Unctuous bows, veiled threats, and smug mockery do not an edifying speech make, but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s performance at Columbia University offers at least one consolation: the cartoons. The utter absurdity of the event has drawn forth a pageant of arresting editorial cartoons, some quite amusing. But only one managed to capture its essential grotesqueness—the ostentatious display of tolerance to a man whose most notable characteristic is his murderous intolerance, killing with roadside bombs today and atomic weapons tomorrow.
Presumably because of the pressure of deadlines, most cartoonists did not deal with the substance of the Iranian president’s talk, and depicted the event only in generic terms. Ed Stein of the Rocky Mountain News, for example, simply showed the worm in the Big Apple. Others focused on the theme of free speech. Pat Oliphant showed a disdainful Statue of Liberty, holding a diminutive Ahmadinejad at arm’s length as he jabbers away harmlessly; for Tom Toles, Columbia gave its speaker a rope long enough with which to hang himself, the noose labeled “free speech.”
Those who waited until after the speech to draw produced more penetrating images. Jerry Holbert of the Boston Herald had Ahmadinejad telling a politically incorrect joke (“a bunch of American infidels, a rabbi, and a suicide bomber walk into a bar”), which, while amusing, was not enough removed from reality to be truly funny. Far less amusing was the smattering of cartoonists who evidently have no objection to Ahmadinejad at all. Some like Tony Auth, the graphically inept cartoonist of the Philadelphia Inquirer, did not even think the event worthy of note. But then this discreet silence is preferable to the work of Lalo Alcaraz, who writes the daily comic strip La Cucaracha. His cartoon showed the Iranian under a sign labeled Republican Party Dept. of Homosexual Control, sitting between a photograph of President Bush and a sign “22 days gay free.” In other words, the only real problem Alcaraz finds with Ahmadinejad, whose regime enforces the public execution of homosexuals, is that the Iranian leader reminds the cartoonist of Republicans—whose actions might just conceivably remove the death threat from those same homosexuals.
In compensation for this, the event has produced at least one instant classic. In the cartoon by Sean Delonas of the New York Post, Ahmadinejad is shown at the podium as he calls on a questioner, saying “One last question, yes, the gentleman in the back.” Our point of view is from behind Ahmadinejad, and we must peer deep into the crowd to see the questioner, a skeletal concentration camp victim, in his stripes and yellow star. He wears a mournful and weary expression, and we are not even certain if he is dead or alive.
In every sense it is a masterpiece. Most editorial cartoonists think schematically, like Toles or Stein, placing cut-out figures on flat backgrounds. But Delonas typically employs dramatic perspective, as here with the haunting juxtaposition of foreground and background. Rather than a self-contained visual pun entailing a single joke, Delonas’s image implies much more than it shows, and we can’t help but imagine what is about to be said. Whatever the reason, it does what all successful graphic art must do: present an unforgettable image that resonates in the mind. It is a work of great dignity that almost washes away the vicious agitprop of Alcaraz.