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Paul Conrad: Friend, Mentor and Legendary Anti-War Cartoonist

The world has lost one of its most gifted editorial cartoonists. And I've lost a longtime friend. Paul Conrad, who won three Pulitzer Prizes for his bitingly brilliant cartoons, died this weekend at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes. He was 86.

A fraternity brother of my dad's at Alpha Tao Omega at the University of Iowa in the 1940s, Conrad remained a family friend for more than 50 years. A funny, cynical, cantankerous, yet somehow still likable man, Conrad was a gifted artist and razor-sharp social critic even in his college days, my dad used to tell me.

Conrad got his start drawing editorial cartoons for the Daily Iowan, the college newspaper, and was hired almost immediately upon his graduation in 1950 by the Denver Post, where he won the first of his three Pulitzers. Lured to the Los Angeles Times in 1964, he won two more Pulitzers there and remained at the paper until 1994. He continued in national syndication for years, and never lost his touch, even into his 80s.

So why include a tribute to Conrad on a military blog? Because arguably his greatest work addressed war. Conrad was uncompromisingly anti-war. Never against the troops, Conrad, a World War II Army veteran who was in the invasions of Guam and Okinawa, went after the decision makers, the ones who called the shots. An outspoken critic of America's policies in Vietnam as well as the invasion of Iraq, Conrad used to say that his experiences in the war helped shape his attitude toward war.

We didn't agree on everything politically, or otherwise, but we agreed that power almost always corrupts, and we shared a resentment toward the politicians and generals who make the decisions about who among the rest of his lives and who dies. Years after the Vietnam War ended, when former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara confessed his regrets over that war, Conrad drew McNamara at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington beside the names of the some 58,000 dead, saying, 'Sorry about that.' It was Conrad at his best. Powerful in its simplicity.

He could be at once so funny, so smart, and so caustic. Case in point: his cartoon depicting President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey riding a 'Dr. Strangelove' bomb as it descended on Vietnam, an obvious homage to the classic Stanley Kubrick film in which actor Slim Pickens rode a nuclear bomb like a rodeo cowboy as it dropped out of the sky

Conrad played rough with Republicans, especially Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, but if he smelled corruption or greed or abuse of power, he could be just as vitriolic with Democrats. He went after everyone, including Harry Truman, Johnson, Humphrey, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

In 1996, he was the subject of a PBS documentary entitled 'Drawing Fire.' As the documentary points out, Conrad particularly loathed Reagan and was incensed by his position on nuclear weapons and the growing controversy surrounding his arms for hostage deal with Iran and the secret diversion of the proceeds to contras in Nicaragua.' As Tom Brokaw says in the documentary, 'Being unafraid of speaking truth to power is what Paul Conrad was all about."

Brokaw was so right. When Conrad learned that I was entering journalism school, he said, "Jamie, never be afraid of anything or anyone, because you will have the power of the press." Of course, the power of the press can be abused, too, and I'm sure some of Conrad's critics - and he had many - think he abused his power in some of his more venomous cartoons. Conrad used to boast that he was on President Nixon's infamous enemies list. He considered it an honor.

Last time I saw Conrad, we met for dinner and a few drinks at a restaurant near UCSD. OK, truth is I had two beers and he had multiple mixed drinks (Conrad never denied that he liked to imbibe). He was looking old and a bit tired, but still had that quick wit and creative spark. Waiting for our dinner, as I milked my beer, he whipped out a charcoal-style pencil and began drawing on the back of a menu a stunningly accurate and hilarious portrayal of Bill Clinton riding a tricycle.

I excitedly thought he was going to give the illustration to me. So did he, I think. But after studying what he had just drawn, I guess he reconsidered. "Mind if I keep this?" he said. I didn't mind. Just seeing the master at work was a gift I'll never forget.