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Making America grin again

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Bill O’Neal might just be Sonoma’s eternal optimist – which isn’t a likely description for a seasoned political cartoonist.

But even after editorial stints lampooning the shenanigans of such administrations as those of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and now Donald Trump, O’Neal holds more than a modicum of hope for things to come.

“Nixon achieved some remarkable things,” says O’Neal, who skewered LBJ and “Tricky Dick” during the tumultuous 1960s. “I have to remain open to the idea that Trump might too; we’ll see.”

That’s pretty gracious for a guy who’s caricatured the 45th POTUS and his unconventional march to the White House on a weekly basis for the past two years.

O’Neal, 79, began cartooning in college for the campus humor magazine at Purdue University. He continued to draw cartoons during his four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, although he remained under the radar, since Air Force brass would have court martialed him had they known he was making fun of their commander-in-chief.

A career as a starving cartoonist failed to appeal, so O’Neal left the service for the world of advertising. His advertising career took him to Chicago, New York and finally to Connecticut, where he founded the nationally-known marketing firm, O’Neal Strategy Group.

Bill followed his wife, Dian, to Sonoma in 2008. For him, it was a life changing event. He continues to run O’Neal Strategy Group from the West Coast, but he now finds time for other things, including cartooning. In 2010, he published “The Sixties,” a collection of his cartoons from the 1960s, which led him to a part-time gig as a contributing cartoonist for the Sonoma Index-Tribune, where his work appears Fridays.

O’Neal’s latest collection, “Race for the White House: A Cartoon History of the 2016 Presidential Election” ($19.99; Sonoma Valley Press), is now available at Readers’ Books, 130 E. Napa St. And his tempered, New Yorker cartooning style – and irascible wit – had never been on sharper display.

Describing the 2016 election as “the weirdest presidential campaign in U.S. history,” O’Neal says he feels the outcome is “still very much on our minds” and hopes that, while his humor may not contain all the answers to whatever the heck happened to the country that year, at least his book may convey some insight. And, if nothing else, a few big laughs.

We asked O’Neal him about his art, the role of humor in today’s politics, and the challenges of mining laughs from troubling times.

Your book invites readers to relive the 2016 campaign and election. What are you, some kind of sadist?

No pain no gain! Reliving the ups and downs and twist and turns of this campaign is a way to understand how this happened to us. And it’s fun to have a few laughs along the way.

It had been four decades since your editorial cartooning about the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Did you ever imagine you’d be drawn back into the field?

I never thought about cartooning until I moved to California 10 years ago. Sonoma was a wonderful change of pace for me. I remain active in O’Neal Strategy Group, but it no longer totally absorbs me. I found time to give back to the community through Rotary and Vintage House (editor’s note: O’Neal has been a past-president of Rotary of Sonoma Valley and is currently board president of Vintage House Senior Center) and I got back in touch with my true passion — political cartooning.

How much of your editorial cartooning is art, how much is activism — and how much is therapy?

For me, political cartooning is 20 percent art, 20 percent activism and 60 percent therapy.

So much of what comes out of the White House already seems like parody. Does that present its own humor challenge?

True, it’s hard to parody a parody, but this White House provides so many opportunities, it’s not a serious challenge. It’s more a matter of what topic do I pick this week?

What similarities do you see between Nixon and Trump? And does that inform your work?

First of all, Nixon and Trump are both fun to draw — Nixon with his ski-shaped nose and 5 o’clock shadow, Trump with his 1950s ducktails and ridiculously long tie. Both also share certain characteristics — paranoia, deceit, vindictiveness, dictatorial personalities. But Nixon achieved some remarkable things. I have to remain open to the idea that Trump might too; we’ll see.

There have been criticisms leveled at comedians, talk show hosts and humorists in general for allegedly creating a false sense that mockery of political malfeasance is satiating what should be outrage. We laugh at the buffoonery and then do nothing about it.

Laughing at the follies of politicians doesn’t replace our sense of outrage. If anything, it sharpens it. Humor is a way to get past normal defense mechanisms and penetrate people’s minds. What they do with those feelings is dependent on their personalities and political sophistication

What role does a political cartoonist play in 21st century discourse? What good can you do?

Today’s political cartoonists play the same role they always have — to make people stop and think about a political action or situation. The great cartoonists like (Thomas) Nast and (Bill) Mauldin and (Patrick) Oliphant had the power to change people’s minds. The rest of us mere mortals are satisfied if we can get people thinking and talking. Entertaining readers is a side benefit.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.