“Hello, I’m calling from the White House Office of The President. May I speak to Walt Handelsman?”
That’s what I heard when I picked up the phone in my small cartoonist’s office of The Times-Picayune newsroom in late January 1991. My first reaction was that this must be some kind of a prank. Newsrooms are a place where practical jokes like this would make perfect sense. I paused for a moment, not recognizing the voice, took a long look around the newsroom hoping to spy the culprit, and then said, “C’mon — Who is this?”
It turned out to be Patty Presoch, an assistant to President George H.W. Bush. She was calling to request the original of a cartoon I had drawn about President Bush and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that had run on the front cover of an internal White House weekly cartoon roundup called “Friday Follies.”
Ronald Reagan started “Friday Follies” during his administration, and Bush had kept the tradition going. Reagan loved editorial cartoons and had White House staffers cut out cartoons from newspapers around the country to compile them into what they titled on the cover: “WHITE HOUSE NEWS SUMMARY SPECIAL EDITION.” The cover also included the famous 1871 Boss Tweed quote about Thomas Nast’s cartoons: “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles. My constituents don’t know how to read. But they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”
Several years earlier, Ronald Reagan had invited cartoonists, who were in Washington, D.C. for our annual convention, to a White House Rose Garden event. As with all presidents, we cartoonists had poked and prodded and picked on just about everything he did in our cartoons. Reagan stood in front of us at an easel with enlarged versions of our cartoons with the word balloons emptied, and in a live version of a cartoon caption contest, proceeded to write his own humorous punchlines — to poke and prod and pick on us.
He understood satire. It was a different time.
Before ending the short call with Presoch, I asked if the president would sign the front cover of the “Friday Follies.” I sent along the original cartoon and about a week later received a package from the White House. It contained the signed Friday Follies, a little hand-written note and a business card.
The card was comically understated ... completely empty except for the words, "The President."
Walt Handelsman is The Advocate's editorial cartoonist.