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September 7, 2010

Paul Conrad, 1924-2010


Paul Conrad, the fiercely liberal, long-time editorial cartoonist at the Los Angeles Times and one of his profession's premier talents in the latter half of the 20th Century, passed away early on Saturday in Rancho Palos Verdes surrounded by family, from natural causes. He was 86 years old.

Conrad was born in Cedar Rapid, Iowa, along with a twin brother. He was encouraged to pursue the arts at an early age, in a modest railroad-industry household. Conrad went to college first at Iowa State and then at the University of Iowa but did not receive a B.A. until 1950, having served in World War II with the Army Corps of Engineers after a brief, post-secondary school sojourn to Alaska with his twin. He was raised Catholic, which along with the death and mutilation he saw in the Pacific Theater became a foundational building block to his character that helped drive the confrontational and socially aware style of cartooning he brought to the newspaper page.

imageA gig making cartoons for the Daily Iowan pointed an until-then directionless Conrad toward the career he would hold for the majority of his adult life. Conrad initially worked for the Denver Post for 14 years. It was at the Post under an encouraging that Conrad developed a spare, to-the-point style that counted on but did not flaunt his skills as a draftsman. In much the same way a professional athlete might combine fluidity and grace and an economy of movement into a memorable career the envy of a flashier, perhaps more gifted player with greater individual skills, so did Conrad forge a way of making cartoons elegantly designed to get the reader right to the point. Combined with a righteous anger on a slew of subjects -- although the cartoonist did change his mind on a few issues over the years -- Conrad's cartoons could be outright lacerating, lightning strikes on the editorial page that admirers and critics learned to honor with daily fealty. The conception of a political cartoonist as an essentialist, the person that gets to the heart of the matter, may not have started with Conrad but certainly found one of its greatest champions in his remarkable career.

Conrad was hired by the Times in 1964, and would remain their primary editorial cartoonist for the next three decades. His hire perhaps more than any other signified the paper's rise to become an important national paper, and its move away from a conservative publication in most meanings of that word. In addition to the tremendous platform afforded Conrad on one of the nation's largest newspaper and arguably the most important opinion-maker on the West Coast, he was also widely syndicated. While at the paper, he won multiple Pulitzer Prizes for editorial cartooning: in the transitional year of 1964, in 1971 and again during 1984. Other awards on Conrad's mantle were the 1970 and 1981 Overseas Press Club awards and multiple Distinguished Service Awards from the journalists' society Sigma Delta Chi (1963, 1968, 1970, 1980, 1981, 1986, 1987, 1988). He held the Richard Nixon Chair at Whittier College in 1977-78 -- an honor he once described as his favorite irony -- and won four Robert F. Kennedy Journalism awards for editorial cartooning (1985, 1990, 1992, 1993).

Conrad's best-remembered work might have been on Richard Nixon and his Watergate-related fall from power. He was named to Nixon's famous enemies list in 1973, a move that Conrad treated as a high honor. Conrad's most famous cartoon of the period was likely one that depicted the embattled president nailing himself to a cross, but it was the sustained fury of his assault and the certainty of the depiction behind it that linger today. Conrad was also the co-author of one of the better attempts to put the disgraced ex-president into immediately historical perspective, with The King And Us, a Bill Mauldin-style mix of prose and cartoon although in this case the prose was the Watergate transcripts.

Conrad was also a particularly nettlesome critic for Ronald Reagan, hammering him several times through his time as California governor and into the rise to national prominence that saw the former actor enter the White House in 1981. Because Conrad had been on Reagan's trail for decades, his critical cartoons in the early days of the presidency took on an even sharper critical profile -- Conrad showed others where the weak points might be. Some might argue that the perception of President Reagan as a buffoon and of the First Lady as an uncaring ice queen originated with no one other than the Reagans, certainly Conrad was at least significantly influential in propagating those views.

According to a lengthy obituary in the Times, Conrad's work brought two high-profile libel lawsuits: one from then-Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty in 1968 about a cartoon that questioned his mental stability, and one from Union Oil President Fred Hartley in 1974 about a cartoon Hartley believed cruelly criticized a decision over which he had no control. The first case was dismissed and a jury in the second case found for Conrad 11 to 1.

Conrad took a buyout from the Times in 1993, and continued to create work for syndication and pursue other artistic interests -- his bronze sculptures featuring various political leaders have been shown in multiple galleries and museums. An inspiration to numerous younger cartoonists entering the profession, including those that got to see him everyday while they were growing up in the Los Angeles area, Conrad is described by some of them who sought his advice as counsel as direct and to the point and as usually dead-on in that role as with any cartoon. A 2006 documentary on the PBS show Independent Lens called Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire celebrated the cartoonist's skill, the way he conducted himself in an opinionated but not blindly partisan fashion, and as a symbol of the declining state of editorial cartooning.

His many books included the aforementioned The King And Us; When In The Course Of Human Events (that same year, 1973); a widely-read trio of books published when Conrad was at his most influential, Pro and Conrad (1979), Drawn and Quartered (1985) and CONartist (1993); and a book published by his longtime employer the Los Angeles Times, Drawing The Line (1999).

Conrad is survived by a wife, two sons, two daughters and one grandchild. A photo gallery can be found here.

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