MU displays the humor in politics with new exhibit

New political cartoon display reveals humor in history.

The back-and-forth in the 2008 election might seem like typical election mudslinging, but one day it may be captured as an important part of history.

Editorial cartoon history, that is.

That history of commenting on electoral happenings through pen, brush, ink and crayon is getting its spotlight this fall and winter as part of an exhibit on display at the State Historical Society of Missouri celebrating the centennial of the Missouri School of Journalism.

Titled "100 Years of Election Cartoons: 1908-2008," the display exhibits some of society's 8,000 archived political comics and will adorn the halls of the historical society until just a few days before the nation's 44th president is inaugurated. 

According to the historical society's photographic specialist, Christine Montgomery, the compilation shows that this year is about on par for the frivolity of some of its issues.

"I think every (campaign) season has its moments of silliness," Montgomery said.

The campaign commentary begins immediately at the front door and flows down the right-hand wall in chronological order. The exhibit begins with a comic commenting on Missouri's down-to-the-wire voting results, which first favored the Democrats but became a Republican win in the 1908 election.

In the mid-1960s section, the cartoons become more contemporary as they accelerate up the left side toward a perspective of this year's contentious match-up, where one comic shows female fans choosing to vote for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama simply because talk show host Oprah Winfrey endorsed him during the Democratic primaries.

In addition to archived cartoons, the collection features work donated by cartoonists whose works are featured regularly in two Missouri newspapers: Tom Darkow of the Columbia Daily Tribune and Tom Engelhardt of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The historical society has more than 1,400 Engelhardt illustrations in its archives and has set up a display in adjacent hall, called "Engelhardt on Elections," that focuses on his perspective. Engelhardt will lead a tour of both exhibits with commentary on the cartoons at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 18.

The display not only shows the breadth of satire from the state's major newspapers, but also provides a look back at the major issues, like prohibition, labor union power and Missouri's position as a swing state, which have dominated campaigns of the past.

The historical society has made it easy even for students who aren't political history buffs to understand the tone and message of each illustration, with placards at each election year explaining the issues and happenings of the time to provide context for the jokes. 

Cartoonists' views of campaign trail issues vary from the public's frustration with elections - as with a cartoon lampooning the continually changing results of the 2000 contest in Florida - to inspiration at the words of President John Kennedy's inaugural address, summing up the election as one that was about "not what I intend to offer them, but what I intend to ask of them."

Elizabeth Butler, a St. Louis native visiting the museum Saturday, felt that the notes help the exhibit serve as an important history lesson for students and casual observers alike.

"I think that it's a wonderful exhibit, especially for an election year," Butler said. "I think that a lot of students should come and see it and that they would appreciate the political value."

The exhibit will stay open to the public until Jan. 4. It is open is during the society's regular hours, which are Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., and on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

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