CSotD: Appreciating Tom Toles

As reported elsewhere here, Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles has announced his retirement, effective at the end of the month.

And, as this 1987 cartoon — scanned from a clipped, yellowed copy — indicates, I’ve been a Tom Toles fan for a long time.

Back in them thar days, I was 37, with kids about to enter adulthood, making this cartoon particularly relevant, and I was also a business reporter, which ditto.

Then, about five years later, I moved from the newsroom over to marketing, where I wrote a weekly column on family, kids and media, provided curriculum materials for schools and visited them to teach media literacy.

One of my Newspapers-in-Education colleagues was at the Buffalo News and she used to send out a Christmas card each year, created by Toles for her program not as part of his job but because he wanted to.

And, she reported, when she had classes in for tours, Tom would always stop what he was doing, talk to them and draw them pictures.

Which, I guess, has nothing, really, to do with his skills as a political cartoonist except one major factor: He gets it, on a level beyond gags and political logic and a stale “The bear is Russia, the bulldog is Britain” analysis of the art form.

Understanding life and caring about people divides a passable cartoonist from a great one, and, from what Cindy told me about working with Tom Toles, he understands and cares.

For that matter, she didn’t have to tell me. It’s evident in his work.

Which is better to be noted upon retirement than at a funeral, and, besides, the Post has promised to replace him, which may be easier said than done in a creative sense but at least losing him is not part of the drip-drip-drip of mindless beancounter entropy destroying our industry.

This is not a funeral, then. It’s a celebration.

Here are some Tom Toles cartoons I’ve snagged and kept over the past 20 years or so. (Disclaimer: They aren’t necessarily ordered by date. You can see the year in their margins.)


A lot of these are going to fall into the “I told you so” category, and, if you thought Donald Trump’s crew invented secretive star chamber procedures, you should look into the career of John Ashcroft, as illustrated in this 2002 piece.

The Department of Homeland Security was founded in 2003. Ashcroft was ahead of his time and Toles was on top of his game.


Six months early, Donald Rumsfeld had proposed an office that, IIRC, wasn’t called “The Office of Strategic Lying,” as Toles phrases it here, but that was pretty much what it was: A department dedicated to disseminated false information to confuse the enemy.

For W’s definition of “the enemy,” see the Ashcroft cartoon above.

Even in the post-9/11 world, we weren’t that complacent yet and the idea was shot down, as seen here. And Tom Toles, as also seen here, suggested that perhaps there was something kind of meta in that cancellation.

Thank god he was wrong. (Please don’t hurt my family.)


Another bit of modern history is that W didn’t immediately invade Iraq after 9/11, though compression of memory might suggest he did.

We went into Afghanistan a month after the attacks on the WTC, which made sense, since the Taliban had sheltered and enabled Osama bin Laden, and it felt like a turkey shoot at first, because pushing them out of government was a whole lot easier than pushing them out of the country.

But invading Iraq was trickier, in part because they didn’t have jack to do with 9/11 and, in fact, Saddam Hussein didn’t even like bin Laden and his crew. It took a couple of years of prevarication.


The world was not behind us on this one and, if fact, we had to not only make it harder for UN inspectors to see what was going on, but discount their findings with our own discovery of aluminum tubes and our own visions of mushroom clouds.


Besides, we weren’t quite ready for an invasion, sparking Rumsfeld’s famous explanation that preparation doesn’t really matter: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

The people who had to actually go to that war wanted armored vehicles, but IEDs weren’t going off in halls of the Pentagon, so, y’know, whatever.


Toles touched off an eruption when he criticized Rumsfeld for minimizing the personal toll a lack of preparedness and of giving a damn was taking on our troops. This cartoon was answered by a furious letter from the Joint Chiefs, none of whom appeared to be missing arms or legs or suffering from traumatic brain injuries.

Or, as our current president terms them, “headaches.”


None of it was George W.’s fault.


It was pretty much our fault for failure to follow directions in the first place.


After all, our electoral system had been carefully designed, and redesigned as necessary, by experts.


Not that Toles saved his criticism for the Bush regime or presidents in general. He’s always taken a dim view of wealthy prats in high places. I don’t remember just what the court was proposing, but I do recall Bill Gates’ response, which was begging for this cartoon.


He also decried the combination of marketing and gullibility that makes for big profits. The AMA has called for a restoration of the ban on the advertising of prescription medications for just this reason; Toles was years ahead of them.

(But imagine the impact on daytime television if they did halt those ads!)


I particularly remember this one because I was working in education and was gobsmacked by the ridiculous reform whereby kids from failing schools were to be moved into non-failing schools. Toles barely had to exaggerate to make the obvious point.


While his response to the Republicans’ long-promised non-existent alternative to the Affordable Care Act stretched from this accurate observation of the problem …


… to this equally accurate observation of their proposed solution.


Not to mention this broad-based analysis of fat-cat lockstep loyalty generally. The scariest part of this cartoon is that, four years later, that joke in the margin seems a lot less absurd than it did then.


Not, of course, that the gummint hasn’t stayed on top of things, launching investigations whenever something seemed to merit a closer look, although, looking back we can see that Toles may have fouled this one off into the stands: It wasn’t necessary to fire Mueller if he got too close.

A little judicious editing and public analysis does the job much more neatly.


Toles has long been both an advocate for, and a model of, free speech and a free press. This one wasn’t from my own collection. I snagged it from Guy Badeux, who upholds the mission north of the border, and who is only one of many political cartoonists expressing sorrow that Toles will be retiring November 1.

Until then, by the way, you can follow Toles here or at GoComics.

Again, it’s good that the Post will be hiring another full-time staff cartoonist, and let’s not forget that Toles replaced Herblock, so we can hope for an equally solid choice this time.

And I wouldn’t deny him the opportunity to retire and go enjoy life without deadlines.


However — and this is purely selfish — I’m not crazy about the timing, because I’d like him to stick around long enough to comment on how this movie turns out.

But the old vaudevillians were right: Always leave’em wanting more.

Besides, summer’s almost gone and winter’s coming on.


One thought on “CSotD: Appreciating Tom Toles

  1. Love the “universal access” to healthcare bit. Anyone can “access” a Ferrari dealership; good luck driving off in one.

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