Cartoonist has Washington laughing - at itself
THERE are people in Washington who think that Mark Alan Stamaty must be just a little nutso. ``He came here as though he was coming from Mars,'' says Peter Noterman, a Washington lawyer, expressing the view of many of Mr. Stamaty's followers.
Stamaty is the Village Voice cartoonist whose weekly comic strip - called ``Washingtoon'' - appears on the op-ed page of the Washington Post and in numerous other papers around the country. The strip has given a large number of Post readers a reason almost to look forward to Monday mornings.
``He captures what is funny and absurd better than anyone else,'' says Nicholas Lemann, national correspondent with The Atlantic. Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D) of Tennessee wrote recently that ``Washingtoon'' ``has gained many ardent fans in Congress, where Bob Forehead is awfully familiar.''
Congressman Bob Forehead is ``Washingtoon's'' central character and the new D.C. synonym for ``airhead media pol.'' A former television talk-show host who now heads the ``JFK Look-Alike Caucus,'' Forehead is the prot'eg'e of one Gerard Oxboggle, owner of the Glominoid Corporation, who has groomed him to be the savior of the ``tycoon sector.'' On Oxboggle's behalf, Congressman Forehead introduces such measures as a ``Dumping Rights Act,'' which would recognize Oxboggle's conviction that ``nature has already provided a river that is perfect for the job'' of disposing of hazardous wastes.'' Glominoid's ``Credit Card Bomb'' would eliminate the threat of nuclear war to economic growth by destroying only those people who don't carry credit cards.
Stated in stark outline, ``Washingtoon'' sounds a little like a refugee from the underground papers of the 1960s. But in its baroque weekly detail, the strip is a madcap - and deadeyed - satire of the political culture. When a lobbyist finally gets to meet a powerful official at a Washington cocktail party, a ``Jackpot'' sign flashes overhead. Forehead's ``Deficit Denial Amendment'' would constitutionally deny the very existence of the federal deficit. On the bottom of the Post's op-ed page, the effect is a little as though somebody had sneaked the Marx Brothers onto a Sunday morning talk show. ``In the far-out meanderings of his mind,'' Mr. Noterman says, ``he has gotten at the essence of Washington.''
Yet Stamaty himself is a deliberate and reflective man, who conveys, above all, a sense of sanity. ``He looks like he might teach math someplace,'' observes Ruth Bass, editor of a weekend supplement of the Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle that carries ``Washingtoon.'' Behind his seemingly fanciful efforts lie prodigious amounts of research. Clippings and files overflow his cluttered cubicle at the Voice, which would comfort those convinced they have the world's messiest desk. ``I try to educate myself as well as I can,'' he says. ``Usually, I don't feel adequately informed.''
He is a painstaking worker. ``The words are really where the struggle is,'' Stamaty says. Weekly deadlines make him feel as though he's ``digging the seed out of the ground and trying to squeeze it into a tree.''
It was Meg Greenfield, the editor of the Post's op-ed page, who brought Stamaty and Washington together. She had been a fan of Stamaty's previous comic strip in the Voice, called ``McDoodle Street,'' which captured Manhattan life and mores with the same loony insight he has since brought to politics. ``I loved the sensibility of this man,'' Ms. Greenfield recalls. He ended up spending eight months in Washington, watching congressional hearings, tagging along with Post reporters at the White House, drifting into political fund-raisers, and prowling the Post's newsroom at night. ``I absorbed [D.C.] through my system,'' he says.
How to account for the ``magic'' of ``Washingtoon,'' as Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic, puts it? ``He doesn't live here,'' Mr. Kinsley exclaims, citing one reason Stamaty can see what the locals have learned not to. Stamaty's distance from Washington is more than geographic.
Often, the first thing people notice about the strip is its primitive, almost childlike style. In fact, Stamaty - whose parents were both cartoonists - studied art at Cooper Union in New York. There he was fascinated by artists like Chaim Soutine, Matisse, Picasso, and Jean Dubuffet, who studied drawings of children and the insane.
``When a person is very highly trained in realistic drawing, sometimes a certain freshness can be lacking,'' Stamaty says. ``Once Picasso learned to be a great draftsman, he tried to learn to draw like a child.''
This conscious innocence is central to ``Washingtoon's'' effect. When Stamaty translates a thought into a picture, it is often with a child's literal-mindedness. The telegenic President appears with a television over his head like a diving helmet. When the press was reporting the efforts of White House aide Patrick Buchanan to ``steer'' the President rightward, he appeared in ``Washingtoon'' sitting atop the TV set with a steering wheel. Stamaty's naive style, Greenfield observes, is ``part of the joke.''
The innocence of ``Washingtoon'' is also seen in its lack of venom. Stamaty never set out to be a political cartoonist, making fun of real-life figures. ``I'm not crazy about dealing with real people, of whom I have limited knowledge,'' he says. Characters like Bob Forehead are portrayed less as miscreants than as victims of their own insecurities and ambitions. ``I think politicians are just like us,'' Stamaty says. And he sees us as accomplices in their foibles. The President, wearing his TV set, holds out ``chunks of tasty rhetoric'' from a bag of ``Voter Chow''; and a map of the US, transmogrified into a pup, laps it up eagerly. ``My fear of my perception of the Sandinistas has been increasing lately,'' a husband says to his wife in the supermarket, explaining why he's putting a couple of dozen M-16s into the shopping cart for the contras.
What intrigues Stamaty most is the cognitive alchemy - called ``spin,'' in Washington - by which events become perceptions; the way issues and events are imaged forth to the heartland. Bob Forehead's ``charismaticians'' are ever at work, telling him what the voters want to hear, and the ``Perceiver General'' at the White House is similarly employed. The administration's efforts to sell contra aid became a huge can of ``New Contra Cola: Now only 1% Somicistas With Added Freedom Fighters.'' Stamaty, who likes to quote the poet Rilke (``That which may one day be possible for many, the solitary man can build and prepare now....'') keeps an eye out for individuals who are not preoccupied with appearances. Ralph Nader ranks high on his list. Among politicians, he has moderate praise for Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, the Senate minority leader, among others. But he singles out Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey. ``You get the feeling he's trying to do a job,'' Stamaty says. ``He doesn't show the least bit of presidential hunger.''
Stamaty's political views are generally ``liberal.'' But often - when he's making fun of media politics or the credit-card economy, for example - he's in a zone beyond the conventional ideological labels. Former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker Jr., a Republican, was among the first to applaud the strip, Greenfield says. Capitol Hill aides rattle off Democrats as well as Republicans who fit the Forehead mold.
The closest thing to a hero in ``Washingtoon'' is Bob Forehead's wife, Ginger, who exasperates him with naive questions, such as how a balanced-budget amendment can balance the budget if no one in Washington can agree on what to cut. Stamaty won't admit Ginger is his alter ego. But she ``allows for a certain point of view to be expressed and mangled,'' he concedes.
Stamaty's goal is to write a novel. (The second anthology of ``Washingtoon'' was published last fall by Prentice Hall Press.) But a more immediate question is whether ``Washingtoon'' can survive the passing of the Reagan administration, which has been a perfect foil. Rebecca Boren of the weekly Seattle Times, which carries the strip, is not worried. President Reagan will go, she observes, ``but Bob Forehead will always be with us.''
Adds Noterman, the lawyer, ``[Thomas] Nast got the politics of an older generation. We have Stamaty.''