TED RALL: Joe Pulitzer and Me

"For a distinguished cartoon or portfolio of cartoons published during the year, characterized by originality, editorial effectiveness, quality of drawing and pictorial effect, Three thousand dollars ($3,000)." --Entry Form, Pulitzer PrizeThe Rolling Stones never won a Grammy. Legendary soap opera star Susan Lucci never won a Daytime Emmy. Braveheart a movie no one went to see, swept the Oscars. Given how frivolously these awards are doled out, I've never understood why people take them seriously. For the most part, they're less than meaningless, bestowing glory on the lowest common denominator at the expense of truly extraordinary achievers.And yet, every January, I enter contests that few of us editorial cartoonists respect but all of us crave. We copy our favorite 10 or 20 cartoons from the year just ended, paste them into binders and send them off with entry fees ranging from $20 to $60. A typical artist applies for Fischetti and Berryman Awards, the National Headliner Award, the Society of Professional Journalists Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and, of course, the Pulitzer Prize. There are local and state contests, and even a prize that cartoonists give to their own, the Reuben.Despite the small odds of winning and the dubious objectivity of judges, cartoonists continue to chase prizes. Winning can get a hostile editor off the back of a paper's staff cartoonist; for someone like, well me, for example, who is looking for a newspaper staff cartoonist job, it can get you hired.Depending on where the prize is endowed, you may get flown out to an awards ceremony in a fun city, not to mention a prize ranging from $500 to $5,000. Last year, Ethel Kennedy called the financial consulting joint where I worked as an analyst to tell me I'd won the RFK Award. I was away from my desk at the time, making illicit photocopies of my cartoons, so she left a message. (I still have her home number.)The RFK is awarded for "outstanding coverage of the problems of the disadvantaged." They flew me out to Washington, where I was able to chat with historian Arthur Schlesinger while checking out the D.C. skyline and got a cool bust of RFK, as well as a $1,000 check.The truth is, as my first award, the RFK gave my career a sizable boost. A lot of editors who'd been on the fence about buying my cartoons decided to subscribe once they saw "award-winning" appended to my name in the trade press. And I must admit, although I was only five when Bobby Kennedy died, I felt proud to be associated with his legacy. Most tantalizing of all, the 1994 winner was Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Constitution, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize the following year, in 1995. So naturally after I won the RFK, I decided to keep April '96 free in case I won the Pulitzer. (Okay, I thought about it.)The Big P would sure help my job hunt, not to mention impress my mother. I mean, Mom pretended that the RFK was exciting, but winning the Pulitzer would make her forget about all the money she'd loaned me over the years. Of course, it's not that winning really matters, it's that people think it does. As Russell Baker told a recent gathering of Pulitzer recipients, "It's interesting to be in a room full of people who already know the first word of their obituaries."The trouble with winning is that you potentially become the object of jealous disdain by a group of people whose very craft and salary depends on their viciousness. I am one of those spiteful bastards.Shortly before Ethel called, I shot off a snotty letter to the editorial cartoonists' association newsletter. I farted a thing or two about the previous year's Fischetti Award winners, calling them 'symbols of the decline of political art in America,' or something equally incisive.I soon learned that discretion is valued even among ruthless political cartoonists. One of the winners whose skills I'd derided was soon calling my answering machine with threats of both bodily and professional assault. When I met the other winner at the annual cartooning convention, he was polite but curt. Believe me, it isn't a good feeling to know that two famous cartoonists -- 2 percent of your colleagues -- wish you were well into a dirt nap. Now I direct my slander against President Clinton, where it belongs.This year, I felt good about my prize entries, but my heart sank when I found the list of jurors for the cartoon Pulitzer on the World Wide Web -- none of them were from newspapers that publish my cartoons. I figured I didn't stand a chance and put it out of my mind.Last Tuesday, a cartoonist friend called from his paper's newsroom to tell me Jim Morin had won the Pulitzer. This didn't surprise me; he'd been overlooked for years and he has an interesting style.Then my friend called back."You were a finalist," he said."What are you talking about?"I'd never considered this possibility. I still can't believe that a jury unfamiliar with my work would choose it alongside such giants as fellow finalists Tom Toles and Jim Borgman, both of whom have won before. On the other hand, Pulitzer finalist status gets you as much prestige as a Silver Medal in the Olympics. A few papers print your name. You get a short letter from Columbia University. You can look it up on the Web.I remind myself that winning wouldn't have proved I was a good cartoonist any more than losing proves the opposite. I'm perfectly happy to plug away another year, cranking out drawings that unfavorably compare Bob Dole to Bela Lugosi, but my flirtation with Pulitzer fame taught me how easy it is to get caught up in things you think you don't care about.My mom left a nice message on my machine. She was trying hard to sound impressed.

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