When Michael Ramirez ’84 enrolled at UCI, he didn’t expect to become an editorial cartoonist. He figured he’d follow the lead of his brothers and sisters and become a doctor.
“I always wanted to be a cardiovascular surgeon,” he says. “Now I think of how many lives I saved by being a cartoonist.”
Few are safe, however, from his scalpel-like wit. Politicians, police officers, the pope – many who’ve felt the sharp edge of Ramirez’s pen probably wish he had gone to medical school. In April, he won his second Pulitzer Prize for what the judges called his “provocative cartoons.”
“It’s been a great year,” says Ramirez, who also won editorial cartoonists’ second-most coveted prize, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award, as well as the John Fischetti Editorial Cartoon Competition.
“I don’t do cartoons for the awards,” he says. “I’m trying to impact the political dialogue and get people to think about the issues. I’m doing the best I can to save the world from itself – through cartoons.”
Ramirez’s cartoons have generated plenty of controversy. His often conservative caricatures have led to death threats, a well-publicized ouster from the Los Angeles Times and an occasional street protest. (One perk of being a cartoonist – people know his work, not his face. While working for The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, where he picked up his 1994 Pulitzer, Ramirez actually joined a crowd calling for his head.)
“I’ve been protested by extremists and investigated by the Secret Service. What more could I guy ask for?” he says.
Born in Tokyo, Ramirez grew up in Los Angeles and has lived in Orange County most of his life. His father, a first-generation Mexican-American, was stationed with the U.S. Army in the Far East when he met Ramirez’s Japanese mother.
He earned his bachelor’s in studio art and art history at UCI, where he sketched his first cartoons for the student newspaper and the Newport Ensign.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Hey, I could get paid for being obnoxious.’”
Now a senior editor and editorial cartoonist for Investor’s Business Daily and an internationally syndicated cartoonist forCopley News Service, Ramirez is a self-described “political wonk.” He reads three newspapers a day (The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal) as well as political journals ranging from Mother Jones on the left to National Review on the right. The presidential campaign provides a wealth of material.
“I have the best gag writers working for me – they’re called politicians,” he says. “It’s like Christmas all year round.”
For him writing – not drawing – is the best part of the job.
“Cartoons should carry a message. Some newspapers are encumbered by the idea that if you put something substantial out there, you’ll alienate readers. Editorial cartoons have become an extension of ‘infotainment,’ instead of delivering a pointed message.”
Ramirez once shamed the Tennessee state legislature into rescinding a fat pension they’d awarded themselves in a late-night session – after he drew a pig that “looked amazingly like the governor.” In the cartoon, advisers ask the pig what he’ll do when the public finds out about the pension. Answer: “Retire.”
“It lessens the value of the cartoon if you just go for the gag,” Ramirez says. “If done right, these pictures can have a profound impact on what’s going on.”