So devoted is editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez ’84 to giving others the benefit of his opinion that he manages to do it even when he’s not there.
President Clinton – via impersonation – announces on Ramirez’s answering machine: “I’m not home to take your call, but I would like to take your check. Just leave it by the tree on the front lawn that Al Gore is hugging.” The convincing Arkansas drawl was done by a friend, but the script is authentic Ramirez. There are clues:
The Pulitzer Prize winner really does have a negative opinion of President Clinton, and will cheerfully give details. Ramirez is a Republican and a conservative, both rarities among political cartoonists. He says, however, that this doesn’t bind or even predict his opinions. With equal glee, he depicted Bob Dole – during the 1996 presidential campaign – as a matron in a dress, opening a box of Valentine candy. “I knew you loved me,” Ramirez’s Dole says. The elephant beside him replies, “I couldn’t get another @*#!! date.”
His “message” is a stinger in the tail of a joke; the reader laughs and then gasps. For example, a Ramirez cartoon captioned, “The difference between criminals and law-abiding citizens” shows a child behind his security-barred window next to a criminal behind prison bars. The criminal says, “I get out in sixty days.”
An enterprising journalist, Ramirez readily takes advantage of a communications medium even when it falls outside the usual definitions. He also delights in giving speeches, “another forum for me to force my views down people’s throats.”
It’s for our own good, because Ramirez has the answers. “I think part of being an editorialist is that you want to be the . . .” he hesitates, searching for the precise word, “. . . the Candyman of the world! You want to fix all the problems, and you’ve got all the answers, and by gosh since I have all the answers, I want to tell people what the answers are.”
Ramirez has been giving answers and fixing problems ever since he was an undergraduate at UCI (he received a degree in fine arts in 1984), with his early editorial cartoons running in both the student newspaper and the Newport Ensign. It’s a strategy that has worked spectacularly well for him: He won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1994, and recently was named one of four recipients of the 1997 UCI Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the university. He is the new president of the American Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, and in September, moved to the top tier of his profession as the editorial cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times.
The Times was hiring a hometown boy, but it had to go to Tennessee to do it. Ramirez was working at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis when he won his Pulitzer, but he had spent most of his life in Southern California.
“I grew up reading the LA Times with my dad, and it used to just drive us nuts,” he said. “We’d open up the paper and see [cartoonist Paul] Conrad’s work of the day and curse his name.”
In the small, tight-knit world of editorial cartooning, elaborate insults imply high esteem. Ramirez admires Conrad and feels privileged to inherit his job. “In the ’60s, there probably wasn’t a better cartoonist in the world.” During his long career, Conrad won three Pulitzer Prizes, and Ramirez wants to do better. At 36, he likely has time.
Ramirez was born in Tokyo in 1961, the son of a Mexican American father and a Japanese mother. “It was a great romance, because at the time Japan still had a very closed society,” Ramirez said. “In fact, her parents had to disown her for awhile after my parents got married. Later they loved my Dad, but it was a social thing they had to do.”
His father was a first-generation American. “My grandfather actually fled across the border at Nogales. He was a political refugee-I can’t remember who he was fighting with.” His father’s 12 brothers and sisters “all liked my mom. There was no problem because they really represented the American dream; they’re immigrants coming to the United States and all very much dedicated Americans. My uncles all fought in the service.”
The family ultimately fulfilled the American dream. His father, who had picked crops as a young man, went on to a career in the Orange County Tax Assessor’s office. Ramirez’s two brothers and two sisters all became medical doctors, and Ramirez jokes that as a journalist he’s the low-achiever of the family. His father has died but his mother still lives in Mission Viejo, and Ramirez says she’d be happy to have him deliver newspapers, much less help write them, just to have him come home again.
When he entered UCI in 1979, Ramirez was planning to become a doctor like his siblings. He began drawing editorial cartoons almost immediately for the student paper, New University, and the experience gave him a heady new ambition.
“You don’t really entertain those kinds of thoughts at first, because you don’t think certain things can be realized-that someone would actually pay you to be an obnoxious illustrator of editorial commentary. So when you get a first taste of it in college, and come to realize there are jobs like that out there….”
He remembers, too, a freshman chemistry class taught by a professor who commented from time to time on his participation in ballistics tests following the John F. Kennedy assassination. This part of chemistry intrigued him, he says, and now he recognizes it as part of a fascination with politics and history that has so influenced his professional life.
On a visit to the campus about two years ago, Ramirez says he made a point of stopping at the bookstore to buy UCI sweatshirts.
“I’ve always wanted to be a fighting anteater,” he says with a laugh.
Ramirez says his experiences growing up in a minority family in Southern California have shaped him, and he takes advantage of every opportunity to talk to kids and tell them what he’s learned, what he believes.
“When I give speeches at schools, I talk about achievement, and how I’m a real big believer in the human spirit. I believe people can do whatever they want if they want to do it badly enough.” Conservatives are accused of being racist, but, he says, “We’re not! We’re optimistic. We’re big believers in human beings. Despite their socioeconomic background, despite their ethnicity, people can achieve if they work hard enough. I think my dad is great proof of that.”
Ramirez’s cartoons frequently exhibit a darker vision of the world than this (an O.J Simpson trial-era drawing showed Justice bloodily bludgeoned by a TV; a child writes that what he’d like to do for Father’s Day is meet his father), but optimism does seem to be one of his strongest characteristics. He worries about racial tensions in the country but thinks they’re improving, if only at a generational pace. He tells poor urban kids that they learned to ride bikes because they wanted to learn, and that they could learn to be a doctor in the same way.
He’s optimistic, too, about his future as a political conservative at the Los Angeles Times. “I think the LA Times has moved more toward the center, and I think the country as a whole really has. If you look at the issues, by and large the conservative issues are the issues that seem to be gaining momentum. Getting Congress to balance the budget is very much favored by most people, as are things like the line item veto and welfare reform.”
But Ramirez didn’t think of the Times as moderate when he heard the editorial cartoonist job would be opening up. He thought the paper was liberal, and he didn’t apply. They called him. His colleague, editorial cartoonist Ed Stein of Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, thinks the Times chose Ramirez because, despite the fact that he’s “diametrically opposed politically” to his predecessor Paul Conrad, “Mike is one of the few out there worthy of carrying on that tradition.”
Stein said that though he and Ramirez “disagree about almost every public issue, we agree the point of political cartooning is to make a point. Mike has a passion for making a precise and strong statement in every cartoon, and he’s one of the few left who do that. He doesn’t take any prisoners, he says what he says boldly and directly.” In a business where many are “shills for political parties, you have to be willing to attack people you agree with most of the time.”
Ramirez does that. He attacks Stein: “One of the big commie-libs in the country.” Stein cheerfully returns the compliment: “It’s amazing to me that a guy with those opinions actually has a college education. He’s completely misguided in his politics, and he’s going to do a lot of damage.”
He may. Ramirez may be a conservative and he may be a Republican, but of political cartoonists, he says, “We don’t really approach the issues in that respect, we kind of judge each issue on its own merits. We are equal opportunity offenders.
“It really defines what we do as editorialists. We’re not out to get personalities, we’re out to attack issues. And if those personalities happen to support issues that we don’t,” he finishes with satisfaction, “we get them both.”