The Greatest Projects I Never Made (Part 1 of 2)

Image result for empty desk

She was a terrible boss. But she was wise about work. “We are defined more by the business we refuse to take than the ones we do,” she told me. That turned out to be true. My cartoons are notable for what they don’t include: symbols like donkeys and elephants, labeled graphic metaphors, a reliance on caricature.

Film fanatics muse about the Greatest Movies Never Made. There was talk about remaking John Carpenter’s campy, low-budget, politically brilliant 1988 movie “They Live.” Unlike Harrison Ford’s oafish 1995 do-over of “Sabrina”—first rule of Hollywood should be don’t remake a film by Billy Wilder—“They Live” with money for special effects and real actors might have been something to see.

Projects that get dropped before completion reveal the outer limits of a creator’s interests. Ideas intriguing enough to pursue initially and fall apart in the face of financial or marketplace distribution issues or other, easier-to-finish plans present a tantalizing portrait of a career that might have been under different circumstances.

I’ve been slogging through a midlife crisis. Court battles, career pains and my mother’s flagging health have me focused on mortality. For a poor kid from the Rust Belt I’ve lived an amazing life; if I die today I’ll feel that I scored a better deal than many others. Still, to whine is human. Closer to death than birth, I’m considering how to spend the time I have left and regretting cool things I never got to do and probably never will: work on staff inside the offices of a newspaper or magazine, study toward a master’s degree, teach, live or study overseas.

As a project-oriented creator I think even more about specific projects that, for whatever reason, never worked out. Call them: Ted Rall’s Greatest Projects Never Made.

I got close to newspaper staff jobs several times. The editor at the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch admired my cartoons but said she didn’t think her readers wanted to swallow the graphic equivalent of “ground glass with their breakfast every morning.” The Newark Star-Ledger passed me over for a recent college grad on the grounds that “it’ll be easier to tell a kid what to do.”

The Sacramento Bee flew me out for a decidedly unimpressive interview, putting me up at a motel whose view was an endless parade of homeless men pushing shopping carts. I knew the fix was in when I saw Rex Babin’s latest cartoon on the editor’s desk, not mine. They hired Rex. Anyway, the editor informed me that my caustic cartoons “might be too upsetting to the good burghers of Sacramento.” At the Harrisburg Patriot-News the fault was mine. They asked how much I wanted and I told them ($80,000 if memory serves). They hired another sportswriter instead. Two decades later, the cartooning job is still vacant.

Then there was the Asbury Park Press. I’d been schlepping down the Jersey shore from NYC for more than a year to draw about local and state politics. Finally the day I had been waiting for arrived: the big interview. Ray Ollwerther and I talked for an hour. Everything went smoothly until the executive editor’s last question. Gesturing to a window that overlooked the parking lot, he asked: “Will I ever look out there and see someone protesting something that you drew?” Honest to a career-suicide fault, I said, “I don’t know. Maybe.” As at the Ledger, they hired a young guy instead.

In the 1980s, in my twenties, I was desperately poor and viciously ambitious, a combination that opens one to a certain moral flexibility. I hated my life as a low-level banker. Why not sell out? Which is how I found myself being treated to lunch at the Four Seasons by Priscilla Buckley, editor of the archconservative National Review.

You may wonder why I include NR on this list. I obviously didn’t belong there. Because the money would have been great. And I would have loved to have worked with Buckley. Republican she was, and also an excellent human: witty, incredibly intelligent, kind. I left with instructions to draw 12 cartoons from a right-wing point of view.

I agonized. The poor: it’s their own fault. Reagan, we’re lucky to have him. We ought to have more wars. I couldn’t do it. Not because it made me feel evil—it was simply that none of it was true and there is no satire without underlying truth. I ducked Priscilla’s calls and she soon gave up.

Morals entered the equation in late 1990 when the New York Daily News went on strike. It was a brutal labor battle. Newsstands that sold the scab paper got torched; a strikebreaking delivery truck driver was shot at or shot, I don’t remember which. Along with every other newspaper, the News had been on my mailing list so that’s how they came to call me about a cartooning position at what was then America’s largest circulation newspaper. The editor offered me $120,000 at a time when I had zero prospects. I was a 28-year-old college senior, with no income and the same amount of financial aid, about to graduate into a tough recession. Editorials, not just at the News, portrayed the strikers as spoiled overpaid brats, but the offer bothered me. So I called my mom.

Uncharacteristically, she listened carefully without interrupting. “I didn’t raise a son,” she said simply, “to cross a picket line.” She was a teachers’ union shop steward. That was that.

We’re defined by what we refuse to do. But whenever I’ve worried about money, I wished I hadn’t called mom.

Next week: the really weird stuff I never did.

(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

9 thoughts on “The Greatest Projects I Never Made (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Morals entered the equation in late 1990 when the New York Daily News went on strike.

    With regard to morals, it is instructive to see the coverage of the strike by other media ; take the New York Times as a case in point. I’ve been able to find two examples on the web – here and here. The so-called «newspaper of record» seems always to approve of independent unions in foreign lands, especially those with an relation to the U S policies which can be seen as adversarial, while at home, as far as I can recall after nearly seven decades of (intemittently) reading the paper, they never support a strike….

    Henri

  2. “I didn’t raise a son,” she said simply, “to cross a picket line.”

    You’ve got a great mom, Ted ; I hope and trust you cherish her….

    Henri

  3. It is something I have observed repeatedly as well. Conservativism lacks humor because much of it is NOT grounded in a truth of any kind. It can be glib or clever, but anyone who reads Mallard Fillmore can reach the same conclusion. It just isn’t funny. A lot of P.J. O’Rourke’s stuff is highly entertaining, but he picks at a lot of low-hanging fruit.

    I suspect, Ted, that had you gotten the job at NR, you would have eventually slit your own wrists.

    Ad as someone who has now finished selling pretty much every possession I owned, who is now a little more than a year behind on his rent, and who has exactly zero job prospects, oh sweetjesusandallthesaints I really do understand the psychic damage of worrying about money. So I’m not trying to be a goody-two-shoes here.

    Yes, the California Supremes might stick the knife in your back at any moment. But you know what? The real journalists who looked at the evidence reached the same conclusion as the filers of those letters to the court: clearly, this was not a case of Ted lied and got fired for it. This was you getting the shaft for pissing off the wrong people. It’s a shitty compliment to get when you can’t pay the bills and might be pushed into bankruptcy, but in 10 years, you’ll be one of the cases — along with Mike Diana and Gary Webb — that journalism teachers will point to. “And this was, pretty much, the last nail in the coffin for the L.A. Times. They were able to screw Rall to the wall, but everyone knew what really happened.”

  4. Interesting stuff.

    “I left with instructions to draw 12 cartoons from a right-wing point of view.

    I agonized. The poor: it’s their own fault. Reagan, we’re lucky to have him. We ought to have more wars. I couldn’t do it. Not because it made me feel evil—it was simply that none of it was true and there is no satire without underlying truth.”

    Did you have set topics? Like orders to praise Reagan specifically? If the order was just to make right-wing cartoons, a more natural if still dishonest fit would’ve been to bash liberals/Democrats (and maybe Reagan’s enemies among Republicans? If I’m not mistaken, many of the party elites were not exactly crazy about him at first, and only really canonised him after he was gone), I would think. If what you write here is anything to go by, it wouldn’t have been too difficult for you to paint them as hypocrites and fools, while avoiding the boring, positive pro-Reagan stuff.

    “Uncharacteristically, she listened carefully without interrupting. “I didn’t raise a son,” she said simply, “to cross a picket line.” She was a teachers’ union shop steward. That was that.”

    As an irrelevant aside, I can’t imagine a Soviet mother saying something like that. This kind of principled/fanatical worker solidarity seems like it could only emerge under untrammelled capitalism. I’ve encountered this many times in American writing and it is simply eerie to me – neither good nor bad, necessarily, just alien.

    • @Daniil – come to think of it, Ted often criticizes liberals and Democrats, those sentiments would have been readily accepted without him having to sell out. 😀

      > This kind of principled/fanatical worker solidarity seems like it could only emerge under untrammelled capitalism

      Marx said something similar, as a direct, predictable reaction to the excesses of the bourgeoisie.

      > neither good nor bad, necessarily, just alien.

      And that’s quite interesting, Socialism was supposed to spring from worker solidarity, ergo one would expect it to be second nature to someone raised under supposed Socialism. . (Things don’t always work out as planned …)

      I always appreciate your viewpoint, it”s neither good nor bad – just alien. Beats the heck out of having our government tell us what people in other countries think.

      • I think there’s no great mystery as to what happened to worker solidarity in the Soivet Union. The capitalists that they rallied against were gone. The only one left exploiting the workers was the state, which nominally belonged to the workers. It did this under a worker solidarity propaganda sauce. Socialism, supposed or not, ended decades ago, but most people here are still allergic to anything that sounds remotely like it, because, well, that’s how people tend to react to propaganda once they’ve been exposed to it for long enough. I think this will change in time, though.

        Also, of course, the trade unions themselves were largely hollowed out as institutions, becoming institutes of state control over the workers. They could still be useful for all sorts of things, but it’s hard to feel much loyalty for something that is just the arm of a stumbling, negligent and instinctively repressive state (if not something worse, depending on one’s view).

        And re: liberals, yeah, that’s the thing. I’m not just making a silly retroactive suggestion here, this strategy was followed by a lot of people here, especially under the Soviets.

        Mikhail Bulgakov comes to mind, though it’s just one example. He was strongly anti-Soviet, fought for the Whites in the civil war and regarded their defeat as a mini-apocalypse. He wrote a play called Batum that became Stalin’s favourite play about himself. It depicted a younger Stalin as a ruthlessly efficient and capable fanatic and the opposing Tsarist authorities as constituted largely out of inept morons, self-serving careerists and out of touch aristocrats. All of this was reflective of his genuine opinion of both the revolutionaries and their enemies. What remained unsaid was that his own sympathies were nonetheless on the side of the latter, as less dangerous to the population.

        Of course, saying the whole truth of what he thought about the subjects of his play would’ve threatened more than his career, but then again, he could’ve just laid low instead.

      • @Daniil – Is vodka still the popular remedy for depression in your neck of the woods? I’m into whiskeys myself, but can do vodka shots with the best of them.

        Speaking of depression …

        > The only one left exploiting the workers was the state, which nominally belonged to the workers.

        Funny, the same thing happened here.

        > most people here are still allergic to anything that sounds remotely like [Socialism]

        Funny, the same thing happened here.

        > the trade unions … becoming institutes of state control over the workers.

        Funny, the same thing happened here.

        > stumbling, negligent and instinctively repressive state

        Funny, the same thing …

        … okay, maybe not so funny. It’s time for more vodka.

        You guys got [real] Stolichnaya, we’ve got children’s fruit drinks fortified with neutral spirits being marketed as vodka. You guys win again.

        Damn.

  5. It’s called integrity, Ted.

    Once it’s sufficiently adapted to be sold it’s no longer integrity, but a mere facsimile of integrity.

    Truth is cheap in a market populated by highly-compensated lies.

    It’s the lie reborn as a “truth of the mob” that is consequential both politically and economically.

    Phil Donahue started to question MSNBC’s support for Bush’s war of aggression on Iraq.

    Even though his show had high ratings, the truths that he allowed a place in free discussion devalued the rest of MSNBC’s lineup.

    So he had to go.

    The ideas that survive in a corporate “marketplace of ideas” are those that best serve corporate interests. The basic function of a capitalist corporation is to make money through whatever the medium, be it food, medicine, or automobiles, etc.; it’s always money that it makes.

    Truth be damned if a conjured “truth of the mob”(which comprises a market) will make more money.

    The “Socratic Method” is the means by which truth tellers are selected for elimination by exile or administration of hemlock.

  6. > “Will I ever look out there and see someone protesting something that you drew?” Honest to a career-suicide fault, I said, “I don’t know. Maybe.” As at the Ledger, they hired a young guy instead.

    Proper answer, “You will if I’m doing my job right.”

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