The Anti-Buffoonocrat

The Anti-Buffoonocrat

Anthropologist Tom Meyer on the pros and cons of poking fun for a living.

Political cartoonist Tom Meyer started skewering politicians to vent his frustrations while working for a corrupt California Congressman named Charles Wilson (not to be confused with the Texas pol, Charlie Wilson, made famous by Tom Hanks). Soon his drawings were appearing in The Washington Post; in 1981 he landed at the Chronicle’s political cartoonist desk where he reigned (with one yearlong break for a Knight fellowship at Stanford) until accepting the paper’s buyout offer in 2009. While he took the cash, Meyer, who considers himself more of a journalist than a pure cartoonist, also felt that the paper’s dwindling funds were better spent on a salary for a reporter than on a staff cartoonist. These days his cartoons still appear in the Sunday Chronicle, but he syndicates them to other papers. An avid reader of blogs (the man has apps, dude), Berkeleyite Meyer thoroughly researches his ‘toons but avoids soaking up the 24/7 cable news pundits’ spin. Perhaps because of this, as I discovered in a recent conversation, Meyer’s more of a clear-eyed free thinker than a slave to any one ideology—and that’s kind of a fresh kick in the pants, isn’t it?

Paul Kilduff: How would you describe your politics?

Tom Meyer: My politics tend to be a little bit more liberal than conservative, but I’m more about being kind of a anti-buffoonocrat. I just really hate idiots in office. I live in Berkeley.

PK: How’s that working out for you?

TM: Well, first of all, I love Berkeley. I actually love Berkeley. When I first came out to California in ’81, I lived in San Francisco and I thought, “God, this town is great.” But at some point, I wanted to get a house and I had enough of the city life and so there’s something much more bucolic [here].

PK: It is the country.

TM: It’s like Medfield; you remember those old Disney movies? You know, Medfield where the guy that made Flubber lived? And it does have the crazy politics. Like right after the 2001 [attacks], I was actually up in Montana. I was going backpacking and when I got back, I had heard that in Berkeley, they had banned the flying of United States flags on fire trucks because they didn’t want anyone to incite riots. I was thinking, really? They’re taking the flag off of fire trucks? Is it that dangerous to fly American flags in Berkeley? And I mean, of course, I know a lot of this is kind of caricature but when for instance, the whole Code Pink thing—the [protest of the] recruiting of Marine officers off campus—I thought, my dad was in the United States Army. If someone wants to join the Army or Marine Corps, God bless them. That’s great.

PK: That’s their business.

TM: Right, and so the idea that you’d actually protest in front of [the Marine Corp. offices in downtown Berkeley], to me this seemed like a disservice to people that had actually chosen to go into the armed services. And there was another example that I saw. I remember sitting in a cafe and a group came in on their way to a protest march. They had brought their kid with them who was wearing this camouflage outfit, a 4-year-old kid who had camouflage PJs on, and he was carrying a sign that said something like “Bash Bush.” Look, nobody protested a lot of the Bush politics more than me, but you shouldn’t really indoctrinate your kid to the whole bashing politics when they’re 4 years old. I mean, wait till they’re . . . 8.

PK: They’ve got to make up their own mind.

TM: Exactly. So there’s a lot about it that I think is a little bit whacko, but that’s the thing that kind of puts your politics in perspective, that there’s always someone more to the left or to the right than you are. And so what most of us are [is] somewhere in the middle. We just happen to have strong reactions to the stories at the time.

PK: Were the Bush years for you as a cartoonist, the golden years? Was it just so easy to make fun of that guy?

TM: For me, they were the oil-splattered bird years. It’s a weird thing. I got this job because it gave me a way to just really deal with frustration and anger and it gave me a socially acceptable outlet for my pent-up rage. So for me, feeling rage and enraged for years is not a comfortable place to be. [But] I have to say, I did some of my best work during the Bush years and [as] you said, you’re always in a better position when you’ve got a great villain, right?

PK: Right.

TM: But it’s not fun. I have to say, every day when you wake up and you read a story about some other idiotic policy that’s being made, you just bang your head against the wall, and then you medicate yourself by drawing a cartoon about it. But it’s still awful to read a story of someone that’s doing something stupid. When he was re-elected in 2004, I said, “Okay, that’s it. I cannot draw more cartoons about this guy.” The politics had gotten really bad. And so, I decided that I needed a break and so a friend and I decided to go on vacation. and it was, of course, November. Where do you go on vacation in November in the United States? There are very few places that are actually warm enough, so we went to Texas. My friend and I went to Texas and we actually had a great trip. And then I went to Stanford [on a Knight fellowship] in 2006. So I took that time off and was able to recalibrate a little bit. But really, I needed to get away from it. It was the same cartoons over and over and over again.

PK: So the Bush years, they were good for you career-wise but it took a toll on you personally.

TM: It was just too frustrating and at some point, there’s this arrogance that if I just say this in a different way, I’ll use this metaphor and this will explain my point of view in a very easy-to-understand way and this will get everyone over at my point of view. And lo and behold, it didn’t work. Well, first of all, there’s a little bit of an echo chamber here.

PK: Yeah, in this room, I think.

TM: A lot of my family, my mom and dad, are conservatives. and I would try using these arguments but nothing seemed to work. So it just got to be a little bit frustrating. You try to impart a point of view in a way that’s going to be succinct, easy to understand, and has some kind of emotional rapport.

PK: And maybe change some people’s minds.

TM: And maybe change people’s minds.

PK: And you’re frustrated that that didn’t really happen. Why?

TM: It didn’t happen at all. Frankly, what it did was to make people angrier and more upset on their own, like, “He’s got my point of view.” So I mean, it made you feel better. It made some of my friends feel better, people who thought like I did, and ultimately, that became kind of the role of some of these opinion makers. Instead of trying to give in to the other side of the wisdom of your point of view, It became kind of a place to hook up to your IV, your comfort zone, for a while. It’s like, “Okay, good, here’s my MSNBC, there is someone else who feels like I do.” And so you just keep going back to that. So it became more of a source of comfort than a source of discomfort. Ideally, you want a cartoon to be a little bit uncomfortable. You want it to be something that’s read by people who maybe disagree with you and to [make them] think about an issue in a little bit different way. So that was a little bit frustrating.

PK: I remember when Obama was elected, some black comedian was talking about, “Well, you know, there are certain rules on how we can make fun of him.” I mean, Saturday Night Live doesn’t really do a very good job imitating him. I don’t see a lot of satire of him. It’s hard to make fun of him, it seems.

TM: He’s not a big personality. And he’s also, fundamentally, a pragmatist. He’s somebody who is very controlled. The opposite of that would be Bill Clinton. And when you think about Bill Clinton, you think about somebody who has absolutely no self-control, right? I mean it was so great. For instance, Saturday Night Live would always have skits with him unable to control himself in a fast food restaurant.

PK: I heard he hated that, by the way.

TM: It kind of accentuated what was true about him. And it was certainly evidenced during his personal life. George Bush, the second, one of the first things that happened with him was he was an imbecile and he just couldn’t talk. He just couldn’t speak right. And then he was just somebody who was religiously tied to whatever he believed and so he became this kind of buffoon with the fully dangerous ray gun. He was somebody you knew who was kind of not just an imbecile but kind of a dangerous one. With Ronald Reagan, he was a little bit similar, but he was a great communicator and he made fun of that enough that he was able to parlay that. With Obama, the only thing he has got is his very controlled and mannered way of speaking.

PK: He’s just thinking about everything he says, yeah.

TM: He’s a very controlled person, which is, frankly, good. It’s good. After dealing with presidents who have been out of control, it’s kind of nice to have somebody who’s in control. But it makes it really hard to make fun of, and so whom you’re making fun of these days are his supporters. It’s a little bit easier to make fun of somebody like Hillary who was kind of a little bit more out there.

PK: Everybody hates that saying, but I have a perfect record in picking presidents. And you know what? It always boils down to whom would you want to be staying out with for 15 minutes. And even George W. Bush, I mean, hate to say it, but you might be able to hang out with that guy.

TM: Well, it’s true. I’ve met Al Gore before and Al Gore is not a comfortable person. He feels uncomfortable when you’re sitting right next to him. He feels like a 2D version of himself waiting for the information to upload before he says it. He doesn’t seem real at all, and Bush, at the beginning, did seem real so he does have that going for him.

PK: The best line I heard about Obama was when he ran in 2008, some Republican strategist said, “You know, Obama is the kind of guy who worries about the price of arugula.” Maybe it’s hard for people to relate to him a little bit.

TM: I think he comes off as more accessible than for instance, John Kerry. John Kerry came off as just being a snob.

PK: He didn’t want to shake hands with anybody.

TM: Well, even when he did, he didn’t look natural. When he would windsurf, when he was like out hunting, he didn’t look natural. There was something about him that didn’t ring true and Obama, you know, he’s much more of a regular guy. You’d much rather drink a beer with that kind of guy.

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Tom Meyer Vital Stats

Age: 55

Birthplace: Fort Benning, Ga.

American idol? Tie: Danny Kaye and Danny Elfman

What I want to be when I grow up: A Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor


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