Thursday, November 05, 2009

A changed landscape without Powell's cartoons

Political junkies in North Carolina's eastern Piedmont woke up Thursday morning to a new reality: Dwane Powell, the News & Observer cartoonist who has interpreted state and national politics for more than three decades, caricatured blowhards and the beloved alike and left no political balloon unpunctured, has taken a voluntary buyout and retired from the newspaper.

He has been cartooning so long that few can remember a time when he wasn't drawing an exaggerated pompadour atop Jim Hunt's skull or those widespread beady eyes at the far corners of Jesse Helms' eyeglass frames. He skewered them equally -- and apparently they loved it. They'd call Powell to chat and ask for the original to hang at the office or at home.

Powell's last day was Thursday, and columnist Jim Jenkins let Hunt know that Powell was packing up. Hunt came by to bid Powell farewell, and under his arm he had one of Powell's cartoons from 1978. Hunt good-naturedly told a small assemblage that while writers can publish stories that cause politicians discomfort, it's cartoonists like Powell who can make it sting.

The framed cartoon Hunt brought showed Hunt with wild, unruly hair and his wife Carolyn sitting at the breakfast table in bathrobe and curlers as Hunt asked something like, "Have you seen my curling iron?" Hunt said that was the one cartoon over a long career that got him in serious trouble -- not in politics, but at home.

Powell's cartoon reference to Hunt's hair became a signature for his lampooning of the carefully groomed Hunt, whose hair in his younger days was dark with never a strand blowing out of place even in a stiff breeze. His hair was so ripe for fun-making that Powell often portrayed him with a comb in the Hunt mane -- a jibe that led to one of the funniest public performances ever given by a North Carolina governor.

It was at the annual Capital Press Corps skits nearly a decade ago, a must-attend event in which reporters make fun of legislators and other pols near the end of every session. Hunt was winding up his fourth term and showed up in the audience that night.

One of the skits was about a press-corp competition to do an imitation of Hunt, and at the end, then-press corps chairman Dennis Patterson asked if anyone else wanted to try out. Up rose Hunt – a surprise to everyone except Patterson, who had arranged Hunt's cameo appearance. Here’s what I wrote the day after that 1999 appearance:

When Hunt stepped to the podium, he … launched into an uproarious parody of himself that had the crowd howling. He laid it on thick, as only Jim Hunt can do, lavishing gratuitous praise on those present, proclaiming pride in all things and dropping into every other sentence the program name he talks about so much: ``SmartStart.'' It sounded like machine-gun fire: ``SmartStart.'' ``SmartStart.'' ``SmartStart.''

He brought the house down with the intensity and fervor of his declaration that he was working his head off every moment ``for the itty-bitty chirren of North Carolina.'' He delivered a hysterical reprise of a speech from years back about the early development of children's brains, with their neurons going ``snap, crackle and pop'' inside their tiny little heads.

And he topped it all off with the observation that there's one more important thing for a governor to have. Drawing out a huge comb and passing it through his graying-but-still-impressive pompadour, he drawled, ``You've got to have great hair!''

Then he paused for effect, turned to Patterson and asked if he'd gotten the part - ``or do I have to go back to my day job as an editorial writer for the The News & Observer?'' That brought the house down. Even Republicans who long complained that newspaper was Hunt's official party organ caught themselves applauding.

It's not often you can get a governor to lampoon himself, in public, with a prop first emphasized in a political cartoon decades earlier. Dwane Powell did, and those of us who looked forward every morning for more than 30 years to his latest 'toon will miss his pen and his sharply defined points.