Paul Conrad

Conrad won three Pulitzer Prizes, a feat matched by only two other cartoonists in the post-World War II era, while both thrilling and infuriating readers for more than 50 years with an unyielding liberal stance, rendered in savage black and white. (Huntington Library / ITVS)

Paul Conrad, whose fiercely confrontational editorial cartoons made him one of the leading political provocateurs of the second half of the 20th century and who helped push the Los Angeles Times to national prominence, has died. He was 86.

Conrad died early Saturday of natural causes, surrounded by his family at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes, said his son David.

With an unyielding liberal stance rendered in savage black and white, Conrad both thrilled and infuriated readers for more than 50 years. He won three Pulitzer Prizes, a feat matched by only two other cartoonists in the post- World War II era.

Mayors, governors and presidents cringed at the prospect of being on the business end of Conrad's searing pen, while many Southern Californians made him their first stop as they sifted through The Times, the newspaper that was his principal home for nearly 30 years.

"When it comes to editorial cartooning, I am unabashedly biased: Paul Conrad was simply the best ever," Times Editor Russ Stanton said Saturday. "Whether or not you agreed with his politics, readers waited every morning for his dose of political commentary, guaranteed to make them either angry, to think or to laugh. And his work inspired other cartoonists and writers to speak truth to power. The Los Angeles Times was fortunate to be part of his long and prolific career, and we have missed him since the day he retired."

While many other cartoonists angled for whimsy or the easy one-off, Conrad "specialized in hair shirts and jeremiads and harpoons to the heart," former Times Editor Shelby Coffey III once wrote. The cartoonist, loud and often profane in person, viewed himself as a champion of the common man and relished combat with those he saw as protectors of the rich and privileged.

His most prominent and enduring foils came in the person of two California politicians who rose to the presidency, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The scandal-plagued Nixon named Conrad to his "enemies list" — a designation the cartoonist described as one of his greatest honors. Former Times Publisher Otis Chandler became accustomed to his breakfast being interrupted by either Reagan or wife Nancy, furious that the then-governor had been depicted, again, as dimwitted, mean-spirited or out of touch.

"Conrad is ... more than a legend in cartooning and an institution in American journalism," the late Doug Marlette, one of the many cartoonists inspired by that work, once said. "He is a force of nature….You measure Conrad on the Richter scale."

The author and essayist Pete Hamill called Conrad "a voice. And the voice is his alone: alternately savage, compassionate, brutal and ironic."

Conrad rose to prominence in a post-World War II era when many newspapers were at the height of their power and when he and other widely syndicated editorial cartoonists — including Herbert L. Block (Herblock), Bill Mauldin and Pat Oliphant — held a particular grip on the American psyche.

By the time of his death, the ranks of those dedicated to regular editorial cartooning had slumped below 90 from a high in the 1980s estimated, variously, at 150 to 200.

Just before his death in 2007, the onetime editor of The Times' editorial pages, Anthony Day, worried that the skittish and contracting newspaper industry would no longer support a "genius" like Conrad. "It's easier to not make trouble," Day said, "than to make trouble."

And Conrad loved making trouble. His righteous indignation was guided by a modest Midwestern upbringing, an abiding Catholic faith and what one chronicler called a "fanatic heart."

Many journalists like to talk of the imperative of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Conrad embraced the credo with abandon. "Don't ever accuse me," he liked to say, "of being objective."

An exceptional single-mindedness made many of Conrad's cartoons jump off the page: Nixon, tied down like the giant, Gulliver, by reel after reel of his secret Oval Office audiotapes. Nancy Reagan's pricey new White House china captures the reflection of a stooped homeless woman, picking through the trash. President Carter "lusts after" a voluptuous nude Statue of Liberty. A Northern Californian, opposed to the massive Peripheral Canal water project, urinates on a map of Southern California.

Another elder statesman of the cartooning trade, Oliphant, once said that his friendly rival exhibited "the grandest example of consistently A-grade, blue-ribbon, USDA-prime righteous anger that I can ever remember seeing in a cartoonist's work in the 50-plus years that I have been doing this sort of thing."

Paul Francis Conrad was born June 27, 1924, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, along with an identical twin brother, James. They had an older brother, Robert. The boys recalled their mother as frugal but determined to introduce them to the arts. Their father, Robert Conrad, tended freight schedules for the railroad, sometimes skipping lunch to save for toys or piano lessons for his boys.

The elder Conrad dabbled in art, painting landscapes, but found little market for his work in Depression-era Iowa. He channeled his passion to his twins, urging them to draw on the back of the freight "rate cards" that he brought home from work.

Paul later quipped that his cartooning career began with a drawing scrawled on the restroom wall at St. Augustin Elementary School in Des Moines. At age 8.