His reassessment of abortion was the most dramatic about-face of Conrad's career. "I thought, 'You forgot all about the women on this thing,'" Conrad said years after he made the shift. "I thought, 'You've been on this antiabortion thing too long. It's time to get with it.'"
"I want to thank you for your unflagging confrontation through the years — of the poseurs and killers, the greed-merchants and hypocrites, the militarists and elitists and all the others who would subvert our humanity and our divinity," Cal State Long Beach English professor Robert J. Brophy wrote in 1990. "You make my days."
Frank Sinatra had quite a different take when a cartoon poked fun at Reagan's poor hearing. The singer wrote a letter to say he'd had more than enough of Conrad's "viciousness and hatred."
"He is a disgrace to responsible journalism," Sinatra wrote. "And you all ought to be ashamed of yourselves for hiding behind the 1st Amendment, which was never intended for people like Conrad anyway."
Other Conrad opponents took him to court.
Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty sued for libel in 1968. The cartoon in question chided Yorty for his ambition to be named Nixon's secretary of Defense. In the image, Yorty tells a phone caller, "I've got to go now ... I've been appointed Secretary of Defense and the Secret Service men are here!" The men drawn waiting for the mayor are, instead, wearing white suits and carrying a straitjacket.
Yorty claimed that by raising doubts about his mental stability, Conrad had defamed him. But a Superior Court judge dismissed the case before trial and the mayor's appeals failed.
It took considerably longer for The Times to fight off a suit, brought in 1974, by Union Oil Co. President Fred L. Hartley. Conrad had drawn a denuded Christmas tree with a single Union 76 bauble, along with the tag: "Merry Christmas from Fred Heartless."
Hartley argued that he could not be held responsible for the government-ordered diversion of 500,000 barrels of oil from Southern California to Guam during the height of the oil crisis. The oil chief had previously had an amiable acquaintance with Conrad, even donating $200 to a Little League team the cartoonist coached. Hartley called the cartoon a "dastardly deed" that had damaged his health and held his family up to ridicule.
But a judge ruled Hartley was a public figure, meaning the executive could prove libel only if he showed that Conrad knowingly published a falsehood, with reckless disregard for the truth. By 11 to 1, a jury found that the oil executive did not meet that standard.
The courtroom victory only enhanced the image within The Times of Conrad as a towering, practically invulnerable figure. Even his physical presence seemed to confirm that view. Conrad stood 6 feet 2, his large head framed by thick, black-rimmed glasses and his arrival announced in a booming voice.
He would start each day at home reading the New York Times voraciously, then turn to the Los Angeles Times before punching on news radio on the way to The Times' downtown offices.
He would spend the morning sketching out ideas on 8-by-11 newsprint "roughs," puffing his ever-present pipe (even years after smoking was banned at the newspaper) and perhaps bellowing a barb at one of the editorial writers ensconced near his windowed office, a floor below the Times newsroom.
Conrad enjoyed give and take over his drafts, his co-workers said, but he could become ornery if a finished cartoon came under fire.
"He would think I was a stupid tool of the enemy, whoever the enemy was, and this feeling would just all sort of erupt," said Day, the editorial page editor. "His middle name was 'Difficult.' But his middle name was also 'Talented.' Enormously talented."
In the 30 years between his hiring and his 1993 retirement, his bosses killed only a handful of Conrad's cartoons. After Nixon declared Charles Manson guilty of murder before a verdict had been rendered, Conrad drew a grinning Manson sporting a "Nixon's the One" button. Day said it was in bad taste and axed it.
The Times killed two other cartoons that featured the naked rear ends of world leaders. One was of the presidents of the industrialized democracies and the other of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, mooning the West before the Persian Gulf War. Conrad said: "I thought that last one was pretty funny, but ... . "
"Otis and I would sometimes kind of talk, kid around, about how much trouble Conrad was," said former editor Thomas, who headed the paper's editorial operations from 1971 to 1989. "We all caught hell for things, but you couldn't help but appreciate the artistry that he had, the intellect behind it and the punch that it packed."
It was at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes that Conrad escaped the pressure cooker of daily deadlines and political intrigues. He enjoyed a prosaic suburban existence, playing golf, coaching his two boys and two girls in baseball, softball and soccer.
"The funny thing was, there was Conrad, this acid, tough guy," recalled friend and former Times City Editor Bill Boyarsky, "and then there was the Palos Verdes Conrad, very settled and into all this community stuff."
Many of Conrad's stalwarts — including Otis Chandler and his successor as publisher, Tom Johnson — had left The Times by the early 1990s. The cartoonist would say later that he felt the culture at the newspaper shifting. He felt a loss of support.
No one ever said that Conrad's December 1992 drunk-driving arrest in Palos Verdes Estates clouded his employment at the paper. (Conrad, in fact, made the incident the stuff of another cartoon, showing himself behind bars and arguing in the caption: "What's good enough for me for drunk driving ought to be good enough for [former Defense Secretary] Caspar Weinberger for lying to Congress" about the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages swap.)
When The Times offered a buyout to the entire staff in January 1993, Conrad decided to take it.
He continued cartooning in syndication for a number of years and pursued other avocations, such as painting and his bronze sculptures of political figures. The voluntary nature of the departure did not appease Conrad fans.
"Where once the pit bull Conrad's cartoon got your heart started pumping in the morning," opined television commentator Jess Marlow, "now atop the op-ed page the pit bull has been replaced by a succession of pussycats."
Conrad is survived by his wife, Kay; his sons Jamie of Menlo Park and David of Lake Arrowhead; daughters Carol of Menlo Park and Libby of Falls Church, Va.; and a granddaughter.