Cartoonist Steve Bell has been skewering British politicians since his career took off in the late 1970s. Because his obsession is politics, a good number of American presidents have come in for in his particular brand of satire. His cartoons and comic strips appear in the British newspaper The Guardian where he’s had a cartooning home since 1981.
The first US president Bell caricatured was Jimmy Carter back in 1979. In those early Bell cartoons, Carter is all teeth and what he says is phonetically spelled out in southern drawl (Bell calls it a “hillbilly” accent). Bell’s views are to the left and he admits it’s harder for him to take down Democratic American presidents than Republicans.
His cartoons of Ronald Reagan emphasize the late president’s perfectly coiffed and mysteriously still-jet-black-at-70-something hair. They also show Reagan’s political love affair with the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Bell often does send-ups of the ‘special relationship,’ the phrase coined by Winston Churchill to describe the political and historical ties between Britain and the United States. Bell doesn’t think it’s so special and describes it rather as one that’s “generally slavish on the part of the UK.”
Bell’s cartoons of Bill Clinton include saxophones and, yes, penis metaphors. It’s when he gets to George W. Bush that Bell takes the gloves off completely.
Early George W. Bush cartoons by Bell show the former president as decidedly simian, the sidekick chimp from “Bedtime for Bonzo,” a 1951 film comedy that starred Ronald Reagan. But the chimp caricatures of George W. Bush turn sinister after the US launches the war against Iraq. During that period, Bell pillories both the American president and then British Prime Minister Tony Blair for leading the charge to war.
Bell admits his own political views make it easier for him to take down Republican presidents than Democrats. But his caricatures of current President Barack Obama do display deep ambivalence about Obama’s commitment to, among other things, closing down the detention center at Guantanamo.
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Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills. This is The World. Steve Bell has been skewering Britain’s chattering class for more than 30 years. He’s a political cartoonist whose work appears in The Guardian and other publications. Bell’s views tilt to the left, and he has a take-no-prisoners approach to satirizing politicians, mostly British. But he’s also drawn many American presidents. The first was Jimmy Carter, back in the late 1970s. Bell says cartooning is his way of “yelling back at the radio” when he hears politicians say things that drive him mad.
Steve Bell: Well, we’re quite a political household. My wife and I, we both sort of, we follow politics quite avidly and we both spend a great deal of time shouting at the TV or shouting at the radio. It’s a strange way of getting back, getting your own back, at this stuff that pours out of the screen.
Hills: With our current US president, Barack Obama, how did you take stock of him?
Bell: He was quite tough, actually, to get a grip of. I remember going through various sort of dead ends, really, with the caricature. There was something about his face that I was missing, and this often happens. Then I realized, and it was just, he’s got the most amazingly pronounced eyebrows. They’re almost like painted-on eyebrows. He’s got very strong eyebrows. So I sort of looked at him again, looked at the shape of his head, and make these eyebrows far more pronounced. And it kind of tied the head together and so it all flowed on from there. So you build, use what’s in front of you, basically.
Hills: You build visually, but then, is your visual characterization informed by politics as well as you get to know them?
Bell: Oh, absolutely. In a sense, that’s my first kind of impetus, is to try and get to grips with the politics of it. Sometimes you have a politician who I sort of disagree with violently from the word go. So it’s, so like with Bush the younger, that was, he was quite easy to get really. I sort of established that he looked like a monkey quite early on. I was drawing him with Reagan, strangely enough, it was when he was first made president, and there’s this thing called “Bedtime for Bonzo,” which is a film that Reagan was in, where Reagan appeared with a chimp. So I just turned Bush into the chimp. But as soon as I started drawing him as a chimp it suddenly all made sense. It suddenly fell into place, because there is something very simian about young Bush.
Hills: Yeah, your cartoons about George Bush, George W. Bush, they’re pretty vitriolic. You can almost hear you growling as you draw them. It seems like a lot of those cartoons are also informed by his relationship with Tony Blair and the war in Iraq.
Bell: The Iraq War was a huge feature of the Bush junior reign, and the way our Prime Minister was in his pocket was quite embarrassing, really, from our point of view.
Hills: I want to go back to Jimmy Carter for a bit. His presidency occurred early on in your career. And you, like many cartoonists, there’s a lot of teeth and there’s a southern drawl in what he says. Do you remember what you thought of him when he first appeared on the scene?
Bell: Well, he was like a relief from Nixon, so I suppose I tended to feel more sympathetic towards him. This was back in the 70s. Again, he’s one of those difficult ones. He’s got quite an interesting, really, he’s got very pronounced lips and teeth, and sort of big sad eyes. And you sort of wrestle wih it and then eventually you find a way of doing him. There was something about his relationship with Thatcher, who was, Thatcher was a sort of antithesis to him. Thatcher was sort of ideologically driven, much more right-wing than him. And also, at the time she was just getting going. There was only a brief overlap of one year when they were both in power. And then Reagan came along, who was like a right-wing soul mate for Thatcher, and they had a kind of love affair for the next eight years.
Hills: Your cartoons of Reagan, they sort of show this permanent smile, wrinkles. There’s some suggestion in your caricatures that he’s had work done on his face, and he’s old, and his black hair is perfectly black and perfectly styled.
Bell: Well, I don’t know about the face lift, but he had definitely had a hair lift. His hair took on a life of its own and started shooting off into space. Because his hair had a very distinct shape. It had a kind of plastic, shiny, glossy black look. It was like a pointed missile in some ways. So the hair sort of led on, and then underneath was this mass of lines and crinkles, and then it was just the whole Reagan attitude, presenting this image of a sort of simple man. I don’t think he was nearly as simple as he presented. But there was another one I did about his body language, and with him particularly, he would strut around and sort of swagger.
Hills: What about Bill Clinton? He was a completely different animal.
Bell: Yeah, Bill Clinton was very different. He was, I suppose his caricature got overtaken by the activities of his penis, which was all the business about Monica Lewinsky, because that really just took over his entire presidency, even though he lasted two terms. I mean, I started off with his rather strained relationship with John Major, who of course I did a lot. He was our Prime Minister who I always drew with his underpants outside his trousers. He was like a reverse Superman. And they got off to a very bad start, because Major actually tried to help his opponent in the ’92 election, which was Bush senior, by supplying sort of intelligence about what the young Clinton had been up to while at college. So that, when Clinton unexpectedly won, that caused rather severe problems for Major, and the relationship never really recovered. It’s always difficult with Democratic presidents. I tend to find them more awkward to do than Republican ones, who are so easy to oppose.
Hills: Why is that? Just your own political leanings?
Bell: You know what they say about American politics here. They say, in America you have two parties, one of them’s like the Conservative Party, and the other one’s like the Conservative Party. Politics here has just become like that too.
Hills: After observing politics and politicians for so many years, are there certain things that are just ubiquitous? Certain qualities that are just the same among politicians, because it’s just the nature of the business?
Bell: Yes, I think there are. I suppose one of the things that, for me, makes cartoons more important is that politics is more and more about imagery and image, and presentation, and politicians wanting to look like something, or to look, appear in a certain way giving a certain message. And it’s all very controlled, and I think that tendency has increased in recent years. You see all politicians, they all look and behave identically, and they’re very, very careful not to put a foot wrong and not to say certain things. So it can be excruciating to watch.
Hills: You said no US president has ever called you on your cartoons but how about British prime ministers?
Bell: The most recent one, which is Cameron, actually once came over to me, because, of course I’m quite a large chap, so I sit there in the front row drawing them and I’m quite conspicuous. So he once came over to me, and he, I’ve never been introduced, but he said, oh yeah, and he asked me, because I draw him with a condom over his head, and he asked me, what’s this condom thing all about. And I said, well, it’s about your extreme youth, because he’s much younger than I am, and about the smoothness of your complexion, because he is incredibly smooth when you see him in the flesh. This guy has no pores, he’s like he’s made of rubber. So in a sense that’s why I draw him that way. And then he came up a few months later and he said, you’re not still doing that condom thing, so I said, well, yeah. And he said, came up with a memorable phrase, “you can only push a condom so far,” which I take with me as useful advice for life in general.
Hills: Has anyone ever caricatured you?
Bell: Yeah, it’s terrible. I thought, that doesn’t look like me. Well, of course it did, it looked more like me than. That’s the essence of caricature. But it’s an uncomfortable process. It’s not nice, it’s not nice being done. But then that’s our job, that’s what we do.
Hills: Steve Bell’s cartoons and comic strips appear in The Guardian newspaper. We’ve got a slide show of some of the cartoons he’s done of US presidents over his 30-plus-year career, and it’s narrated by Steve Bell himself, so you can find out how he came up with each caricature. You can also find links to Bell’s latest cartoons at The Guardian, as well as his own web site, which has an archive going back to the early 1980s. That’s all at TheWorld.org.
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