Steve Sack prefers to have people notice his cartoons, but lately some of the attention has been on the cartoonist himself.
Earlier this year, the Star Tribune’s Sack won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Thomas Nast Award for best international cartoons published in 2016. That accolade added to his honors in recent years, including a 2013 Pulitzer Prize. The focus will continue at this Thursday’s “Talk of the Stacks” event at the Minneapolis Central Library, where he’ll talk about “The First and Only Book of Sack,” published as part of the Star Tribune’s 150th anniversary.
And just a week ago, my colleague’s work received an unlikely endorsement from one of his targets: Anthony Scaramucci, who may have lost his White House job, but not his sense of humor, as he retweeted a Sack cartoon that lampooned the Mooch himself. “It’s interesting how these things ping-pong across the social-media landscape,” Sack says in his usual understated style.
Numerous Sack cartoons have ping-ponged, if not ricocheted, across the internet as readers respond to his take on this particularly political era. But the cartoonist has drawn about other unusual times — and characters — starting at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s at the Minnesota Daily, where he drew President Gerald Ford. Jimmy Carter came next, while Sack worked for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette. Sack joined the Minneapolis Tribune during the Reagan administration and has been sketching (sometimes sketchy) presidents ever since.
Readers may not notice, but Sack says some presidents are harder to capture because despite distinctive physical features they reveal less of their personalities. Barack Obama, for instance, was a more “emotionally private person,” Sack says, so he didn’t give as much for cartoonists “to really grab on to.”
Bill Clinton, conversely, was not private (to say the least). His open foibles were consistent targets, and Sack says it surprises some that Clinton was the subject of more negative cartoons than any other president. And yet, then as now, Sack kept the scandal-scarred presidency in perspective. “There were a lot of nice, juicy scandals in his administration to work with,” Sack says. And sex scandals “are almost funny by definition. But it’s not a question of life or death, it’s not policy that’s going to harm our country or weaken us or divide us; it was something we could all tut-tut.”
The current Oval Office occupant presents different challenges.
“It’s a 24/7, all-you-can-eat-buffet of crazy that cartoonists and journalists and Americans and other countries in the world are dealing with,” Sack says. And yet, despite his Trump cartoons careening around the web, Sack says it actually has been challenging to fully capture him. Sure, the hair is inimitable — “a beautiful aerodynamic ducktail” — but “if you see him give a speech, I mean, he’s smiling, he’s grimacing, he’s scowling, he’s got a little twinkle to his eye and at other times he’s squinting, and for any cartoon about Trump I can think of a half-dozen expressions to put on his face.”
Conversely, there seems to be only one expression on the face of Vladimir Putin, whom Sack has drawn since George W. Bush famously spoke of looking into the Russian’s eyes and “getting a sense of his soul.” Sack did, too, but what he saw way back in 2005 were manacles circling Putin’s eyes with the word “oppression.”
That theme has been strikingly consistent in Sack’s career, as he has depicted dictators’ human rights abuses abroad and, unflinchingly, here at home, with piercing cartoons against torture after 9/11.
“I grew up being taught, believing in and knowing that we’re the good guys,” Sack says. “And while war is messy and you know that all the John Wayne movies aren’t documentaries, and bad things happen, the notion of America is as a beacon of freedom and liberty and justice and human rights.”
These rights should be universal, Sack believes, and he has been outspoken in defense of press freedoms, especially after the attack on satirists (including two Sack knew) at the Charlie Hebdo offices in France.
“It was gratifying to see how all of France and of the world, really, united in outrage,” Sack says of a country he visits often to attend an annual cartoon festival. “In America, you can write and say and do whatever you please, and that’s the beauty of our country.”
And Sack has done just that, for more than 8,000 cartoons and counting for the Star Tribune. “I have my little piece of real estate in the paper,” Sack says, adding that he’s appreciative that he has been free to build whatever he envisions on that real estate. “I’ve been extremely fortunate with the newspapers and editors I’ve worked with. To a person they’ve all been totally supportive and to a person they’ve all understood what a cartoon is supposed to be: a visual independent commentary that doesn’t necessarily have to hew to the official line of the newspaper but is still within the realm of something you will print in a family newspaper.”
Sack’s only expressed lament concerns the clock. He’s well-versed in politics and pop culture, and his process includes extensive reading, research and then penciling sketches of multiple treatments of multiple topics. Then, using an iPad, he draws until deadline.
“I look at my work and think, ‘If I only had one more hour,’ ” Sack says with a smile.
“Painters say that ‘a painting is never finished, it’s abandoned.’ And that’s probably true of all journalism.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.