Author Interviews
11:01 am
Mon February 20, 2012

'New Yorker' Cartoonist Imagines Washington At 7

Through his many New Yorker covers, Barry Blitt has become one of the pre-eminent satirical cartoonists of America's recent presidents. He is probably best known for his controversial 2008 cover of Michelle and Barack Obama, dressed as a Muslim and a militant with an AK-47, fist-bumping in the Oval Office.

Other famous covers include his 2005 depiction of President George W. Bush and Cabinet partially submerged in Hurricane Katrina floodwaters and a 2010 illustration of President Obama trying unsuccessfully to walk on water.

Now Blitt has trained his eye and pen on the nation's first president in a new children's book, George Washington's Birthday. The book, written by Margaret McNamara and illustrated by Blitt, follows young George about his normal day: chopping down a cherry tree, fording a creek — and worrying that his family has forgotten his 7th birthday.


Interview Highlights

Why George Washington at 7?

"It's a nice age to look at George Washington. He bears no resemblance to the severe and great man that we know him as, and he's young and he wants people to recognize his birthday. ... And he learns some important lessons on dwelling on stuff like that."

On his recent Super Bowl New Yorker cover

"The genesis of the idea basically was that the art director was calling me at the last minute, asking me if I had any ideas — political ideas but also to keep in mind that it was Super Bowl week. And Gingrich and Romney were beating each other up then. Remember when it was a two-man race? It just seemed to make sense to put them on the screen. I think first the idea was just them on a football field tackling each other, beating the crap out of each other, and then it seemed like a funny idea to move and pull back and have Obama watching the game and smiling at his good fortune, at his team winning — or his team ahead, in any case."

On his controversial 2008 cover of the Obamas

"Anytime I produce a cover, I always regret it afterward. Sort of agreed with [the critics]. Even to this day, I'm not sure if that was the worst thing I have ever done — I know it wasn't the best thing I've ever done — but I am still ambivalent about it. It was obviously taking a chance — the intention going in was trying something different and something interesting. I mean, there was all this stuff in the ether. On the radio waves and on Fox and everywhere you went, you heard the descriptions of this guy — of the president being a 'secret terrorist Muslim.' It just seemed funny to draw it all out, to put it all on a piece of paper."

On the reactions to the 2008 cover of the Obamas

"The magazine comes out on a Monday, but it leaked to the press on Sunday evening. So Sunday evening, I immediately started to get a lot of emails ... from very, very angry people. And my reaction was to try to answer all of them. So I would answer each email personally, saying, 'I don't know. This is obviously satire. Look at the ridiculousness of it. This isn't how I feel, and no one can take this seriously.' And then there were thousands of emails and I couldn't answer all of them. My reaction was kind of horrified on Monday and Tuesday. My mom called me screaming, 'What did you do?' But the tide changed by the middle of that week, and I have been living a normal life since then."

On the editorial process of pitching covers to The New Yorker

"I think they are looking for good ideas. ... The art editor sends out a calendar to a regular stable of artists who contribute covers and illustrations. It'll have dates on it — it'll say Valentine's Day is still open, or Purim — and then people will send in ideas for those days, and they are always open to topical covers. Sometimes I will get a phone call — and I imagine other people get them, too, at the same time — saying, 'It would be great to do something about Santorum rising in the polls,' say, or something. And then you send stuff in.

"As it comes to press the week before, it comes down to doing it the Thursday of the week, and if [the cover is] decided on the Wednesday, you really have to scramble to put something down on paper. And that sort of thing does suit me because I'll just redraw things a million times — I'm never done. I'll draw it once and think I can do a better job of it and go back to the first one, and then start a third one. So it's nice to have someone come and take it away from me. Usually a courier is sent and waits outside the door, and they just pull it away from me."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're going to observe Presidents Day in a way that presidents might not approve of, by talking about satirizing presidents. My guest Barry Blitt is best known for his New Yorker covers satirizing Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. The recent cover cartoon of President Obama watching the Super Bowl, that was Blitt's. So was the 2008 controversial cover that satirized the right-wing image of the Obamas, depicting them fist-bumping in the Oval Office.

Blitt won a Cover of the Year Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for his September 2005 cover of President Bush and his Cabinet meeting in the Oval Office while Hurricane Katrina flood waters rise around them.

Now Blitt has illustrated a new children's book called "George Washington's Birthday," written by Margaret McNamara. It follows the young George as he goes about his day, chopping down a cherry tree, fording a creek and worrying that his family has forgotten his seventh birthday.

Barry Blitt, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, I know you didn't write the book, you've illustrated it. But do you know why the premise is that it's George Washington's seventh birthday?

BARRY BLITT: Well, I'm not inside the writer's head, but it seems to me it's a nice age to look at George Washington. He bears no resemblance to a severe and great man that we know him as. And he's young, and he's - he wants people to recognize his birthday. His family is going about the day as if it isn't his birthday, and he learns some important lessons about dwelling on stuff like that. And it's sort of an interesting way of seeing him.

GROSS: So, how did you figure out how to draw George Washington as a little child? And I should mention, he's like this little kid with a powdered wig that he hangs on his chair at night.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: Right. I mean, a big premise of the book is that we deal in the myths that are told about George Washington. And then there's like a disclaimer on each page, you know, saying this didn't really happen. And one of those disclaimers is that he actually didn't wear a wig.

But it was more fun to depict him that way and hard to resist. Obviously, developing the character of young George, I drew him several different ways, and it was nice to have him frowning, as he usually is when you see him depicted, you know, in later paintings of his life. But ultimately, I mean, he just looks like a normal child in a book.

GROSS: He's also wearing one of those jackets. I tried to figure out what they're called, but I really don't know. It's one of those jackets, in front buttons to the waist, but in the back, there's kind of like tails.

BLITT: Right, yeah. You won't get the answer from me, unfortunately.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. I thought you might know.

BLITT: I mean, are you getting the feeling here that I fudged it because...

GROSS: No, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: Because I actively fudged it, basically. But, you know, I mean, there aren't pictures of him. And so, you know, no one's the wiser.

GROSS: So, what were you taught about George Washington when you were a child? And did you care?

BLITT: Well, first of all, I'm Canadian.

GROSS: Oh, right.

BLITT: So, do you want to start the interview over, maybe?

GROSS: No, I'm not even going to do it. I don't even think we should do it.

BLITT: He was - he was a guy down there, you know, an important American guy. I can't - really, I probably couldn't tell you what I was taught about John Diefenbaker. You know John Diefenbaker?

Who's John Diefenbaker?

GROSS: Oh, he was an important Canadian prime minister. For all I know, we were taught about George Washington in school. But, you know, I really don't remember much.

So, is it wildly inappropriate and terribly wrong for the author of this book to have asked you, a Canadian, to illustrate a George Washington book?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: I ask myself that every day. But the truth is, I'm sort of getting pigeonholed. I mean, first of all, there is a lot of Canadian illustrators working in the States. So...

GROSS: Infiltrating the States.

BLITT: Yeah, that's right. They walk among us. But this isn't the first, and it's not the last American - a sort of book about Americana that I've done. I did a - my last children's book was about Mark Twain that I illustrated. And I'm working on one about the Founding Fathers. So, you'd better get used to it, (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So, you not only have this new "George Washington's Birthday" book, you've done a bunch of presidential covers for The New Yorker magazine, satirical illustrations. Most recently, you did one of President Obama watching the Super Bowl, and he's sitting in his chair with, I think it's a beer, a bowl of potato chips next to him, watching this big, flat-screen TV of the Super Bowl. But the Super Bowl is actually Mitt Romney tackling Newt Gingrich.

BLITT: That's right, yes. What would you like me to tell you about that one?

GROSS: The genesis of the idea, how you came up with it.

BLITT: The genesis of the idea basically was the art director Francoise calling me sort of at the last minute, wondering if I had any ideas, political ideas but also to keep in mind that it was Super Bowl week. And Gingrich and Romney were beating each other up then. Remember when it was a two-man race?

It just seemed to make sense to put them on the screen. At first, I think the - as far as the genesis of the idea, it was just them on a football field, you know, tackling each other, beating the crap out of each other. And then it seemed like a funny idea to remove and pull back and have Obama watching the game, smiling, you know, at his good fortune, at his team winning, basically, or his team ahead, in any case.

GROSS: So, what kind of reaction did you get to that?

BLITT: It was a little bit of a suck-up, I'm afraid, that particular cover. It was sort of cheering for Obama. And you don't always want to be cheering for one side. I mean, you never want to be cheering, really, if you're a political cartoonist.

But - so, there were a lot of positive comments on Huffington Post about it, for instance. And I felt the sting of negative comments on the Huffington Post before. So - but, you know, I personally wasn't crazy about the drawing, it was done at the last minute, as those often are, topical covers for The New Yorker. So, I mean, I cringe over most of the things I turn in, whether they're kids' books or illustrations in magazines. So, I have to learn to live with that.

GROSS: Do I sense a self-esteem issue?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Let me ask you about what's probably your most controversial New Yorker cover, political cartoon, and that was the one from July of 2008, the fist-bump cartoon. So, this is candidate Obama and Michelle are giving each other the fist-bump, and he's dressed in a robe and turban. Her hair is in a big afro, and she has a rifle. Is it an AK-47?

BLITT: I still don't remember this one. This - you'll have to keep describing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: That was a joke. Yeah, she's got - I think she's got an AK-47. She's dressed like - I guess like a Panther, perhaps, like Angela Davis maybe.

GROSS: And she has a bullet belt, too, strapped around her back. Meanwhile, the American flag is burning in the fireplace, and there's a picture of bin Laden on the wall. And I think the intention here was to draw the Obamas as the right wing was trying to describe them. She's a secret black radical; he's a secret Muslim. And they both want to destroy the country.

BLITT: Exactly.

GROSS: A lot of people misinterpreted this. A lot of people were, like, really angry at this cartoon. And they were thinking people are going to see this, they're not going to look at it carefully enough to realize it's a satire of a far-right stereotype. And they're going to think that this is proving...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...that she's like a guerrilla fighter, and he is a radical Muslim, and they're both intent on destroying the country. What was your reaction to the people who condemned you for that?

BLITT: Well, you know, anytime I produce a cover, I always regret it afterwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: So, I sort of agreed with them. I mean, even to this day, you know, I'm not sure if that was the worst thing I've ever done or - I know it wasn't the best thing I've ever done. But I'm still ambivalent about it.

It was obviously taking a chance. It was - I mean, the intention going in was trying something different and something interesting. I mean, there was all this stuff in the ether. You know, on the radio waves and on Fox and everywhere you went, you heard these descriptions of this guy, of the president being, you know, being a secret terrorist Muslim. And it just seemed funny to draw it all out, to put it all on a piece of paper.

And I brought the artwork into the New Yorker myself because it was really a last-minute thing. And I stood there with Francoise, the art director, and we sort of held it up. It was like a scene in "Citizen Kane," where, you know, this is going to change everything. This is the one they'll, you know, they'll remember. You know, no one will call him a Muslim again after this, which obviously was ridiculous.

I mean, part of it was the time when it came out. You know, people were nervous, and there was so much hope behind Obama becoming president. And, you know, I guess there was some, you know, underlying hysteria that a cartoon could change those fortunes and imperil that possibility. So - but luckily, you know, it faded quickly.

GROSS: What was your reaction to the people who thought the cartoon would actually prove - like in some people's minds reinforce the stereotype instead of laughing at it?

BLITT: Yeah. I mean, the magazine comes out on a Monday, but it sort of leaks to the press on a - I think it goes out to the press on Sunday evening. So, Sunday evening, I immediately started getting a lot of emails. I think it as - the Huffington Post got a hold of it and some other websites, and it was just all over the place, on the Internet.

And I started to get, you know, emails, personal emails to me from very, very angry people. And my reaction was to try and answer all of them. And so, I would answer each email personally, saying I don't know. This is obviously satire. Look at the ridiculousness of it. You know, I wasn't obviously - you know, this isn't how I feel, and no one can take this seriously. And I would - but then, you know, there were thousands of emails, and I couldn't answer all of them. And so my reaction, it was kind of horrifying, basically, for Monday and Tuesday. You know, my mother called me screaming: What did you do?

GROSS: Oh no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: But the tide changed probably by, you know, by the middle of that week. And I have been living a sort of a normal life since then.

GROSS: My guest is artist Barry Blitt. He's contributed more than 40 covers to the New Yorker. He illustrated the new children's book "George Washington's Birthday." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Barry Blitt. He illustrated the new children's book "George Washington's Birthday," and he's done satirical illustrations of Presidents Obama and George W. Bush for The New Yorker. When we left off, we were talking about his controversial 2008 cover of the Obamas fist-bumping in the Oval Office.

So, the White House was very critical of your fist-bump cover cartoon for The New Yorker. But later, President Obama asked for an autographed copy of one of your cartoons. Which one was it?

BLITT: It was a drawing I did shortly after health care was passed. Health care was passed, right? And it was a drawing of an elephant, you know, in a hospital robe sitting in a doctor's room and a donkey as a Democrat, a Democrat donkey is behind him. He's the doctor. And he's slipping on his, you know, his glove. He's going to give him a rectal exam.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: And I did a drawing of that - I mean, we made a print of that for the president.

GROSS: And then you had a cover illustration of President Obama, I think it was on the cover, walking on water, but then it's several panels. And in the final panel, he's kind of sinking into the water.

BLITT: That's right, yeah. He was looking kind of vulnerable then.

GROSS: And - yeah.

BLITT: And so, you know, it seemed only right to let everyone know that we didn't believe he could walk on water, and that's OK.

GROSS: So, what's the editorial process like at The New Yorker when it comes to covers? Do your covers had to be in political agreement with the, like, editorial staff of the magazine? I have an idea of what, like fact-checking and editing is like for a written piece, but what's the process like for a political cartoon, for a satirical cartoon?

BLITT: I think they are looking for good ideas. I really - there isn't any - I mean, we've done anti-Obama covers. But if you're asking about the process, as I mentioned, the art editor, Francoise Mouly, sends out a calendar, you know, to - there's a sort of a regular stable of artists who contribute covers and illustrations.

And often it'll have dates on it, you know, Valentine's Day is still open, it'll say, or Purim. There isn't a Purim cover yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: And then, you know, people will send in ideas for those days. And they're always open to, you know, to topical covers. Sometimes I will get a phone call, and I'd imagine other people will, too, at the same time, saying, you know, it would be great to do something about, you know, about Santorum, say, you know, rising in the polls or something. And then you send stuff in.

And as it does go to press a week before, it's often - it comes down to doing it, you know, the Thursday of the week. And if it's decided on the Wednesday, you really have to scramble to, you know, to put something down on paper.

And that sort of thing does suit me, actually, because, you know, I'll just redraw things a million times. I'm never happy with what I've done. And so, I'll draw it once and think I can do a better job of it. I'll draw it again, and I'll go back to the first one and say that was a little bit better and start a third one.

And so, it's nice to have someone come and actually take it away from me. Usually a courier is sent and waits outside the door, and they just pull it away from me.

GROSS: Is that true?

BLITT: There's not really pulling, but they're there and I have to give them something.

GROSS: So, you're doing both children's books and New Yorker covers. Do they draw on different parts of your brain?

BLITT: Yeah, completely. I mean, children's books are a marathon, and it's against my nature. And New Yorker covers are a perfect thing for me. I can just - you know, as intense as it is for one day or maybe two days, you know, it ultimately gets taken away from me quickly. But a children's book is, you know, it'll go on for months. And if you've got a character, you've got to imagine him from all sides and be able to, you know, make him look the same on every page. And it's really a job for someone with a greater attention span than I have.

GROSS: What materials do you use for your drawings, like for the cover illustrations for The New Yorker?

BLITT: So many people are putting their drawings together on the computer with Photoshop and stuff, and there are so many advantages to that. I mean, I'm using pen and ink, basically. I'm like a scrivener. I mean, it's harder to find nibs that I like. It really makes me feel old.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: And a lot of the inks that I liked are, like, discontinued. You know, God knows what was in them. But, you know, I use India ink and scratch I drawing onto a piece of watercolor paper and then color it in. And a lot of my contemporaries will - you know, they'll do a drawing one way or another and then scan it and put the colors in that way and change the colors.

And that would be a great thing to do to be able to, you know, after you've painted something, and it looks terrible, to be able to change the color on something. And, you know, maybe one day. But I don't adapt very easily. But we'll see. But right now...

GROSS: Why else have you resisted? What do you like about the pen-and-ink scrivener approach?

BLITT: What do I like about it? I didn't say I liked it, it's just what I'm doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: It's just what I'm doing now. I mean, it's - you know, a number of people have tried to, you know, sit me down and teach me how to use Photoshop, and it's just my eyes glaze over. It does feel kind of mechanical. And I guess there's something - you know, there is a certain amount of control that you have with pen and ink. I don't know.

GROSS: So, in addition to your New Yorker cartoons, you know, you do the books for children. Do you have children? Do they read your books? Are you a star among your children and your children's friends?

BLITT: Well, that - actually, that you mentioned that, it reminds me of a story. I took my son Sam to a movie recently. I was dropping him off to meet a bunch of friends there. So I dropped him off, and a bunch of his little friends were there. And he, like, didn't want me to come anywhere near them. He wanted me to drop him off and not say hi to friends.

And I was, like, offended. You know, I'm just going to say hi to them. And he said - he basically, I guess I was just too uncool for him. And I said: But I did the cover of the New Yorker last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: He - that didn't change his mind.

GROSS: How old is your son?

BLITT: He's 41.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: Sorry, he's 15.

GROSS: So, I don't know how you get around that. You know, there just seems to be that moment when parents are just - are an embarrassment to their children no matter...

BLITT: I know. It was awful.

GROSS: No matter how famous you are, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: Well, or not. But, yeah, I mean, I left him, and we text to each other. I just wrote (beep) you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: And he wrote back: I'm sorry, dude.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: So we understand each other.

GROSS: So, has it changed the relationship, or are you just adjusting to this new phase?

BLITT: The phase has been - it's not new. We're getting along fine, actually. You know, we're honest with each other. So...

GROSS: So do you do anything special on Presidents Day? I know you're Canadian, but do you have a George Washington children's book, and you do a lot of presidential covers.

BLITT: I'll probably lie down.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITT: I don't know what I'll do. I don't think I'll do anything special. I'm sure I'll be working. You know, I work weekends for the most part.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like a great way to observe Presidents Day. Barry Blitt, thanks so much for talking with us.

BLITT: It was fun.

GROSS: Barry Blitt illustrated the new children's book, "George Washington's Birthday." You can see his New Yorker cover illustrations, the ones that we talked about, on our website, freshair.npr.org. We've got a great concert coming up tomorrow with Catherine Russell, who was a backup singer for Steely Dan, David Bowie and Paul Simon before becoming a solo artist. Her father, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's music director.

Here's a track from Catherine Russell's new album, "Strictly Romancing." The song was written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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