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Famous cartoonist loved political life

Published November 3, 2012 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's supposed to be fun.

Thomas Nast was a European immigrant who grew up in what's now the financial district of New York, blocks from the slum known as the Five Points. Even in his youth, political corruption surrounded him, but Nast was still convinced that the American Dream offered immigrants a precious gift.

That combination of deep faith and a skeptical eye gave him an unusual sensitivity to the power dynamics at the heart of politics, and made him one of his generation's foremost political commentators.

And he loved every minute it. Nast's life teaches us a good lesson for the hard final days of campaigning during a national election: The things that make politics so frivolous also make it enjoyable.

As Nast rose to fame cartooning for Harper's Weekly magazine, he embraced an open, combative form of partisanship. Far from feeling guilty about it — he never seems to have worried about bipartisanship — Nast relished the contests made possible by party politics.

Nothing excited him like a presidential campaign. He often exhausted himself drawing enormous, detailed cartoons to attack or celebrate a candidate or a party. The Republicans welcomed an enthusiastic young political combatant with the same eagerness he brought to his work.

Nast used the Republican convention in May 1868 to showcase his delight in presidential politics. Already a dedicated Republican but long at odds with the party's sitting president, Andrew Johnson, he eagerly anticipated the nomination of a Civil War hero, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

For the convention Nast painted two pillars, each representing one presidential choice, on a colossal sheet of fabric. The Democratic pillar remained empty, since the Democrats wouldn't meet until July. On the Republican side, Grant represented Republican hopes. Between them stood Columbia. She spoke for the nation, the party and Nast. Pointing to Grant, she challenged the Democrats: "Match Him!"

Hanging the canvas on the convention stage, Nast carefully concealed it so that delegates saw nothing. Only when Grant officially won the nomination did the masking curtain drop, revealing Columbia's defiant challenge. The delegates exploded with applause.

Nast's reputation as a contributor to Republican presidential politics soared to new heights. "Match Him!" went on to become a campaign slogan, a song and a poem.

As his career developed, Nast moved away from overt political theater and toward a clearer focus on political cartooning. He could be deadly serious.

In his Sept. 10 op-ed, Pat Bagley called Nast a "bigot." There's some truth to that charge. But Nast could also be a powerful voice for the weakest, most vulnerable members of American society. Most of all, though, he loved to exploit politicians' weaknesses.

In his 1871 crusade against "Boss" Tweed, Nast used the Tammany Hall leader's love of display against him. The diamond stickpin Tweed wore helped Nast portray the Boss as a greedy, corrupt thug. His targets varied; even heroes of the Union like Charles Sumner could become toga-clad objects of satire in Nast's hands.

Nast never apologized for his love of the trivial. In fact, he'd be likely to deny its triviality. Instead, he insisted that details helped to shape perception; they showed you the real man underneath the political sheen. So a focus on the clothes, grooming and occasional misstatements of candidates for office would strike him as entirely appropriate, indeed necessary.

More, trivializing men who take themselves too seriously is the heart of satire. Nast saw his role as one that required him to hoist the powerful on their own petards, and he rarely hesitated to do so. In satire you can engage reality without succumbing to the anger and conflict that sometimes come with it. With humor and pleasure, you can enjoy the fight and keep it in perspective while you try to win it.

Fiona Deans Halloran is the author of Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons. She has been a research fellow at the Huntington Library and the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. Halloran teaches American history at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School in Salt Lake City.