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The king and the jester

“Satire is moral outrage transformed into comic art,” author Philip Roth once observed.

And, if so, Sonoma Valley resident Bill O’Neal must have satire coming out his ears.

O’Neal has been publishing editorial cartoons in the Index-Tribune for nearly five years – beginning during the jaw-dropping days of the 2016 presidential campaign and continuing weekly from there as America’s jaws plummeted further and further with each successive news cycle during the next four years of the Trump administration.

While O’Neal, 82, has found comic fodder in a host of characters from inside the Beltway, he’s most frequently honed his cartoonist’s gaze at POTUS 45, whose larger-than-life escapades at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. the past few years have supplied no shortage of material to mine inspiration for his single-panel musings. And O’Neal makes no bones about which direction on the moral-outrage spectrum such inspiration takes him.

“The guy is without shame,” O’Neal said bluntly about his most frequent satirical target. “He has made no attempt to hide the fact that he is a liar, a cheat, a bully and a fraud. He should never have held the office of President of the United States.”

Yet, if Donald Trump had never been president, O’Neal would never have published his latest collection of editorial cartoons, “The Tumultuous Reign of Donald the First,” featuring 120 works covering all four years of Trump’s presidency, replete with commentary from the artist himself.

“Tumultuous Reign” follows in the footsteps of O’Neal’s 2018 collection, “Race to the White House,” which focused on the historic 2016 presidential campaign, featuring works created after O’Neal’s return to cartooning following a career in New York advertising and running his nationally known marketing firm, O’Neal Strategy Group, based in Connecticut.

O’Neal cut his cartooning teeth in college for Purdue University’s campus humor magazine, and further honed his chops during a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force – years in which he operated incognito to stay out of the crosshairs of top air force brass. In 2010, O’Neal published “The Sixties,” a collection of his cartooning highlights from the decade.

O’Neal and his wife, Dian, moved to Sonoma in 2008, a move O’Neal has described as “a wonderful change of pace” after a life absorbed in the world of East Coast advertising.

Though humorous cartooning is never easy, it has certainly been even more of a challenge in recent years, as O’Neal kept one bemused eye on national news, and a more sober one on the series of local crises that plagued Sonoma. But in the wake of fires, blackouts and evacuations from the O’Neals’ Oakmont home, he always spared time for a poke at the power that be.

Sadly, the pandemic capped a year of great challenge with greater grief: Dian died Jan. 31 at age 79 following a long illness.

In addition to describing her as “the most amazing person I have ever known,” O’Neal also names Dian has his greatest cartooning critic.

“She responded to my cartoons in one of four ways,” said O’Neal. “I don’t understand it (which meant it was way too obtuse); it’s offensive; it’s not funny; or you nailed it!”

Added O’Neal: “She saved me from a lot of clunkers. I will miss her keen eye and shrewd judgment.”

“The Tumultuous Reign of Donald the First” is set to publish on April 15 – perhaps a nice distraction from taxes, quips O’Neal – and will be available on Amazon.com for $25. Preorders – which he’s using to help fund the publishing – will be inscribed and signed by the author and are available now at O’Neal’s website, beyondthepoliticalpale.com.

We asked O’Neal about humor and cartooning in the age of Trump.

Where will you aim your satirical pen now that Trump is out of office?

As long as there are politicians, there will be satirical targets. And I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of Donald Trump.

Did you ever imagine a presidential administration would provide you with the kind of material this one has?

The Trump administration took chaos and controversy to a new high, but they are not alone in providing great material for cartoonists. The Nixon and Johnson administrations were full of satirical opportunities, from LBJ’s foreign policy goofs to Nixon’s imperial pretensions and paranoia.

One imagines people with recognizable and already exaggerated features like Trump are easier to draw than others. Are there any political figures you have struggled to capture?

Trump is a walking, talking caricature; he’s a breeze to draw. Other politicians are harder for me to capture. I’m having a hard time with Biden and Harris. But I’ve got four years to get them down.

Any editorial cartoonists you particularly admire?

When I started out in the 1960s, most political cartoons in this country were pretty dull – lots of Uncle Sams, elephants and donkeys. I took my inspiration from Canadian and British cartoonists like Duncan McPherson and David Lowe. Today, there is lots of great work being done in this country. I don’t look to anyone else for inspiration anymore, but there are certainly cartoonists I admire — Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Courier, Tom Toles of the Washington Post and especially David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times. I wish I could draw as well as Horsey.

How would you describe your cartooning style?

It has more in common with the New Yorker than the editorial pages of daily newspapers. I’m more of a minimalist. My cartoons are black and white; today’s editorial cartoons are full color. My cartoons tend to have sparse backgrounds; most editorial cartoons are complete drawings. Plus, I’m always going for a laugh, or at least a smile.

What sort of challenges arise in finding humor when circumstances become gravely serious — such as the Trump rioters storming the Capitol building?

There is something humorous in almost every situation, no matter how grave. For example, I just did a cartoon about Trump rioters storming the Capitol building. One of the rioters is standing on the hood of a truck, another rioter, the owner of the truck, says “Get the hell off my truck.” The idea that someone about to take over a government building is incensed by someone else taking over his truck is funny. At least I think so.

Speak to one of your repeating motifs: the depiction of Trump as a king.

I could have portrayed Trump as a fascist. But there is much more to fascism than there is to Trump’s political thinking. Trump’s vision of himself is more as an autocrat king who ought not be subject to judicial and legislative restraint, someone born into privilege as oppose to earning it on the mean streets. Donald Trump resembles Louis XIV far more than Benito Mussolini.

What sort of humor might the Biden administration provide?

In the past Biden has been known for his gaffes. There were very few instances of him putting his foot in his mouth during the campaign, but Biden is bound to relapse, and it will probably be very funny. Besides, we still have the cast of clowns we had before: Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, etc. They are always good for a laugh.

Cartoonist Dan Perkins (aka Tom Tomorrow) once said that to be a political cartoonist “you have to want to change the world while understanding you can’t.” What do you think of that?

That’s too far-fetched for me. I can only think of one cartoonist who even came close to changing the world he lived in — Thomas Nast in the 1860s and 1870s. I just want people to pay attention to what is happening in this country, how polarized positions on both the right and the left are tearing our nation apart. Donald Trump is a poster boy for polarization and tribal politics. That’s why I’ve been so critical of him and his administration. If I can get people to laugh at his follies, maybe I can change some minds. It’s worth a shot.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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