Patrick Oliphant and Pops Peterson at Rockwell Museum

Pat Oliphant: Editorial Cartoons from the Nixon and Clinton Eras

Pops Peterson: Rockwell Revisited

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Through May 31, 2021.


Illustrators and political cartoonists seldom get the attention of painters and sculptors. Luckily, the Norman Rockwell Museum piggybacks off its famed namesake to give due credit to those who toil in the same waters.


I have long admired the work of political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant (b. 1935). Not only is he a master at caricature, he has never been afraid to call it like it is. His work holds fire to the feet of those whose misdeeds warrant it. In today’s bifurcated nation, conservatives and liberals alike are quick to find the mote in the other’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own. That is, they ignore the foibles and malfeasance of those with whom they agree, but express outrage at every breath taken by those whose views they do not share. A current show at the Rockwell Museum juxtaposes Oliphant’s cartoons from the administrations of Richard Nixon (1969-74) with those of Bill Clinton (1993-2001).


Nixon, of course, will be forever remembered for Watergate, arguably the second worst threat to democracy in the modern era. Oliphant’s biting cartoons cast doubt on Nixon early on. His “Trust Me” references Nixon’s promise that he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. 




As we now know, that plan involved escalation of the war. Consider a cartoon depicting Nixon at the Lincoln Memorial as the flip side of “Trust Me.” His Vietnam policies–especially aerial bombings of Cambodia–sparked massive antiwar protests. By 1970, just 39% of the public approved of his handling of the war. That same year, Nixon attempted a bizarre ploy by paying a dawn visit to the Lincoln Memorial and trying to discuss the war with young protestors sleeping there. Epic fail! 



Two other Oliphant offerings call attention to two other unsavory aspects of the Nixon years. His veto of campaign spending caps set the stage for the Citizens United decision and the GOP's shameless defense of a best-democracy-money-can-buy society. “Nixon saves” is a corollary. In it, we see that he has “saved” defense contractors, but is willing to allow those needing social services to fend for themselves.



But Pat Oliphant knows that the Hall of Shame has room for both parties. I have never understood liberals’ love of the Clintons, who have plenty of sleaze on their hands. Like Nixon, he distrusted the Clintons from the start. He drew them as Ozark hillbillies bent on looting anything not nailed down. Other cartoons deal with Whitewater and Hillary’s law firm. 



As we know, old Bonkin’ Bill was ultimately impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. A particularly clever and nasty illustration shows us Bill with a dictionary in hand looking up the word perjury. Embedded are two in-jokes. During one hearing he quibbled with inquisitors over the meaning of the word “is.” In this cartoon he is also holding a cigar in his hand. Those who followed the hearings will recall that his cigar also had another receptacle.  



Ken Starr, though, was supposed to find financial wrong-doing. His dogged pursuit of the Lewinsky case ultimately bored the public and was perceived not as perjury, but as prurience. Bill wiggled free.




But Oliphant still saw the Clintons as carpetbaggers, a label he explicitly laid on Hillary in her New York Senate bid. Sounds right to me.




One revelation in the exhibit is that I had not known Oliphant was a sculptor as well. A displayed work of the lanky George H. Bush is like Giacometti-meets-presidential politics. 






Another small exhibit features the work of Stockbridge resident and business owner Pops Peterson. His show “Rockwell Revisited” pays homage to Norman Rockwell, who once lived across the street from where Peterson works. Peterson isn’t well known, but his work is clever and poignant. He has taken several classic Rockwell illustrations and updated them for this moment in time. Here are a few of his offerings, which I offer as a game for you to play. See if you can match them to Rockwell’s originals. If you need some help, go here: 







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