As a political cartoonist and self-avowed political junkie, Dan Perkins, better known as Tom Tomorrow, says last month's Republican and Democratic national conventions were "ground zero." On assignment for The Village Voice, Perkins penned two full-page color cartoons, working 17-hour days for four days straight, after each of the conventions. (The results can be viewed at www.villagevoice.com, search: Tom Tomorrow)
Perkins' strip, This Modern World, appears in the Independent each week, and in more than 130 other newsweeklies across the country. Additionally, his work can regularly be seen in the pages of Newsweek and the monthly magazine Brill's Content. The newest Tom Tomorrow book, When Penguins Attack! was recently published by New York's St. Martin's Press ($13.95) and boasts an introduction by one of America's hottest-selling young authors, publisher of McSweeney's magazine, Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius).
We caught up with Perkins/Tomorrow, an inveterate commentator on what makes American politics tick, in his Brooklyn, New York, home, and asked him to give us the dirt on covering the conventions, on his work in general, and on what it means to be political in these politically unfriendly times.
Indy: What brought you to the recent nominating conventions, given their mainstream proclivities?
I have to admit, I've shunned the conventions because they seem to be created for the media. There's a sort of unreality to them.
TT: On that level, though, it was just completely fascinating to me. I didn't go there to try to find news or to break a story but to observe the process of the event itself because of its very unreality, its very surreality, if that's a word. You know, to watch all the mainstream media running around trying to find news, complaining because there isn't any news. To go to the parties and the events and just watch how people are, how they behave, what they say, what they think of all that.
Indy: What did you get out of watching?
TT: Two big cartoons (laughs), a couple of paychecks.
It was different for each one. I came to a lot of small understandings that I might not have come to if I had not been there. Like, actually Republicans are a lot more polite than Democrats. They're just much nicer people. What I got out of [the Democratic convention] was how many people are genuinely enthused about the Democrats, even at this point, even after eight years of Bill Clinton and this administration that has largely been about lip-service liberalism. When I had conversations with people, the thing I'd ask was, "OK, you've had eight years of Bill Clinton, name eight things that he has done, not just said, but done, that you genuinely agree with."
And most people freeze up after the Family Medical Leave Act. They just can't think of eight things and I think that's appalling. But it's also astonishing to me that there are all these people who are genuinely enthused and excited about the Democratic party even if they really don't have any reason.
I'm just a little too cynical to believe that the world will really end if George W. gets elected or that the world will be saved if Al Gore wins. I read a quote, some director, who said, "If Bush wins, I'm leaving the country. I'm going to France." I mean, what does he think is going to happen? What is going to happen that is going to affect that guy? Anything that happens is going to be to the poor. What, it's "I just can't stand to see anything happen to the poor so I'm leaving the country and going to the Riviera?"
Indy: You haven't heard of Bush's secret plan to ban Brie?
TT: Clearly, something like that.
I talked to a couple of delegates to the Democratic convention. One of them said, ya know, exaggerating but half seriously, "Oh my gosh, if the Republicans win, they'd try to take away a woman's right to vote." And the other one was telling me what an environmentalist Al Gore was because he wrote a book about the environment, to which I can only suggest that anyone who actually believes this might want to look up Al Gore's voting record. I know that Alex Cockburn has a new book out called Al Gore: A User's Manual, which would be very effective to disabuse people of these notions.
He's Bill Clinton without the mojo. We're not going to have a sex scandal, but we're going to have more of this sort of lip-service liberalism while he goes around bombing people and cutting deals with corporate polluters.
I go through this every new election cycle. Not so much in '96, but in '92, Clinton won and people said, "Well, what are you going to do cartoons about now? All our problems are solved." Which of course is ludicrous in retrospect. It's hard to imagine a time when people could actually think this. Which brings me back to the original point: It was eye-opening to seehow genuinely excited people were about the Democrats.
Indy: And why do you think that is, given what you just said?
TT: Well, I think that most people are not as cynical as I am. One day at the convention I spent the afternoon watching speakers at a demonstration outside the convention talk about Occidental Oil and the U'wa tribe in Colombia that has threatened to commit mass suicide rather than let Occidental Oil drill on its lands, and Al Gore's family has a lot of stock in Occidental Oil.
Now, Bush and Cheney are clearly oil men and have clearly gotten more oil money -- I think someone e-mailed me and said, "Bush has gotten $10 million and Gore has only gotten $2 million." I'm just making up those numbers, but it was some sort of proportion like that. But the point of the e-mail was, "Clearly Bush is in the pocket of the oil industry and Gore is not," and I'm like, "Excuse me, but $2 million is still a lot of money where I come from."
It's like the stuff with Hollywood. People say, oh, the Democrats are in the pockets of Hollywood. Well, I saw on the news last night that the Democrats have gotten $7 million and the Republicans have only gotten $5 million. We're still talking about substantial money, even if one party is getting a little bit more than the other. There's sort of this simplistic, binary kind of thinking [about campaign contributions].
Indy: What about the Republican convention. What type of things did you observe about them?
TT: Let's see, how should I put this? The Democratic convention was full of people you might run into on the Upper West Side, which for people not familiar with Manhattan is where all the rich liberals live in Manhattan. Whereas the Republicans seemed a little more rural. But they spent their convention trying to put on this happy face, an image of this new Republican party which was not beholden to the Christian Coalition and so forth. So the Christian Coalition got kind of pushed off to the side. None of their people got to talk.
But you know they had a rally at this downtown hotel ballroom and there were thousands of people in this ballroom. It was jam-packed to the rafters. So those people are still out there. They're just holding their tongues right now.
Indy: Was that where you had your encounter with House Majority Leader Dick Armey?
TT: No, I was hanging out with some of my cartoonist friends, mostly daily cartoonists like Mike Luckovich and Chip Bok, and Dave Barry was there. He was hanging out with all these [Republican insider] guys. And Jack Valenti, who is a bigwig in the motion picture industry, and some congressman were throwing a party, one of these sort of exclusive parties and we were invited to it.
So we went over and we were immediately shunted over into this sort of press pen, this cattle pen where we would stand outside and watch the people party. We raised a bunch of fuss and said we were actually invited by Jack Valenti, and when they actually believed us and we finally got in, I suggested that our next challenge should be getting into the VIP lounge in the party, which we decided wasn't going to happen.
Which is sort of the point. These conventions are all about access. You spend a week walking around with these tags that you have to show everyone to get from point A to point B and these parties are all about exclusive invitations. But once you get inside, it's just another boring party.
Anyway, we decided to have some fun, so we took over this dumb little wooden platform in the middle of this one room. It was this unused DJ platform. It was a foot high and about the size of a pingpong table. The six of us took it over and said, "This is our VIP Lounge." And we spent about a half hour saying, "Sorry, sorry, no access, VIP lounge." Of course we're in the middle of this humid, sweaty little room and there's nothing exclusive about this except that we're about a foot off the ground. Mostly the Republicans just avoided eye contact with us. But we all had enough to drink that we all thought this was awfully amusing. Then Luckovich -- unfortunately I was at the bar when this happened -- ran off and snagged Dick Armey and said, "You have to come over to visit our VIP lounge," and he came over.
Apparently what happened is that Dick Armey got up and Dave Barry asked him, "Are you really Dick Armey?" and Dick Armey said, "If there were a Dick Armey, Barney Frank would want to join." He knew who Dave was, and he knew the rest of us were presumably liberal editorial cartoonists -- so the question became, is he so clueless or drunk that his immediate impulse is to proffer a homophobic joke? Or was he saying, "Yeah, yeah, I have a funny name and this is this joke that people make," which in itself is sort of clueless because it indicates the sort of backroom, locker room sort of jokes that are made among the people he hangs out with.
But that actually became a small scandal. Barney Frank demanded an apology. I think the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Defamation League demanded an apology. So I was sort of indirectly responsible for what became the only real news story to come out of Philadelphia.
Indy: Were you trying to just have some fun, or is there a point to all this fuss about access?
TT: To me the point was about access. The guys I was hanging out with tend to be a bit silly, but I think we all understood that it was this astonishing little piece of performance art that was satirizing the tedium of this exclusive party. Because once we got it going, we actually had Republicans coming up and asking to come up on the lounge and we'd say, "Oh no, sorry, sorry, you can't come up." And at one point Luckovich told some congressman he had to step down now, the lounge was getting too crowded. That was just a brilliant moment: a cartoonist ejecting a congressman from the VIP lounge.
Indy: What about the Green party?
TT: You know, I just met with Ralph Nader on Monday. We're going some Web animation a series of short, two-minute pieces. I don't know yet where it's going to run, but keep checking my Web site (www.thismodernworld.com) because we'll have a fairly prominent link to the Web animation there. One of the cartoons features Ralph Nader and I have done a couple of pro-Nader cartoons, not because I think he's going to be the next president but because I believe that the presidential debates would be greatly enhanced if Ralph Nader were a voice in these debates.
This gets back to something that a lot of people disagree with me on, but I'm appalled by the choice between these two candidates when the only real choice between them is that Gore may appoint a slightly less conservative judiciary than George Bush. If you look at the voting record of Republican and Democratic Supreme Court nominees, even that is not a guarantee. Roe v. Wade was written by a Nixon appointee. Both Gore and Bush support the death penalty, the drug war, welfare reform, economic globalization. They're both walking down the path hand in hand on what I consider the most important issues. So I would love to see Nader at these debates.
I'm getting a lot of e-mail from Democrats, and from people who generally believe the sort of things I say except when push comes to shove and you've actually got to make a choice, in which case they're running back to the skirts of the Democratic party for protection. And I find that appalling.
So we've got this story line where Sparky (the penguin) and Ralph Nader are fighting their way into the debates and there are all these Secret Service agents trying to keep them out. That's the script.
We were able to get hold of [the Nader/2000 committee] and ask if he would do the voice and he agreed to do it, much to our surprise. You know, Al Gore does a guest spot on Futurama and Ralph Nader does this guest spot on this obscure little Internet animation site, which is pretty symbolic of the difference between their two campaigns.
Indy: What, Fox wouldn't pick you guys up?
TT: No, well, not yet.
So we went down to Washington to get the voices and as we're taking voice levels, Nader says, "You know we need to take the violence out, right?" And we're just sitting there going "uuugh" wondering if we just wasted the day going down the Washington, if there's anything salvageable out of this script. And we were saying it would be just cartoon violence, kind of like in the old Batman TV show.
But the thing about Nader, and I say this with complete affection and I still think he's the most lucid voice in the campaign right now, he is like an alien who has just been plopped down on this planet and is confused by this planet that he's been dumped on and he's saying, "This makes no sense; why don't you have safety features in your vehicular transport?" You know he has this sort of otherwordly common sense attitude. Why don't you do things better?
Our first response to his request was that the Web piece will be like the old Batman TV series and we both sort of looked at each other and realized he doesn't know who Batman is.
Indy: I get a sense all this is not about Ralph Nader, it's about a third party, the Green party in particular...
TT: Yeah, it's about building a third party which is outside the current and incredibly narrow range of acceptable debate. And I think that's really important. The Reform party showed that it could be done, but the Reform party was flawed from the start [because it was] this top-down thing from this billionaire megalomaniac. But there is a hunger for third-party politics and the only way that it happens is if you risk that vote.
If you are going to vote for Gore because you are afraid of Bush, then you are going to put the stamp of approval on the continuing rightward drift of the Democratic party. I mean 30 years ago, Joe Leiberman would have been running with Nixon. The Democratic party continually drifts to the right and every time you say, "Well, but the Republicans are worse," then you are an accomplice to that rightward drift.
Indy: You spend a lot of time taking apart the Democrats and the Republicans. But are there things in the Greens that you don't like?
TT: Nothing in this world is perfect. ... But the point of my cartoon is not about attacking the powerless. It is about attacking the powerful. If I've got a chance to say, well, Ralph Nader did something once that wasn't so good and hit on Nader, who has no chance whatsoever of winning, or saying something about how Al Gore and George Bush are bought and paid for by corporate America, that is just more important to me.
Indy: Which of your cartoons got you the most heat?
TT: There have been a lot of controversies. That stuff just comes up. There was that thing about the engravings of naked people involved in an orgy at the height of [the family values debate]. There are these compendiums of art books, and I found this compendium of sexual imagery from the beginning of time to the current day, and I found these woodcuts which I didn't know at the time but later found out were from one of the Marquis de Sade's books. I was not aware of where they came from, I just thought here are these explicit but vague images. I scanned them very carefully to make sure there were no explicit acts depicted. What I wanted was to create sort of an Impressionist painting, something you would look at and express the image of sex without any explicit sexual imagery. I didn't think anyone would be offended, but gosh was I wrong.
People were very upset. The worst was in Oklahoma City where a group -- the same group that tried to have The Tin Drum, the film based on the novel by Gunter Grass, declared child pornography -- went after me and the newspaper.
I was denounced as a pornographer; I was denounced by an Oklahoma state legislator who wanted to bring charges against me for pornography and obscenity. Fortunately the D.A., who had a passing familiarity with the First Amendment, decided not to do that. This thing led the evening news in Oklahoma: "Local paper that children can read running pornography!" and the irony of it is that if you go back and read the cartoon, the whole point of using those images was to discuss how the media seem to think that people would not pay attention to anything if it were not about sex. The cartoon itself was about campaign finance reform. In it I said something like you'd have to use sex to get people to listen to a discussion about campaign finance reform, and in fact, I got more attention from that than anything else I've done.
Someone from this Okalahoma group wrote to Salon magazine and said, "Hey, this cartoon shows anal sex and lesbianism, and someone might see this cartoon and say, 'Hey, I've never tried lesbianism.' " In this culture, do you really think some kid is going to be corrupted by some really wordy political cartoon with some 17th century engravings in it? If that's all you've got to worry about, then you do not live in the same society I live in.
Indy: It occurs to me that to some degree what you are doing with the political conventions is bringing back a little bit of fun to the political critiques.
TT: Yes, yes, exactly. And the thing with the conventions that's great is to go on site and create some kind of bizarre encounter, not just to stand around and wait for something to happen, but to make something happen like the time Michael Moore got Alan Keyes to go into the mosh pit.
That's much harder to do in a cartoon than as a filmmaker. But in L.A., I was fortunate enough to be hanging around with Dave Barry, a very funny man, and someone who is also very well-loved, and being with him gives you great access. Dave is running for president himself, though he isn't doing quite as well as Ralph Nader.
He set up this breakfast with the mayor of L.A., Mayor Riordan, and he asked a few of us cartoonists to come along as his secret service contingent. We stole phone cords from our hotel rooms and had these phone cords hanging out from our ears like real secret service guys. There were three or four of us there for breakfast that morning, and the mayor's guys came by with their phone cords stuck out of their ears and asked us who we were and we said, "We're with Dave Barry."
There was a big party that night at Arnold Schwarzenegger's house and we tried to talk the mayor into taking us along for that. We couldn't quite talk him into inviting us, but somehow we convinced him it'd be a really great idea if we put on our dark suits with our phone cords hanging out of our ears, and come along as his escorts to this party given by Patton Boggs, the main insider lobbyist guy from Washington, D.C.
And so we went to this party, dressed in sunglasses in the middle of the night and we escorted the mayor to this party, which really means we escorted him to the bar. This was the party that Granny D crashed and got into this thing with the global exchange people. I noticed Terry McAuliffe, the lead fund-raiser for the Gore campaign, was standing about three feet away from Granny D, so I nudged one of my friends and told him to introduce her. So we stood there and watched as he tried to convince her that the two of them were on the same side -- that he hated soft money, just send a bill through Congress and he would support the end of soft money.
Indy: Regarding the protests at the conventions, what did you take from the experience of what was happening on the streets?
TT: What I talked about in the cartoon was the disconnect between what was happening on the street and what was happening inside the convention halls. I spent a lot of time talking to the mainstream media people inside, and they had this kind of opinion -- oh yeah, those protesters, trying to kick up some dirt. And I asked them, don't you think these people had some serious concerns, were well-informed and had some serious things to say? I didn't change anyone's mind.
The activists were in a sort of no-win situation. Standing on the street shouting stupid slogans is the only way you can get attention, but then you look like a goofball standing on the street shouting stupid slogans. There were these Independent Media Centers run by anarchists and such at both conventions, and I have to say there's marginalization and then there's self-marginalization.
I read an article, I think on Alternet, that said, you know, if the mainstream media had bothered to stop by ... Well, I dropped by and I was basically treated with suspicion and disrespect. If Tom Tomorrow was treated that way, think of how, say, Peter Jennings would have been treated if he had stopped by.
Indy: Is there a need for a critique from the left that isn't so dour?
TT: Yes, there is. Of course, I have been accused of being pretty dour. But if you go back and go through the books, look through my archives, if you look at these chunks of work, there are a lot of just silly cartoons thrown in there. And whenever I do one of these I get letters from serious, dour lefties who say, "How could you waste your time on such trivial issues?" But I'll tell you what, if I don't lighten up the mix now and again, a lot of people won't bother to pay attention to what I'm saying. You really have to think of it as a body of work. You can't think, hmmm, this one cartoon was really lightweight and I'm losing it.
My cartoon is not going to change the world. I came to terms with that a long time ago. Anybody who reads this interview, then runs to their computer to write and tell me that throwing my support to Nader is going to mean more support for Bush needs to keep this in mind: You know, I was on vacation last week, and unless a single-payer health-care plan passed and welfare reform was repealed and the U.S. pulled out of the WTO and there were some really transformative events that occurred that I missed, it is generally my perception that the opinions expressed in my cartoon do not have a great effect on the world at large. And that's fine.
The point of this cartoon is largely just to have a soapbox. A line I have used before is that to be a political cartoonist, you have to simultaneously want to change the world and be aware that you're simply not going to. You have to have that passion to want things to be better, but you have to understand that your cartoon just doesn't matter that much.
Humor is the most effective thing. You sneak past people's defenses when you make them laugh.