Seated inside a cavernous auditorium in Charleston, S.C., just days before that state’s presidential primary in January, I was feeling downright gleeful. Spread out before me was a vast, gaudy, multi-screen, red-white-and-blue stage set worthy of “American Idol.” A CNN producer was warming up a big crowd of well-dressed Republicans, coaching them about when to cheer, when to laugh and when to shut up as if they were rubes in a “Tonight Show” studio audience. Within moments, the candidates for the Republican nomination would be trooped out, one by one – each introduced as if he were in the starting lineup of the Lakers.
This was a presidential debate, for Pete’s sake, but, festooned with all the distracting glitz of the sports and entertainment business, it looked and felt more trivial and overproduced than a Super Bowl halftime show.
“What a weird way to pick a president!” I thought to myself, “And how perfect for political cartoons!”
A hundred moments such as that – plus a peculiar cast of eccentric candidates, shrieking pundits and militant billionaire PAC men – made 2012 a target-rich environment for me. Most of the time, I was not even cartooning; I was merely illustrating reality in all its surreal foolishness.
An aspiring writer of political suspense novels would be laughed out of publishing houses if he tried to sell a book with absurdly unlikely characters and plot twists such as these:
• In front of a huge television audience, the presidential campaign of a popular Texas governor implodes when he declares his intent to get rid of three government agencies and then, unable to name the third agency, sheepishly whimpers, “Oops.”
• A former speaker of the House, curiously named “Newt,” runs as a champion of traditional values with his third wife (and former mistress) at his side and his entire campaign bankrolled by a Las Vegas casino owner.
• A portly radio commentator named “Rush” conducts a three-day, on-air screed against young women who use birth control, branding them “sluts” and sex maniacs. He loses a few advertisers, but otherwise retains his role as the voice of true conservatives.
• A major party, fighting the perception it is in thrall to the rich, nominates a man who cannot hide the fact he is an out-of-touch rich guy. Most notoriously, this nominee is secretly videotaped telling a room full of wealthy donors that 47% of Americans are freeloaders living off the government. Like Newt and Rush, the nominee also has a distinctive and odd first name -- “Mitt.” Oh, and he’s a Mormon.
• The first nonwhite American president, under relentless attack and presiding over a languishing economy, is saved from political ruin by a trio of too-convenient Hollywood-fantasy plot twists: 1) He OKs a long-shot military raid that takes out the world’s most notorious terrorist; 2) a super storm hits the biggest city in the country just before the election, giving him a chance to ride to the rescue; and 3) in a back room at his Chicago campaign headquarters, a team of twentysomething computer geeks devises the best voter turnout scheme in history.
Throw into the storyline a pompous plutocrat named “Trump” demanding to see the president’s birth certificate, a black, conservative, ex-pizza company exec babbling “9-9-9” and a couple of GOP Senate candidates giving a positive spin to rape and you have a bloated, preposterous scenario screaming for a rewrite.
Yes, this was a certifiable you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up election year. My great fortune was to have arrived at the Los Angeles Times a year ago, just in time to get a front row seat for this fabulous farce. I want to thank all my new readers (who gave me a monthly average of 1.5 million page views) and say I hope you enjoyed the show as much as I did.
It is hard to imagine 2013 being nearly as entertaining. On the other hand, when the year begins with politicians falling into a booby trap they set for themselves – something dubbed “the fiscal cliff” – there are bound to be plenty of laughs to come.