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

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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.)

Full Text of Index on Censorship Amicus Letter

Index on Censorship, the prestigious UK-based free-speech organization, has joined six US-based pro-press freedom organizations to oppose the LA Times’ four-year campaign of harassment and libel against me, trying to ruin me because I offended their then-business partner and part-owner, the Los Angeles Police Department, with my cartoons. Here is the complete text of the IoC letter.

 

Trump Derangement Syndrome: Liberals Hate His Style, Not His Politics

Image result for obama dronesAll presidents suck so I hate them. But it takes a special something to trigger me into full-on Presidential Derangement Syndrome.

When you go from contempt to boiling rage at the mere thought of a president’s existence and less to his deeds, that’s PDS. When Reagan and one of the Bushes appeared it took Herculean effort to resist my urge to throw something heavy and lethal at the screen. The thought that two of these worthies are dead gives me nothing but pleasure; I hope to live long enough to witness the trifecta.

I hated their policies. But policies don’t trigger PDS. As a leftie I despise Democrats more than Republicans in the same way that the French loathed the Nazis but hated French collaborators more; Republicans are warmongering racist corporatist monsters but so are Democrats and they ought to know better.

I despised the transparent insincerity of Reagan’s “well, golly” phony folksiness juxtaposed against the viciousness of such actions as gutting the social welfare safety net to cut taxes for the wealthy. As with Reagan my visceral disdain for George HW Bush stemmed from his behavioral hypocrisy; how dare he play the civilized Connecticut preppy while he gleefully ordered a war crime, the massacre of thousands of Iraqis fleeing Kuwait during the Gulf War on the “Highway of Death”?

Bush Derangement Syndrome (about Dubya) pushed me over the edge.

Typically, the man’s politics were despicable. But it was his style, his stage manner, that really drove me nuts: his adopted Texas swagger and equally phony accent, the smirk, his manic cadence—above all, the look in his eyes that said: “I’m a dumbass and I like it.” I didn’t want to have a beer with him, I wanted him to move to the surface of the sun. The incurious idiot drove me to distraction and it shows in my cartoons from the Bush 43 era: angry, pedantic, ineffectual.

In Anglican-founded America, political satire is best served cold.

Living in New York most of my friends are Democrats. I empathize with yet do not share the Trump Derangement Syndrome that is rife throughout liberal-leaning media and among voters.

Trump, TDSers scream, is the worst president ever. They claim that his politics are uniquely ruinous, totally unprecedented, and represent an existential threat to everything good and decent about America. We are doomed! Pendant Trump, le déluge. Trump’s novel awfulness, they explain, is why they hate him so much they wouldn’t even consider having sex with someone hot if they owned a MAGA hat.

Liberals are mistaken. Like all Presidential Derangements, the Trumpian version is provoked by the man’s tone, not the substance of his policies.

No doubt, style matters. This president is the most uncivil, crassest, crudest, ugliest (in several meanings of the word) U.S. leader in memory. Maybe ever.

But style is only style. Style is not substance. Conflating Trump’s weird crazy demeanor with his generically Republican politics exacerbates a problem afflicting our national discourse, our pundits’ tendency to obsess over the distraction of personality rather than the politics that govern our lives.

Though repugnant, neither Trump’s politics nor his policies are significantly worse than those of his precedessors.

Trump separates and jails children at the Mexican border; the policy began smaller under Obama—who jailed and tortured children at Guantànamo (as did Bush). White government officials stole babies from Native Americans until the early 20th century.

The Muslim travel ban is racist and vile; so was the Asian Exclusion Act.

Trump ignored Puerto Rico after it was destroyed by hurricanes; have we already forgotten Bush’s malign neglect after Katrina devastated New Orleans?

Trump’s White House staff reeks of nepotism and self-dealing. JFK appointed his brother, who never really practiced private law, as Attorney General. It didn’t take but Clinton tried to make his wife a healthcare czar.

Trump filled his cabinet with unqualified fools and officials who oppose the missions of the departments they lead. Nothing new there either: Reagan appointed a dentist as Secretary of Energy, a military general as the nation’s chief diplomat, a guy who wanted to eliminate the Education Department to run it and James Watt, who hated the environment, to lead the Interior Department.

Though it’s more style than substantial policy, Trump rightly earned contempt for legitimating the “alt right” in Charlottesville. Sadly, this is hardly new ground for a president. Reagan staged his 1980 campaign announcement rally in the tiny Mississippi town where the KKK murdered four Freedom Riders during the civil rights struggle in order to signal to racists that he was one of them. Nixon had his Southern strategy. Wilson (famously a racist) Taft, Truman and Ike tacitly approved of American fascists like Herbert Hoover and Joseph McCarthy as they hunted down “communists” who in many cases were not—and so what if they were?

Trump’s trade wars and government shutdowns feel new. Actually government shutdowns, all 20 of them, date back to Gerald Ford. We’ve launched trade wars since independence from Britain.

Trump coddles dictators and tyrants like the Saudi prince who had a journalist murdered and sliced into pieces in a consulate but it would be difficult to identify any US president who didn’t maintain close diplomatic, financial and military ties with brutal dictatorships.

No. Trump is not a departure. He is a continuation of America’s insanely violent, classist, racist and militarist policies as pursued by every one of his predecessors.

The real reason liberals can’t stand Trump is that he’s vulgar. Everything from his ’80s-shiny too-tight suits and too-long cherry-red ties to his combover of death to the brass trimmings he favors in his hotels and his spray-on tan screams “used car salesman.” Obama, now he was a president: slim, trim, calm, professorial, multisyllabic. Anyone who liked Obama and hates Trump is kidding themselves if they don’t admit it: they’re can’t stand President Trump because he’s a terrible casting decision.

Politics has very little to do with it.

I hate Trump, but no more than previous presidents. Actually, there’s something I really like about him.

There’s little disjoint, no disconnect, between his disgusting policies and his equally gross persona. Trump is the president America, specifically American politics, deserve. You can’t help but look at that mean greedy pompous bloated orange flag-hugging idiot and think: here, at last, is the perfect embodiment of who we are and what we do to ourselves and the world.

We’ll probably get another “normal” president after Trump. The awful politics will stay the same, the rich will keep stealing from the poor, the bombs will keep raining down on the brown people and Democrats will go back to sleep.

I will miss him.

(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.)

 

Full Text of National Writers Union Amicus Letter

The NWU has joined six other free-speech organizations in supporting my lawsuit against the LA Times with an Amicus Letter to the California Supreme Court. It is so great to see people stepping forward and standing up against billionaire Dr. Pat Soon-Shiong, whose LA Times is bullying me on behalf of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Here is the text of their letter:

8 Ways to Fix America’s Messed-Up Presidential Elections

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In 2016 there were 17 major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, so many they had to have two sets of debates—and the guy who won was the first of all. Seven pundit-viable candidates have declared for 2020 on the Democratic side, more probably on the way, yet many Democrats say they’re not excited by any of them.

There must be a better way.

Presidential campaigns could be improved—streamlined, made more relevant to more voters and their worries, and likelier to result in better outcomes—and it wouldn’t require revolutionary change, just common-sense reforms.

In a representative democracy the goal ought not to be engagement for its own sake. You want voters to vote because they’re vested in the outcome; you want candidates who, after they’re elected, work hard to fix the biggest problems. The ideal politician is responsive and accountable to the citizenry. Otherwise people look at politics and think “what a load of crap, it makes no difference to me.”

First, take a step back: get rid of jungle primaries and open primaries. Both of these newfangled experiments were marketed as ways to increase voter turnout and encourage moderation. They don’t.

In a jungle or open-participation primary like in California the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to a second final round. Trouble is, both might be from the same party, disenfranchising the other party’s voters during the general election. If one party’s candidates split the vote, the minority party can win. Either scenario depresses voter interest and participation. In an open primary voters can cross party lines to vote in the other party’s primary. Studies show that open primaries do not result in victories by more moderate candidates (assuming that’s desirable); Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign shows what happens when a party whose electorate has moved way left is asked to turn out for a centrist.

Either we have parties and party identification or we don’t. Jungle and open primaries are mere mush.

Second, amend Article II of the Constitution. The requirement that only “natural born” citizens over age 35 may run for president ought to be abolished. If you’re mature enough to decide who gets to hold an office, you can hold it. The “natural born” requirement effectively turns naturalized Americans like Arnold Schwarzenegger into second-class citizens and opens the door to stupid discussions like whether John McCain, born in the former Panama Canal Zone, and Ted Cruz (born in Canada) qualifies. France, Germany, Great Britain and Israel are some of the countries that allow naturalized citizens to become head of state.

Opening the presidency to talented young politicians like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (age 29) would reduce the (accurate) perception that top-tier U.S. politics is a hetero white male game.

Third, give presidential debates back to the League of Women Voters. The LWV passed the sponsorship torch to the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1988 because the two parties wanted to control “the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.” Then-League president Nancy Neuman complained at the time: “It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions.”

Neuman was prescient: since 1988 the debates have become soft-ball pabulum. Controlled by the two parties, the Commission excludes third-party candidates from participating. In 2012 the Commission even had the Green Party presidential candidate tied to a chair for eight hours for the crime of trying to participate in democracy. The LWV wasn’t perfect but it was independent.

Fourth, level the campaign financing playing field. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision that enshrined pay-to-play can be abolished with the passage of a bill limiting or controlling outside donations. As with food, France does it better: whereas top individual donors to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump gave more than $20 million each, the cap is €7,500 in France. There are two rounds in French presidential elections. Spending is severely restricted. “To help even out the playing field a little between bigger and smaller parties, campaign expenses can’t legally go over a certain threshold, €16.8 million for the first round, and €22.5 million for the second round,” according to The Local. That’s tiny compared to the $2.6 billion spent by Clinton and Trump in 2016.

U.S.-style political TV ads are banned in France. No matter how small their party, each candidate gets a small number of official statements on the air. In the second-round general election, the airtime of each candidate is exactly equal.

Like France, we can and should limit campaign spending to give new and outside voices an equal chance at getting their opinions out to voters.

Fifth, make voting simultaneous and easier. The major flaw with early voting is, what if big campaign news—one of the candidates talking about “grabbing their pussy,” say—breaks after you voted in October? It’s not like you can take your vote back. Make Election Day a national holiday (as it is in most developed countries) and let people vote on their computers or smartphones. 89% of Americans use the Internet; two out of three do their banking online. How great would it be if candidates’ policy positions and detailed explanations of ballot initiatives could be linked directly via an election app?

Sixth, and most likely to be controversial, is my list of American citizens who should not be permitted to run for president.

  •             If you’re an incumbent officeholder, you should not run. Finish your term first, complete your commitment to the voters of your state or district.
  •             If you cannot pass a simple test about the U.S. and its political system, you should not be allowed to run. We’ve had too many idiot presidents already. What is the Second Amendment? What is the capital of Puerto Rico? Which branch of government may declare war? How many members are there in Congress? Ten questions, you must correctly answer seven.
  •             If you own investments in a business, stock or other investments, or hold office in a company, you should not present yourself as a candidate for the presidency. Conflicts of interest should not be permitted; divest and stick your cash in a 0.3% annual interest savings account. Serve the people, not yourself.
  •             If a close family member by blood or marriage served as president or vice president, you should not run. Your spouse served? Your sibling? Your parent? Find another job. America is a big country and not a hereditary monarchy; give someone from another family a chance.

Seventh, abolish the Electoral College.

Eighth, make it easier for third parties to run by loosening ballot-access rules. Reduce the number of signatures required to get on the ballot. Get rid of laws requiring that you get certain percent of the vote. More choices means more options means greater likelihood that you agree with someone who’s on the ballot.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political 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.)

 

Text of CRNI Amicus Letter

The Cartoonists Rights Network International compares what the LA Times did to me to repression in Turkey, Malaysia and Equatorial Guinea.
 
Here is the complete letter CRNI was kind enough to send to the California Supreme Court in opposition to the LA Times’ motion that I pay billionaire Dr. Pat Soon-Shiong (owner of the Times) hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Project Censored Calls LA Times’ Abuse of anti-SLAPP Law “Obscene”

Weighing in with an Amicus Letter in Ted Rall v. Los Angeles Times, Project Censored calls the LA Times’ legal tactics “backwards and obscene.”

Project Censored is the sixth major First Amendment organization to support me with an Amicus Letter to the California Supreme Court.