelings [1} have toward Mexico.
I asked you how you would depict Mexico positively.
It’s not my job to do positive cartoons.
Okay, I’m inviting you now to say how you might do it.
I mean. I’ve never done a positive rendition of the capitol in Washington, D.C., or the people around it. And yet you’re not in here complaining that I’m leaning too hard on the capitol because, you know that’s my job. And what you're trying to do now is turn it around so that it looks like I'm kicking Mexican butt because I’m a racist. That’s not the way it works.
Well, here, Mexicans are either drug runners, illegal aliens, or dumpers of sewage...
In that one cartoon, yes, you’re right.
Well, in other cartoons the Mexican cop is a criminal.
Yes, and Mexican police are corrupt.
I mean, are you trying to deny reality?
Well, lately the [TijuanaJ police chief has fired hundreds of Mexican police.
Yes! He probably read my cartoons.
How many police are fired here, or any place in the United States?
Look at John Gavin, our ambassador to Mexico. Talk to him if you want horror stories. We had him up here for a Q & A. Get the Q & A and read it.
Everything John Gavin has said about Mexico is foreign to my experience. Well, anyway, what tried to say earlier when I was mentioning Dartmouth is, there is a strain in American conservatism that is anti-ethnic.
Did you find the Uvaldo Martinez cartoon offensive? Someone called me and she said one of the biggest restaurants in Ensenada has a huge billboard right outside town, and it’s called Bandido's, and it’s got, right on the billboard, a silly depiction of a Mexican with a big mustache, the whole works. Right in Mexico. Most of the phone calls I got on that cartoon were from Mexicans, and they said, “I don’t know what everybody is bitching about.” Most of them said the real affront to Hispanics is being done by Martinez.
After the Martinez cartoon was published, Jerry Warren said he was ‘ ‘taking steps to make sure that doesn't happen again. ’ ’ What did he do, what did he say he was going to do to make sure that there wouldn't be another cartoon on the order of the Martinez cartoon?
He just made it clear to me that he believed, and the administration of the newspaper believed, that the Martinez cartoon transcended the bounds of good taste for the editorial pages. He decided that from that day hence I should bring him the finished version of my cartoon and have him look at it before it appeared in the newspaper.
Okay, sure. But I want to get back to this relationship to bigotry' that I find in American conservatism. You don’t see in conservatism this tendency toward resentment of ethnicity?
No. No more than I see in liberalism a tendency to shut yourself up in a building and call police names and make them drop bombs on buildings, or a tendency to take drugs. You’re looking at an extreme and saying it represents the whole.
Well, consistently, conservatives will say they'’re against affirmative action because it undermines the notion of merit, and they take that high philosophical position on the matter when I suspect they feel threatened. Else why would they try to live in enclaves away from those neighborhoods that are ethnic?
Wait a minute. The people that are most guilty of what you’re talking about, I find, are black people. Go upstairs to our cafeteria at lunchtime and look around at the tables. You know, blacks fought for decades to get freedom and equality. They got it. So w hat do they do at lunchtime? A whole table full of black people. What I’m saying is, why is it you dump on, I guess you're dumping on yuppies again, or why people who go out to the suburbs because they find it more pleasant to live there than in the middie of the city? I find it more pleasant to live there. I'm not ashamed to say that. And yet you’re not up here dumping on black people who sit together and don’t eat lunch with anybody else.
Well, I don't normally dump on white people who sit up there at tables with themselves either.
But you’re talking about a very small segment of people out there, and you’re always going to have them, on both sides. With the conservative movement, you’re yoking the extremists with the whole movement. And yet with liberalism and the left, you don’t do that. You detach.
Oh, look. I’m not here to attack liberals. I’m here to attack conser-vatives. Were you ever offended at Dartmouth when some of this racist stuff ran in the Dartmouth Review?
We broke away [from the conventional campus paper] over an issue of free speech. We started a newspaper, and I was drawing cartoons for it. I’m not trying to disassociate myself from it, because I believe in what they do. I think they are harassed by the administration while alternative newspapers up there are mollycoddled; they are given college funding, college office space, and access to college mail service.
Well, they may not print what the Dartmouth Review dares to print, if we can say it’s daring. I mean, these are highly virulent, offensive...
All taken out of context. All you've got there is a snippet, a quote. I mean, was it a satirical piece?
What about the satirical piece that was under the by-line of somebody, an Irish name...
Keeney Jones, about black jive?
Yeah. Something about “Dish Sho’ Be No Jive, Bro,’’ which went on to...
Jones did what he did for a specific purpose. He was deriding affirmative action, he was arguing against advocacy courses in the college — black studies, Native American studies — they pigeonhole students into a very narrow existence after college.
[Kelley pulls out a recent Los Angeles Times article from a file drawer, an article on black urban speech that argues it is a recognizable form of English with its own structure and rules. I read aloud some examples the article offers.]
Okay, here we go. "The boy, he be goin ’ to school.She cain ’t play 'til she do her homework. ” “I ate my toas ’, then I run to school. "Okay, let’s compare this to what was written in the Dartmouth Review, okay?
The reason I brought this out is, educators are finding it difficult, and they’re arguing that we should accept black street talk on a par with regular spoken English. Well, I’m just saying the problem exists. You're saying that it doesn't exist.
What I wanted to immediately do is compare what the Los Angeles Times is lifting out as a typical example of black patois and compare it to a sentence about as long that appeared in the Dartmouth Review. /ReadingJ:
"Some of us be gettin ’ into Ivy schools from the inner city even do we not be bustin ’ our gizzards doin ’ work."
It sounds about the same, no question. But my point is, is that it is supposed to be a confession that, “Hey, we don’t have to work to get into this school,’’ and it’s supposed to be a typical view that a black would feel this way, and I think that’s...
Of course, it’s an attack. And everything / do is an attack. The mere fact that it’s an attack and it’s good at what it does doesn’t make it unprintable.
Of course. So what? It’s journalism. It's an opinion piece, one man’s opinion, and he’s doing it the best way he knows how. I don’t deny that’s it’s mean-spirited. You’ve got to remember that the Dartmouth Review was also the new radical movement on campus. The campus had settled into a position that was very liberal. There were no other papers like it in the country and the Review had to proclaim what they were and they had to yell, they had to scream and be outrageous. They wanted to attract attention to themselves. And it was in a college newspaper, and I think they should be held to different standards and accountability than a major metropolitan newspaper.
I think after the “Dis Sho’ Be No Jive, Bro” article, Jack Kemp, the representative from New York, resigned his position on the advisory' board and that the editors sought a replacement — namely, Jerry' Falwell. Did he say yes or no?
[Kelley shrugs, indicating he doesn’t know.]
At any rate, let’s get off this. I want to make sure that people who read this will understand, no matter what else is said in the interview, that Steve Kelley doesn't strike me as a knee-jerk conservative.
Frequently the cartoon flies in the face of the lead editorial on the same page.
Yeah. Have you had any trouble getting cartoons in that do that?
No, really I haven’t. I've only crossed swords with the editors here twice. Sometimes I end up saying, “Okay, I don’t feel strongly about something,” and it doesn’t matter.
At some point you did cross swords?
Let’s just say there have been very few occasions over which my editor and I have come to heated discussion, and one I can remember involved portraying the Russian bear and Uncle Sam staring each other down with Europe caught between them. And my editor thought this was unfair because it depicted Uncle Sam as the moral equivalent of the Russian bear, and I believed the cartoon should have been permitted to run because it cast the two as equivalents only in the respect that Europe feared a nuclear exchange between the two. Eventually he permitted it to run, with his reservations.
Actually, I was very surprised to see a number of cartoons. One, very well drawn, of [General] Westmoreland with a black eye after the decision on the libel suit he brought against CBS. Was there any reluctance on that one?
No. You can’t deny reality. It would be just too hard to argue against that one.
Would you say that was the position of the editors here?
All I said was that he took it on the chin, or in the eye, actually.
How ’bout the depiction of the farmer on a cross, where one person is saying to another, '' 'Scarecrow? No, that’s just a small farmer.” Is that the position of the editors on our existing farm policy?
Well, you're getting into the point I wanted to make, that sometimes we appear to talk out of both sides of our faces, and yet all I’m doing in the cartoon is equivocating in the same way an editorial writer equivocates in one editorial. I have to do it in two cartoons. I’ll say in one, “Yes, farm subsidies are bad.” I really disapprove of the way the government subsidizes farming. Yet in another I suggest it’s a tremendous tragedy to be a small farmer and have all these loans coming due. A couple of bad seasons and they’re out of it.
There were several cartoons that were intensely critical of General Dynamics for various inflated defense contracts and on the procurement scandals in general. Did you receive protests from General Dynamics on that?
We got a letter from their lawyer demanding a retraction.
That was the one...
The spy thing. It was Gorbachev and a Russian spy, and I think Gorbachev says, “Go to the United States and recruit spies, look for people who value money more than their country’s security.” And in the second panel he says, “You might start at General Dynamics.” Now, the official position of General Dynamics was, “You are suggesting that we have spies working here.” Which by no means was suggested by the cartoon. So, yeah, they called and raised hell. I don’t know, when four or five of your top executives are under indictment... for widespread contract fraud, I think it’s time you submit yourself to a critical cartoon. We had a lot of phone calls from General Dynamics employees, and it’s almost frightening the allegiance [to the company] they feel, a blind allegiance, and I think it’s very dangerous. Plus, I work too hard for my money to have tax dollars spent on other people’s country club dues.
That was the subject of another cartoon you did. The bill for a $640 screwdriver, $500 of it for country' club dues. Let's wind this up quickly now. What’s your idea of heaven on earth ? Where would you like to be? What do you get a kick out of?
What’s odd is, I think my idea of heaven on earth is where I’ve never been. I would really like to go see Europe. I think it’s vital to what I’m doing now, to have a broader world perspective. But I don’t know what my idea of heaven on earth is. I’m very success oriented. The thing that gets me high is doing a job well. That’s all. I work very hard. Frequently I’ll get into a cartoon and I’ll work two and a half hours on the drawing and tear it up. A lot of guys wouldn’t do that. They’d say, “Well, tomorrow it’s history,” and let it go.
What do you want to be doing when you’re fifty?
I don’t know. I suppose I’d be lying if I didn’t say I want a Pulitzer Prize out of this. I enjoy speaking to civic groups and showing slides. I enjoy doing random standup comedy at the Improv.
Television too? You ’re on Thursday nights.
You know, people say, “Oh, God, you’re on television. Isn’t that cool.” But yeah, I like the idea of the cartoons showing up in color, they come to life. But being on television is no thrill. You become very critical of yourself. You go home and worry about what you look like instead of what you’re saying.
Well, do you think you mellowed since your Dartmouth days?
No. If anything I’ve become more firm in my convictions. I just wasn’t set about what my beliefs were, and now I have real beliefs about why things go wrong and how they might work better.