GROTH: I have a few questions about Grown-Ups. I was very curious about a few things. I just saw Grown-Ups far the first time recently, I rented it on tape, and I was really impressed at how adroitly you handled this chasm between the son and the parents. It wasn’t just a generational gap, it was a chasm of values. Does that come from experience?
FEIFFER: Sure it comes from experience. I mean, my parents are the parents in the play. That’s the first and only directly autobiographical attempt I’ve made. Everything you write is in a sense based on something in yourself. Including every Ronald Reagan cartoon I do. But the background to Grown-Ups was that my mother had died earlier that year, and I found that I just about stopped work. I could not get back to what I was working on, which was my second novel, and doing other things. I mean, I could turn out the cartoons, because I had to eat. But that zest for, and ability to do the work that I cared most about disappeared entirely, and that threw me for a loop, because I thought after 85 years of psychotherapy, I had solved my problems with my mother completely. That I was on top of that relationship and understood it perfectly. And yet when she died, I got so sick within 24 hours that I could not go to the funeral. And I thought this was hilarious—puzzling, stupefying, and also hilarious, because it proved I didn’t understand a goddamn thing about what it was my business to understand. I was this professional smart guy. I invented the Jewish mother in humor, and didn’t understand what was going on between my own and myself. Finally, I decided that the only way to understand it was to work my way out of it, and that was to try to to write it into a play. So Grown-Ups grew out of that. And as I said before, the diversionary aspect of it is, when I sat down to write it, I wrote about the marriage first, and not the parents. But that’s the way we too often work creatively: This is what I want to do. O.K., let’s do it! And then you do something else.
GROTH: Work backward. It would seem, from my own experience, that your parents would have been more knowing than the parents depicted in Grown-Ups, I mean, more politically sophisticated. That isn’t true, though, obviously. When the son mentions Kissinger at the very beginning, and then he expounds on his theory, they immediately become frightened.
FEIFFER: Well, that’s an accurate picture. That conversation didn’t take place, and there’s not a single conversation in the play that did take place. I mean, there’s not an accurate quote in the play; it’s accurate in terms of the balance of the relationship. My parents considered ‘anybody in the public print, anybody in a position of power was a figure of dignity, even if they disagreed politically, they had to be respected. You certainly didn’t talk back to anybody in authority. Neither my father nor my mother ever spoke back to anybody in authority, including my teachers. Anyone. These were people who, if you did, you’d be on a boat back to Poland in 20 minutes.
GROTH: I see.
FEIFFER: Their lives, particularly my mother’s, was guided by a pervasive pogrom paranoia.
GROTH: So they were not liberals or New Dealers in a confrontational or dissident sense?
FEIFFER: Oh, by no means. They weren’t old-fashioned socialist, commie, picket-signs, demonstrations. I don’t think they ever went to a demonstration in their lives. And as my sister and I became more politicized—I have two sisters, but I’m talking about the older one and myself—as we became openly political we took part in various events, but [my mother was concerned] because it would get us into trouble, us meaning the entire family. My father’s attitude was much more dismissive. He thought it was all a bunch of crap. Nobody did any good anyhow. So whatever you did politically was a waste of time. But both of them, my mother in particular, were in awe of authority.
GROTH:But they were also politically aware?
FEIFFER: Yes, which is [what] made them awed of authority, because they were also in their own eyes powerless, and nothing was ever going to change their powerlessness. So when I began my political cartooning career in the Voice, my mother got very agitated about it. She thought I was going to get in trouble. She was deeply concerned. And my father was simply proud that my name was in the papers, that I was getting attention, I was getting publicity, I was getting famous. Unlike my mother, he didn’t have a real sense of humor, or didn’t have a sophisticated sense of humor, so he didn’t get most of the work. But he was just enormously proud that strangers knew who his son was.
GROTH: When I saw Grown-Ups for the first time, I was obviously viewing it through my own prism of experience, but I found much that conformed to my own family experience. One thing that jarred me, and you’ve clarified this, is that in the third act Jake mentions that he’s got blurbs from Galbraith and Halberstam, and the parents are very excited about this. And Jean Stapleton, the mother, even exclaims, "John Kenneth Galbraith!" So she’s obviously aware of who these people are. And that struck me, by my own experience, as incongruous, because they seemed so naive and politically scatterbrained that I didn’t understand how they could knew who these people were.
FEIFFER: You could know who these people were when you read the Sunday Times book reviews like my family did, and know those names, and know who’s important. What do people read Time magazine for? To get the labels and to understand who’s in and who’s out, and who’s big and who ain’t. And who’s to be taken seriously and who isn’t. And to take almost all of them at face value. At least until recent years. Viet Nam may have changed some of that, because we began, for the first time, to distrust our leaders. But look what’s happened afterwards. Richard Nixon spent an hour on Meet the Press two weeks ago, where he’s asked by the likes of Chris Wallace and Tom Brokaw and John Chancellor, does he think the sleaze factor will play a role in the upcoming presidential campaign. I mean, here’s the godfather of sleaze being asked to—
GROTH: Well, they were perhaps asking him as an expert.
FEIFFER: Well, I wish there was some irony involved, but you sure didn’t get it. And then he was asked if he thought that Poindexter and Oliver North should be pardoned. The mind boggles.
GROTH: Yes, it does. To what do you attribute our willingness to accept that?
FEIFFER: There are a lot of things I think I have answers to, but that one escapes me. The other one that escapes me is how in this time of videotape, where memory is so quickly documented, because it’s all on record, why the contradictory statements of political leaders count for less now than ever before. And that Reagan can say something on a Monday which is recorded and preserved, and can be quoted to him on a Wednesday and which he will deny and that denial will be accepted.
GROTH: Yes. How do you account for that?
FEIFFER: That’s what I say, I don’t get it. It’s scary, because I think truly, that’s the way you move into fascism—where memory ceases. Milan Kundera wrote a brilliant book called The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which is about this very thing, and he’s writing about it in terms of Eastern Europe. And here we are, a Western democracy with a free press, apparently free exchange of ideas, in which censorship takes place. The way we achieve censorship is not to bar something, but to simply ignore them or forget them.
GROTH: Well, De Tocqueville basically made that same criticism some hundred odd years ago. Democracy, he said, has a tendency to obliterate the critical junction among its constituency.
FEIFFER: It seems to be doing it more now than we ever did before.
GROTH: Do you think this represents a failure of democracy? And if so, to what extent?
FEIFFER: I have no theories about it, I find it so deeply disturbing... I’m somebody, as you no doubt know by now, who needs answers to things. And an important part of my work is looking for causal factors, whether it’s in relationships or in politics. I ain’t got none for this. I really am puzzled, and in some ways I think it may be the most important, or one of the most important things, that we’re dealing with, because until we achieve an ability to put things into perspective and hold true to that perspective, and remember where we’re coming from, what’s going on, we can’t get very far in terms of any substantive change. So where that takes us is down a very dark, perilous, winding road.
GROTH: Do you have a prescriptive answer? Do you have any sense that you know haw we could affect change?
FEIFFER: No, of course I don’t. Of course I don’t. I think change comes about from all sorts of combinations of things. Much of it is cyclical as Schlesinger and others have pointed out. But what starts a cycle is a mood shift. So maybe after eight years of reaction, we’re going to move into another progressive period. Generally, since this is essentially a conservative country, most countries I guess are, what shifts us towards reform of one kind or another is an economic downturn or a depression or an unpopular war, or, as in the late ‘50s or the early ‘60s, television exposing southern racism. You know, the lunch counter movement and the sit-ins, and the North becoming aware of something they could blithely ignore up until then.
GROTH: There’s no generative impulse now, though.
FEIFFER: There’s beginning to be, about education and about the homeless. It’s just beginning to start. It’s beginning to move. And there was even during the Reagan years, about the environment and ecology.
GROTH: But when Reagan can say that he doesn’t think there are any homeless or that the only people who aren’t eating are people who are too ignorant to find food that’s freely available to them...
FEU’PER: Yes, but in many cases Reagan spoke for a solid majority. In this case, he’s speaking for Reagan. Maybe a couple of million others, but no one that really counts.
GROTH: There’s no sense of cumulative outrage when he makes those statements, though.
FEIFFER: By now, I don’t think that there can be a cumulative sense of outrage about anything that has to do with him. I mean, last time he was able to provoke outrage was when he went to bed with the Ayatollah.
GROTH: And even that has been muted.
FEIFFER: That’s been totally muted, yes.
GROTH: Do you think we’re just anesthecized to this?
FEIFFER: No, as I say, as we both said, that’s been muted, but Reagan’s no longer an effective president. He no longer has the power he had just a couple of years ago; Iran, it’s not just the second term—
GROTH: I was going to say, isn’t that always true of political figures [that in the last year of their second term their power is diminished]?
FEIFFER: No, not if you’re a moral figure. And he’s a truly moral figure. He represents a point of view. He’s a true believer. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t going to lose battles, but he’s been losing many more than he would have had Iran-Contra not happened. Because the Democrats, even having won the Senate, would have folded before a more popular…I mean, nobody’s ever accused Senate liberals or congressional liberals of inordinate courage in our time.
GROTH: He’s still an enormously popular president.
FEIFFER: Yes. Popular in terms of image, popular in terms of the movie star part. But politically, no, I don’t think the popularity carries very far.
GROTH: You don’t think it’ll carry as far as Bush?
FEIFFER: No, I think Dukakis will beat Bush if anybody is awake to vote on election day. I suggested in a speech I gave recently that we may reach a point where 200 people go and write in a vote, and he’ll be elected president because nobody else will remember to vote.
GROTH: Would you vote for Jackson in the presidential election?
FEIFFER: Sure. Easily. I think that, still, unfortunately, the most important domestic issue we have is racism. And what we do racially—especially since the Hispanic population keeps growing—to make this country liveable with itself, and not continue to fragment it as has been done, and break down, and beyond that, to motivate this growing black underclass and Hispanic underclass which is achieving such sizable proportions, that if nothing is done about it within the next 10 or 15 years, we’re going to inherit a state of cultural and ethnic and class apartheid. It’ll be the South Africanization of America. The importance of the Jackson candidacy is that there is a leader who acts as a motivating force and a role model with a chance of achieving real power, and I think the lives of a whole generation of kids can be and most likely will be affected by that. And the further he goes, the better that effect. I think it’s much more important—it’s not going to happen, that he’ll be nominated, because it’s clearly going to be Dukakis now, but when it looked like Dukakis might fade, I felt that it was far more important in the long run for this country to have a Jackson campaign that would lose than to nominate one boring candidate over another. So, I have many questions about Jackson personally, but I’m talking about the role he plays.
GROTH: What do you think the virtues would have been of a lost Jackson presidential campaign?
FEIFFER: Again, a lost Jackson presidential campaign would still be historic. I mean, Jackson as a loser would be a lot more important and probably a lot more influential than the president who ran. And he would also have inherited the Democratic party, and changed it for all time. But more important than the Democratic party, he changed the way whites see race in this country, or a substantial number of whites, which wouldn’t have ended the problems—it might have begun a whole new series of problems—but would have shifted onto a new ground and a higher ground an argument that’s been with us since slavery. It’s about time we started settling it.
GROTH: Do you think that Jackson could win the election?
FEIFFER: No, but I think he would have done a lot better than people thought. But no, I don’t think he could win. Again, I say it doesn’t matter. Reagan’s been president for eight years and he’s done some awful things, but we’ve survived it. We can survive George Bush.
GROTH: You would vote for Jackson notwithstanding his remarks about “Hymietown.’’ Does that mean that you think that character is less important than his ideological position?
FEIFFER: Well, for one thing, he apologized for "Hymietown." And it was four years ago. That doesn’t not make him a closet anti-semite, but as I say, I’m not interested in what somebody—what was Nixon? I mean, why have we forgiven Nixon for his anti-semitic remarks, which came out in the tapes over and over again, not just once, but any number of times? Nixon is now on television as a revered elder statesman.
GROTH: But you don’t approve of that necessarily.
FEIFFER: Of course I don’t approve of that, but if we can know him, even in Watergate days, ask Nixon about his anti-semitic remarks, or his anti-black remarks, that there’s one set of principles when it comes to a white candidate, clearly, and another when it comes to a radical black. Of course I deplored Jackson at that time. Jackson has backed off considerably from that, and what he has to say in terms of public policy in regard to Israel I’m not in disagreement with at all. That there has to be a settlement. I do not think [Israeli Prime Minister] Shamir is the ideal figure for our time. He is not a hero to me. What the Israelis are doing as a state troubles me deeply. I think it needs a kick in the ass from the United States to move in other directions.
GROTH: What about his association with Farrakhan?
FEIFFER: Well, obviously, it’s deplorable, and Farrakhan is deplorable. But, again, why should one issue, why should my being Jewish be the deciding factor on everything else? In addition to being a Jew, I’m also a very troubled citizen of this country, and it seems to me the only candidate of any of them running who addresses the question from a point that makes sense to me is Jesse Jackson. Now, if I’m going to let his past association with Farrakhan obliterate all of that, then it really speaks something about where my real loyalties lie.
GROTH: Well, it doesn’t necessarily follow that only Jews can be offended by that, but rather that non-Jews can be just as offended, and discount his candidacy because of it.
FEIFFER: That’s true. They can.
GROTH: So it’s not necessarily your being Jewish that might affect your— •
FEIFFER: No, but of course Jews take it more personally.
I took it personally.
GROTH: Were you at all interested in the Hart campaign?
FEIFFER: Oh, I never liked Hart. I mean, I didn’t like Hart when he was running McGovern’s campaign.
GROTH: I see. Did it bother you that he had an affair? Would that have influenced your—
FEIFFER: I enjoyed it immensely. I loved it as a political cartoonist. I got mileage out of it. The issue about whether this proved his bad character or not was, I don’t know, I couldn’t get carried away the way others did, because I thought he was a shallow cardboard figure from the beginning.
GROTH: Would it bother you if Jackson had an affair?
FEIFFER: No, Jackson clearly has had affairs. No, it’s the politics that I care about. What about Jack Kennedy? Or F.D.R.? Or Lyndon Johnson? We don’t talk much about Johnson. You know, Johnson had countless affairs.
GROTH: Right. You think Reagan might be our first virginal president?
FEIFFER: I hope Reagan screws around.
GROTH: Doesn’t seem likely, does it?
FEIFFER: I hope he’s effective at something these days. I agreed with those people who are less bothered by Hart screwing around than the stupidity of screwing around in public. That is...
GROTH: Did you buy the theory that he was found out merely because we have a more aggressive press today, that if we had the press in Kennedy’s era that we had today, Kennedy would have been found out too?
FEIFFER: Kennedy was found out. They knew about him. They just didn’t have any evidence on him. I mean, the press knew that Jack was screwing around, because a lot of his buddies in the press were in on it. So it was a different kind of coverage. But the other thing is that Kennedy didn’t flaunt it. And when there was a point in the campaign when, and this is a famous story, when they woke up hung over at Sinatra’s house after a night of rucking around, they decided "We’ve got to cool this." And that’s when they broke off relations with Sinatra. Because they knew it was bad for the campaign and they knew they could get in real trouble. Gary Hart couldn’t make that decision about Warren Beatty, so…[chuckle] we know he’s not qualified to make decisions.
GROTH: I was talking with Ralph Steadman about the political state of our respective countries, and we actually expanded the conversation to include the concomitant spiritual dearth thai accompanies the politics of self-interest. Is that part of your critique of American Society, in addition to economic conditions and...
FEIFFER: Oh, I’m very bad at terms like "spiritual." As far as I’m concerned, you can’t have too much spiritual dearth. Religion and other forms of moral fervor, except in a few instances, have gotten us into a lot of bad trouble. The interesting aspect of the progressive movements in recent years is that the strongest forces first came out of the Protestant church—the black church, then the white church, and more recently, the Catholic Church. It’s been remarkable. But nonetheless, I don’t know how I would answer that. I just think that what has dissolved, has dissolved along all lines. And the net result of that can be called a spiritual demise, or in Jimmy Carter’s phrase, "malaise." But what it really is, I think it all comes down to fear, basically. What we call the American spirit, what we call the American Dream was rooted in an optimism, which even during the times of the great waves of migration, and during the Great Depression, and during times when we were economically far worse off then, we are now, we believed in the future. And we certainly believed that our children would do better than we did. I don’t think you can find many people today who think that, who believe their children will be living a better life than they have lived as the parents. Or will be more economically secure. Or think that America will be more secure. Now I think this had to come along, was a natural by-product of our loss of isolation. The more we became part of the world, the more this had to happen, and the more we declined as the only power. The more the bomb, which kept us the only power, and the more our strong economy was shared or divided up among Western European countries and Japan, the more it had to happen. But that it did happen at all, we were unprepared for it. Detroit was unprepared for it, Texas was unprepared for it, Oklahoma was unprepared for it, Wall Street was unprepared for it. And it’s remarkable how little serious thought was given to what happened when we had to become competitive with the rest of the world.
GROTH: This is something I’d like to ask you about, because you ‘re talking almost entirely economically and materialistically, and it seems—
FEIFFER: My point is that this is a country, I mean, this is the most materialistic country in the world. The Europeans will come here, the Latin Americans will come here, and people who love to be here, and love the country, and love New York, which is the most materialistic city you can imagine, will still say they are astonished because they don’t know materialism like this. When we talk about spirituality, it’s bullshit. Our real value has to do with that television commercial you see and how that’s shot. And what values it espouses. That’s our real value. Our real god is the god of possession and the god of acquisitiveness. It’s the god of stereo, the god of CD, the god of XKE—I don’t even know the names of cars—the god of the Mercedes and the Jaguar and the XKE, whatever the hell it is. The BMW.
GROTH: But isn’t even that admitting that we haw no sense of values at all? Because obviously the television commercial isn’t a value. It’s a false value, an artificial value.
FEIFFER: It may be an artificial value, but that’s a pretty powerful value. It’s a value that starts wars, it’s a value that forces imperialism, it’s the value that funds the contras, it’s the value that puts us in the Persian Gulf at this very moment. That’s a pretty powerful value.
GROTH: But, our lack of faith in the future is based entirely on the very likely possibility that our sons and sons’ sons won’t be able to have as many VCRs or toaster ovens as we do.
FEIFFER: Well, it’s even worse than that, because I don’t think we are that frivolous when it comes to our children. It’s that, in my case, it’s that I have a 24-year-old daughter who lives two blocks away from where I lived when I was 24 years old, in an apartment that’s even smaller than the one I lived in, and she’s paying something like 800 times more rent than I did, which means that she can’t afford it...no one makes that kind of money as a young person, to find that affordable. I mean, I could live on $35 a month. No one can today. And I’m talking about the daughter of a white, upper-middle class, somebody who has all these advantages, and will nonetheless have a hard time. And even if she becomes very successful, the amount of money she will have to spend in order to ensure the lifestyle I have, she’ll have to make two or three times more. And only a privileged few are going to make tint kind of money. So what we’re talking about is not a spiritual problem, but an economic problem, because what happens to the people that can’t afford it? What happens in that kind of an economy to those who can’t keep up with that girl? What happens is that they fall back and another society grows. And so you have the main society, which is the upper reaches of material well-being, what we used to call the middle class. But to live in a successful middle-class style as it’s known now, one will have to become very, very rich the way it’s going. Or you slip back where most people used to be in the 19th century, and that’s where we may be headed, unless we find ways out of it. So, we’re talking about something that goes well beyond a spiritual problem, or a spiritual upbringing, or a moral approach. We’re talking about how our children are going to lead their lives, and how they will be educated, and how their children will be educated. The term "quality of life" has pretty much disappeared from the public dialogue, although it was very big back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was—
GROTH: Or it’s simply been defined economically.
FEIFFER: Yeah. I mean, this is all deeply, deeply troubling.
GROTH: Do you think we are able to define the quality of life in any way other than economically?
FEIFFER: Oh, yes. Of course. But how one affords that life is economic. The values of that life are not economic, but to enjoy those values you have to be making a living or something better than a living. The quality of that life depends on taste and style and values. But then, the music you care about, the books you care about, the films you care about, the relationships you care about.
GROTH: Here’s an unusual question. Are there any good right-wing political cartoonists working?
FEIFFER: Right-wing, I don’t know how far you want to go, but there’s Jeff MacNelly, who’s conservative, who’s more than good, he’s brilliant. There’s Steve Benson, who’s quite conservative, at the Arizona Republic, who’s also quite talented. Steve Kelly in San Diego, whose work you must know. No? He’s at the San Diego Union, I think. He’s young, far-right, talented, and gets better all the time. There are others whose names don’t come tripping right off the tongue, but they do exist. Unfortunately.
GROTH: Can you admire their work?
FEIFFER: Can I admire their work?
GROTH: Professing principles you don’t believe in?
FEIFFER: Well, it’s not that. Good work is good work, above and beyond politics. I mean, sometimes these guys will do something that will piss me off or anger me. Which is the whole point, because they’re doing it from their point of view. And if it’s good, it should. But to the extent they’re artists, working at peak efficiency, I admire it the way it should be admired, because it’s nice to see people working at their craft in top form.
GROTH: Do you think your work has a concrete impact on people?
FEIFFER: You know, it’s a question I’ve been asked for years, and I’ve never known how to answer. Clearly the answer seems to be yes, but I get that in bits and pieces, and I get that a little bit here and a little bit there. But in terms of some kind of massive reaction, or a hundred letters every week, or applause as I walk down the streets, believe me, none of this exists.
GROTH: You’d think you change minds?
FEIFFER: I don’t know if I change minds, I think I have, because of the role I played and how earlier on it was, made it easier for other people to say what they thought when they thought they weren’t allowed to. The first reaction that I used to get, back in the ‘50s, into the ‘60s, was not "How much I love your work!" but "How did you ever get away with saying that?" I mean, people would say, "You think the way I think. I didn’t know that was allowed in print." And by getting it to print, that seemed to be a license for encouraging and for stabilizing and perhaps enlarging those weird eclectic left-lib principles, but also social and sexual observations that I’ve seemed to stand for over a period of years. So, yes, in that way I have an effect. A South African poet exiled from his country told me that a Capetown paper used to run the cartoons, and he and his black friends couldn’t figure out why the hell they were running them, because they clearly didn’t understand what they were running. It made them feel terrific. Well, if it made them feel terrific, it made me have a function. And that was a glorious piece of news to hear about my work, all the way over there. A friend told me once about a father who had a kid in trouble because of a death in the family, and the kid had a hard time recovering from the death, showed him a cartoon I had done, where a kid talks about having to watch his parents all the time, because he thinks they’re going to die. He’s afraid to go to school because he thinks his parents will run away. The kid was convinced that the cartoon was about him. And when he was told that, no, the parents didn’t know me, and it was that other kids also feel that way, it seemed to relieve the situation. I mean, hearing that stuff is very important to me.
GROTH: I just wanted you to confirm something, which is that in the’60s LBJ apparently asked you for an original cartoon?
FEIFFER: Well, he didn’t write me directly, I got a letter from a Mrs. Taylor, running the LBJ library. Taylor is Lady Bird’s maiden name, so it wouldn’t be surprising if it were a relative, asking for an original. I’d done one of my most vicious Johnson cartoons. I still remember the one, it was, [LBJ] being a seeker of consensus, he’s appointing a fact-finding civil rights board of one white person, one black person, one bigot, and then he says, "Let us all reason together." She asked me for the original, which outraged me. I said if the president pulled out of Viet Nam, I’d be happy to send the entire library of my work, but I’m not in the habit of rewarding war criminals, so...
GROTH: O.K. That’s the story I wanted.
FEIFFER: You’d heard that story?
GROTH: Yes, I did.
FEIFFER: Who’s spreading these stories? [Laughter] The Johnsons?
GROTH: Do you get hate mail?
FEIFFER: Yes. Not as much as I wish I got. Particularly in recent years. During the Nixon years, oddly enough or interestingly enough, it was all anti-semitic. I mean, if I was against Nixon, it proved that I was—
GROTH: Probably came from the White House.
FEIFFER: [Laughter] That would be nice to believe, but unfortunately not true. A lot of it came from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Most of it from San Francisco. When there is hate mail, the hate mail usually comes in one way. They will redraw the cartoon with the right captions. They will scratch out my dialogue and write their own, which is full of vitriol. But these days the most angry letters will come if I do a cartoon criticizing Israel.
GROTH: I was just going to bring that up. I don’t know how many cartoons you’ve done on Israel, but you did one that was particularly brutal. It was a progression where a journalist was interviewing an Israeli soldier and directly behind the Israeli soldier, several other soldiers are beating the hell out of a Palestinian, and he was asking a series of question that were becoming progressively more fatuous considering that they were beating up this Palestinian. Now—
FEIFFER: Now, what you’ve done is a marvelous job of extrapolating something that you saw—which has to do with your perception of things—which I didn’t draw at all. I’ll show you that drawing?
GROTH: Yeah, yeah.
FEIFFER: As brutal as the argument and the logic is, this is a very quiet logic. This Israeli soldier is reasoning with this Palestinian he’s got under guard, and he doesn’t have a gun on him, he’s not beating him up as you thought, he’s just got a nightstick aimed at him. But what is brutal is the viciousness of absolute power, and the logic, the very calm logic behind that power.
GROTH: I remembered it as considerably more violent than it is.
FEIFFER: Yeah. Because the idea is violent. But the drawing is very unviolent. Deliberately so. And that’s what I’ve always done. The reason for years, until Trudeau took it away from me, that I showed the same frame over and over again, was I didn’t want to overdramatize and get that in the way of the logic of the dialogue. And I thought that the quieter the drawing was, the more strong the effect would be. But when Doonesbury began doing the same thing, I got very bored with my own look, and I just decided to, whatever that logic was, I’ve got to move away from it, because I was no longer having fun doing that kind of artwork any more. And I wasn’t having any fun anyhow. I was doing too damn much tracing.
GROTH: Did that logical imperative frustrate you as a cartoonist?
FEIFFER: Very much so, very much so. I mean, I hated the cartoon. I loved the writing of it, and I hated the drawing of it, and if I could have hired somebody else to be in terms of style, and could have afforded it, I would have done that. But it’s much more fan these days, because the drawings are different, and I almost never trace anymore, and hardly ever Xerox, unless I’m desperately late. It’s fun, and I think it looks better.
GROTH: What do you think is happening to Israel right now?
FEIFFER: What’s happening is a struggle of life and death over its future and how it will exist in the future. I think it will exist, but whether it grows further and further into a defensive hard-line state which will increasingly isolate it from the rest of the world and from some Of its own citizens and make its future grim and bleak... I’ve been in the Middle East only once, in Israel only once, and you go to these places, you around the world as an American thinking optimistically that there is an answer to all problems, and after two weeks in Israel, as very much a critic of the state, and after a number of conversations with Israelis and Palestinians, you think this is where I ought to bow out, this sucker ain’t ever going to be solved. You know, 200 years from now, it’ll still be going on. Because you’re dealing with hardline Israelis. and you’re dealing with the Israelis who are not hardline, in no position of power to do very much about anything, and with hardline Palestinians who will get knocked off by their own people when other Palestinians who want to deal appear.
What I have to say about it, while I’m happy to talk about it, is really besides the point. When I talk about the United States and bitch and moan about it, there’s some sense that the bitching and moaning can lead to something, and that perceptions can change, and that I can play some part in affecting things, at least in my work. When I do cartoons on Israel, all I’m trying to do, really, is affect the attitude of American Jews or bolster those American Jews who are operating out of a lonely—but less lonely position, that is critical of the policies of the state.
GROTH: You ‘re trying to affect American Jews’ attitudes in what direction?
FEIFFER: Toward applying pressure in their support, becoming more critical and more demanding, saying there has to be some kind of Palestinian trade-off, that this internal war can’t go on. But knowing that for Israel to give the Gaza Strip or make some deal for territory, that’s not going to solve anything either. I’m not, by any means, a critic with the blithe vision that all that it takes is such and such and everything will be settled, and you give the Palestinians their state and that’s the end of it. That may be just the beginning of it. And the hardliners may be absolutely right about all sorts of things. Nonetheless, you cannot have a democracy as an occupying power. And being able to justify its existence as anything but a reactionary state. I think Israel deserves better, and as an American Jew, I wish it better.
GROTH: At what point would you advocate that America start reducing its payments to Israel?
FEIFFER: I think that all has to be talked about.
GROTH: Do you think we’ve reached the point where it should seriously consider it?
FEIFFER: Oh, yes. I’ve thought that for some time. I think that Israel has to learn. But I think that before we do that, there has to be some political vision of our own, some settlement in mind. Something that we want them to move towards. One of the Israeli journalists I met said, as long as Israel remains a schnorrer nation, that’s what he called it, a schnorrer nation, as long at it can automatically depend on the United States for its support, no matter what it does, nothing is going to change. So I think that that has to change.
GROTH: I’m sorry, that’s a Yiddish term for "dependent"?
FEIFFER: Schnorrer. Yeah, that’s right.
GROTH: Okay. Do you have anything unique to add to the Contras, supporting the Contras?
GROTH: Aside from the fact that you’re opposed to it?
FEIFFER: Yes, I’m opposed to it. For all of the obvious reasons. The United States has a long history in Latin America, all of that, and this is just one more, and all of it couched in idealistic terms. We’ve always been for freedom, and we did dreadful things to those people. It’s time we learned our lesson.
GROTH: How do you handle the argument that Nicaragua will go communist and export communism?
FEIFFER: Who gives a shit?
GROTH: You don’t think that will harm the republic?
FEIFFER: Which republic? This republic? Well, I’d be really worried when they invade us. Yeah, I’d be worried about that.
GROTH: What about the eventuality of the Soviets putting missiles in Nicaragua?
FEIFFER: You know, we ring the Soviet Union and have for over 30 years with our missiles, and they’ve survived that. The Soviet Union has become a very conservative country. I think we have to bargain with and deal with them and be tough with them and all of that other stuff. I mean, they are not nice guys, but the notion that what they really want to do is occupy Washington, when they can barely occupy Moscow successfully, I think it’s time we started outgrowing that. I think it’s time to smarten up about Cold War ideology which really has been in effect since 1917.
GROTH: Well, let me play devil’s advocate here. Would you not mind nuclear missiles in Nicaragua?
FEIFFER: Oh, sure I’d mind nuclear missiles in Nicaragua, but we’re not going to have them. Is Cuba a communist state or not? I haven’t been paying attention lately.
GROTH: Well, last I heard it was.
FEIFFER: Are there nuclear missiles in Cuba?
GROTH: Well, there were.
FEIFFER: No. They were not operative. They were being set up at the time of Khrushchev. That’s a long time ago. There aren’t any now. And if there aren’t any in Cuba, why should there be any in Nicaragua? What does the Soviet Union have to gain? The Soviet Union’s problems are not the United States, any more than the United States’ problems are the Soviet Union. We are not a debtor nation because of what the Soviet Union has done to us.
GROTH: Are you saying that if we didn’t resist, the Soviet Union wouldn’t put missiles in there? Do you not think that’s a possibility?
FEIFFER: I really don’t know why you’re badgering me on this point. There has to be a discussion outside of basic Cold War militarism. Is that what Latin America is all about to you? Is that what the conditions of those people living there, lives where they don’t have a decent toilet, decent water?
GROTH: Don’t take this personally.
FEIFFER: Yeah, but even the questions one chooses as a "devil’s advocate" are instructive. But one can argue with me that my vision isn’t radical enough, not that I’m too radical. And then I would probably have to give ground, because if you look at how comfortable we are and how uncomfortable much of the rest of the world is... I mean, my god, one can make an argument for putting missiles anywhere. That we are fat, we are complacent and we are increasingly fat and complacent about the division of our own society. We are turning, as a matter of fact, under the Reagan years, we are turning all of America into a Third World country. So the question is not whether you worry about missiles in downtown Caracas, but whether or not you’re worried about missiles in Watts, missiles in Harlem. That may be the more realistic vision for our future.
GROTH: Well, this is the kind of answer I’m trying to elicit. I don’t mean to get personal, I’m trying to lob some questions. From a conservative, adversarial point of view.
FEIFFER: I like questions from a point of view that’s farther left than mine, because that might really put me on the defensive. But there’s very little of that in this society.
GROTH: Well, we might have to get Alexander Cockburn in here.
FEIFFER: That’s right.
GROTH: What do you think of Cockburn?
FEIFFER: Oh, we used to be friends and we’re not any more. I don’t really want to talk about it.
GROTH: O.K. Sometimes I appreciate Cockburn, but most of the time I think that he actually is the kind of leftist that gives leftists a bad name.
FEIFFER: I would not disagree.
GROTH: Well, I was going to mention, that when we were referring to the fact that Nixon is back, as unspeakable as that is, I remember talking to a couple of people after that broadcast, and expressing my own bewilderment as how anybody in the name of god could pay attention to a man who had so thoroughly been discredited, and virtually everyone I talked to said, well, you know, he’s an expert.
FEIFFER: Well, definitely he’s an expert. Hitler was an expert on foreign affairs too.
GROTH: But you don’t doubt the fact that if Hitler were around, he’d be on television today, do you?
FEIFFER: I did a cartoon suggesting that if McCarthy were around, he’d be on the Supreme Court.
GROTH: Right. That or the Phil Donahue Show.
FEIFFER: Both [Laughter].
GROTH: And Kissinger is also. I think you despise Kissinger, at least that’s my impression based on your cartoons.
FEIFFER: Lewis Lapham did a book in which he describes Kissinger as a hairdresser. I think that puts it perfectly. He’s a butler to the powerful.
GROTH: He’s a good friend of Ted Koppel ‘s, appears in and on the news regularly.
FEIFFER: Yes, that he is.
GROTH: How do you account for something like that? Well, you don’t know Koppel, I assume.
GROTH: But he seems to be an intelligent and astute man.
FEIFFER: Yeah, but he’s a media heavy. These people have become, did you see the cartoon I did on Nightline?
FEIFFER: Koppel is like Rather and the rest of them. They have now become elder statesmen, the elder statesmen in the universe called Media-world. It’s a separate country. And these are the most important guys in that separate country. I mean, they are as important as the president of the United States, which is why Rather can abuse George Bush when they go one on one. Because it’s one head of state talking to a mere vice-president. Who the fuck does George Bush think he is, compared to Dan Rather? And Koppel—who is by far the brightest of these guys, far brighter than Dan Rather, but that’s hardly a contest—Koppel often has an air of condescension about him when he speaks. But he’s worth watching, because he’s also quite articulate and does his homework.
GROTH: But would you assess his involvement in public affairs as being part of the problem?
FEIFFER: Well, part of the problem is that whether it’s these guys, or McNeil-Lehrer with a much lower-key manner, the politics of their questions will always be predictably middle-of-the-road. The people they get on the air will never be further left than the mildest left. They’re not going to get anybody who’s going to intrude on establishment views very far one way or the other. Although they’ll go much further to the right than they ever will go to the left. But that’s the trimph of the Reagan years, where George Will has become a figure of moderation. And that’s why the political cartoons, to get off on another thing, have played such an important role, as far as I’m concerned, because in the Reagan years, as op-ed pages move further and further to the right, the only guys yelling, in an ill-mannered fashion, that the case they were getting was not the real case, were the likes of Conrad in L.A., or Auth in Philadelphia, or Marlette, first in Charlotte, and now in Atlanta, or Tom Toles in Buffalo, or Borgman in Cinnicinati, or Peters in Dayton. We are blessed to have this brilliant generation of young—outside of Conrad who’s an even older fart than I am, although in better shape than I am.
GROTH: Physically or mentally?
FEIFFER: Probably both. But certainly physically. And a brilliant man. And Herblock who keeps rejuvenating himself. The work these people are doing is particularly important now because nobody else is doing that work.
GROTH: Well, is it possible to ever become as high-positioned as someone like Koppel and still be effective? Or do you think there’s an intrinsic equation of imminent co-option here?
FEIFFER: Oh, I think they are effective. It’s an effectiveness that I’m not in favor of. But there’s no question that the job they do is the job they’re paid to do, which is to make us think that everything is well in hand, that the system works, as they’re always saying, the system works. Watergate proved the system works. Iran-Contra proved the system works. World War III will prove the system works. The more the system dissolves, the proof that the system is dissolving is that the system works.
GROTH: / mean effective, more as a national ombudsman than as somebody who simply shores up the status quo.
FEIFFER: No. Also, that’s not the job that television’s supposed to have. It would not be nice to have voices on TV that range farther to the left than the ones that are now allowable.
GROTH: Did you ever appear on Firing Line by any chance?
FEIFFER: No. I was asked years ago, when I knew Buckley. I knew and was friendly with Buckley when he was as inadequate and as cowardly as I am. And I found him amusing and entertaining then. When Nixon got in, and he achieved some power, I stopped finding him funny, and stopped knowing him.
GROTH: Did you read his book, where he defended McCarthyism?
FEIFFER: Oh, I’ve read many defenses of McCarthyism by him over the years. He was a great fan of McCarthy. Remains so. He was a friend of McCarthy’s.
GROTH: How do you account someone as intelligent as he is, someone who expounds a moral basis for his views, defending something as indefensible as McCarthyism??
FEIFFER: It’s very simple: He’s wrong. Smart people can be wrong. Also, it starts out from another view of the world, of the universe, than the one I have. Which is a laissez-faire, a conservative one, an Adam Smith one, a social-Darwinian one, where democracy can be hurt by the welfare state, can be hurt by taking care of its more benighted citizens. To oversimplify, you can break it down into two different moral outlooks: one which thinks that my parents pulled themselves up by their bootstraps— the only way anybody is going to make it, is to do [the same]—if blacks can’t do it that way, if Hispanics can’t do it that way, and you try to replace the [make-it-on-your-own system] with a social welfare system, you just create generations of poverty, feeding off the welfare system, and they will never have the moral stamina, and so on, and so on.
GROTH: Now, I assume that you’ve remained friendly with some conservatives?
GROTH: But there’s a point beyond which you probably couldn’t.
FEIFFER: All of the above. I think Viet Nam and the bitterness that came out of that made certain past friendships no longer plausible nor possible. Another thing is, I’ve simply gotten older. I mean, if I were in my 30s or my 40s, it might still be worth my while to see people I used to see, and be friendly with people I used to be friendly with. Just the fact that my life has become much more geared to my family, much more private. It revolves around family, and it revolves around work. And now those are the One and the Two of my existence, and the social existence—dinner parties in New York are virtually non-existent for us any more. What socializing we do is on Martha’s Vineyard, and that’s for a couple of months a year, and that’s pretty much the end of it.
GROTH: I also had the sense that there are certain people, like maybe Buckley and Kauffmann and others, whose views you disagree with so violently that you simply couldn’t countenance them.
FEIFFER: Well, I don’t think I could enjoy an evening with them. And if I couldn’t, what would be the point of the evening? And also, I think that there’s another thing. I was talking about this last night. Elaine’s, the restaurant, had a 25th anniversary party, and I saw a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I was talking with one of them about how 25 years ago or more I used to go to these really heavily celebrity-studded and intellectual-studded parties that Ken Tynan used to give. And loved being there, and loved being on that scene, and loved seeing all those people, and then my then-wife and I would come home and we’d have to give each other neck rubs and shoulder rubs because we were so tense. Well, you reach point after a while where you get too old to be that tense any more. And the rewards that come despite the tension become non-existent.
GROTH: But there, is a time when those tensions are rewarding?
FEIFFER: When you’re young, and you’re happy to be asked in on the scene, and amazed that you’re asked in on the scene, and you feel flattered by that, because that’s how you find out that other people think you have some merit and consider you important, so it’s nice to know that. It’s a card of entry.
GROTH: And the tension derives from the forensic experience?
FEIFFER: Oh, it’s a combination of things, that you’re on stage, that you yourself want to perform well, and be thought well of, that there’s a brittleness to all of this in any case, at best. And that everybody’s performing. Nobody’s really—until the sixth or seventh drink—doing what comes naturally.
GROTH: Were you old enough to be affected by F.D.R. ?
FEIFFER: Yes. I adored him. He was the only president I ever loved. I know all the bad things he did, doesn’t matter. I was a kid and I loved him. I needed a hero. There was him, and there was Fred Astaire, and there was Humphrey Bogart, and there was James Cagney. There was no one in my family, so I hang on to the ones who I care about.
GROTH: Any other politicians?
FEIFFER: William 0. Douglas, who stopped being a politician and became a Supreme Court justice. [Pause] By the years, Wayne Morse. Ernest Greening who fought almost alone against the Vietnam War, lost elections because of it. Nobody since then, I must say.
GROTH: How about Adlai Stevenson?
FEIFFER: I thought he was always a phoney. Always.
FEIFFER: Well, I remember when Time magazine in ‘52, when the Democrats had nominated him, put him on the cover [comparing him to] Roosevelt. Knowing what Time thought of Roosevelt, and knowing that that was supposed to be a positive labeling, I figured anybody who Time favorably compared to Roosevelt couldn’t be my candidate.
GROTH: Right. The one thing that I liked about Stevenson was he seemed to despise politicking, which seemed to be something of a virtue.
FEIFFER: Yeah. So does Ronald Reagan and so did Jimmy Carter.
GROTH: Do you think that’s true? You don’t think Ronald Reagan likes to get out there and perform?
FEIFFER: Well, all of these guys became known for their opposition to establishment politics. But of course Stevenson was a politician. He certainly lied well enough to be a politician. He never stopped lying at the U.N.
GROTH: Well, what was it about F.D.R. that was an inspiration?
FEIFFER: Well, some of the same things that one has to admire about Reagan. That he was inspirational, that he changed the direction of the country. I don’t admire that about Reagan, but he certainly did it. That through his voice and manner and bravura style he did for us what Churchill did for the British during the Second World War. And he was a hero.
There’s no question he sold out a lot of what he stood for. He backed off, he did all that stuff, but he also performed great services for the country.
GROTH: Do you think that the times shape the character of national figures? We live in mediocre times with mediocre leaders whereas during the crisis of WWIl there were Churchill, Roosevelt, even Stalin.
FEIFFER: I don’t know. I think Gorbachev may well be a great man. We’ll see. And where does he come from? I mean, he’s certainly a greater man than Stalin.
FEIFFER: You know, where the paucity of leadership comes from today, in this country, both among minorities.... I mean, I think the Jackson campaign is fascinating in terms of how that’s shaping up for blacks and the rest of us. Jackson—who I never really liked—is mounting the most exciting and most interesting political campaign. Ever. Since I started to vote, certainly. And while I wrote him off four years ago as a demagogue, and I would never support him, I happily voted for him in New York.
GROTH: Did you?
FEIFFER: Oh, yes. And felt that he deserved—I was hoping that he would win enough to get the nomination.
GROTH: What caused you to change your perception of him from one of demagogery to whatever you think he is now?
FEIFFER: Well, what’s sincere or what isn’t sincere doesn’t interest me in politicians, I figure they’re all out for the power. It’s just whether they’re talking my line or someone else’s. What he’s saying politically is closer to my way of thinking than any candidate who has run on a major party platform in my lifetime. Or ever. Not since [Socialist Party candidate] Eugene Debs.
GROTH: Is he inspirational in the same way that F.D.R. was, do you think?
FEIFFER: In the same way? I compare it more to the passions that Bobby Kennedy evoked, for a less good reason. I mean, I never understood Bobby’s popularity, but he certainly got the passion going.
GROTH: Right. Well, Bobby was something of a swine, wasn’t he?
FEIFFER: Well, I don’t know if he was a swine. I was never an admirer of his, and it’s been a long time. He’s one of the politicians I didn’t get to know a little better.
GROTH: He sort of specialized in using the C.I.A. for his own partisan ends.
FEIFFER: Yeah. And I did a number of cartoons on Bobby that pissed off his people royally.
GROTH: You mentioned that you thought Jesse Jackson was one of the most exciting candidates since Eugene Debs, and I was wondering what you thought of Norman Thomas.
FEIFFER: Well, I didn’t really begin to admire Thomas until he came out full force against the war in Vietnam, and then I thought he was one of the most articulate and interesting and exciting and influential opponents to the war. Prior to that, I guess I missed the point with Thomas.
GROTH: I see. And what did you think of the McGovem campaign?
FEIFFER: Not much. First of all, Gary Hart ran it, and I didn’t like Gary Hart back then. Not that I had any sound reasons not to like him. I just didn’t like the way he looked. I didn’t like the fact that when he turned full face he still seemed to be in profile.
FEIFFER: I’m just careful of people who in real life look like cartoons.
GROTH: Well, that would sort of usurp function as a cartoonist....
FEIFFER: No, what I mean is that he never seemed to have any dimension. There didn’t seem to be anything behind him. And McGovern, who was a very nice man, and very capable, and his politics I liked a lot, still didn’t infuse me with any kind of enthusiasm. It just didn’t click. I happily voted for him, and I campaigned for him. But it was just not a very exciting campaign.
GROTH: Now, I understand you were a delegate for [Eugene] McCarthy?
FEIFFER: That’s right.
GROTH: Can you explain the circumstances around that? I also understand that you walked out in a matter of days or something to that effect.
FEIFFER: Well, the convention was so upsetting to me, and by that time McCarthy had abandoned his own campaign. I mean, McCarthy lost all interest in becoming the nominee at the point that Bobby Kennedy was shot, when it became clear that his fight was with the Kennedys even more than it was with Lyndon Johnson, He lost enthusiasm, and so I was really a delegate without a candidate, and to me the real action was going on in the streets, and what the police were doing in the streets of Chicago to these kids who were protesting. The violence and the police riot that we know fully about now was quite clear back then, and it was not being dealt with on the floor in any way, so I just resigned on some kind of radio interview, and that caught no one’s attention but my own.
FEIFFER: I’d like to say that I joined the kids on the streets, but I didn’t do so much that as joining Studs Terkel and a couple of others in the Hilton bar.
GROTH: Were you a reluctant delegate?
FEIFFER: No, I was quite happy, I ran as McCarthy delegate: I won. They ran me in the Bronx, my home. But I won anyhow. I was quite happy to be elected. I wasn’t happy to be part of the New York delegation, because I discovered that my lifelong antipathy to being a member of any group, including a group I agreed with, was very much in play there, and I just am not at home in concert with anyone. I mean, even when the New York delegation, at its finest moment, was singing "We Shall Overcome" as a protest to what was going on on the floor, and I was among them, I still felt false to myself.
GROTH: Can you explain what a delegate does?
FEIFFER: To this day, I don’t know. What essentially a delegate is supposed to do is to vote on issues on the floor, pro or con. And bring up as part of that group its own program, and try to get it either passed or moderated, or have some influence on the platform. A delegate is there essentially to nominate a candidate and to pass the party platform.
GROTH: What’s the purpose of having a group of delegates who hone to the party line?
FEIFFER: Because there’s no one party line until they churn it out. And the delegates, or in particular the leadership, the committees figure out what that party line is going to be, and that goes through the committee process, and the hearing process, and endless sorts of negotiations. I mean, that’s going on right now, this very moment, at the Democratic convention.