Among the treasures remaining from my newspapering days is a Mike Lane political cartoon, clipped from Baltimore’s Evening Sun editorial page somewhere during the awful time of the Vietnam War.
Lane did his cartooning for the Evening Sun for a couple of decades until that paper breathed its last breath, and then did another stretch for The Sun. And now, I see on that paper’s obituary page that Lane left us earlier this week, at 78, from complications after heart surgery.
He goes, but his work remains.
The cartoon I hold is about as good as Lane got, and about as good as editorial cartooning got anywhere. It’s brave as hell, and passionate, challenging everyone to think seriously about that awful war, which divided America as nothing had since the Civil War. And never would again until the current Trump divide.
America blundered into Vietnam with our bombs and missiles against a people in pajamas who never in their lives threatened us. They crouched by their rice paddies and crawled through their tunnels. They would stubbornly wait us out.
Lane caught it precisely in that cartoon: a wrinkled, defiant North Vietnamese woman with her lifeless baby in her right hand and her left hand extended straight up in a fist. She stares skyward as a U.S. bomb plunges into her anguished, ferocious expression.
She will never give up, America.
Lane must have caught hell for it. He was making the enemy sympathetic and the home team look like bullies. But like a lot of people who didn’t have his pulpit, that’s how he saw the war. And to their credit, no big shot at the paper made him tone things down.
Newspaper editors used to imagine they dispensed their greatest wisdom through their editorials, but who were they kidding? Who read editorials, which were mostly stiff and boring and so balanced that they satisfied nobody on either side of an issue.
But editorial cartoons were something else. They were shorthand versions of editorials, visuals with the boring stuff cut out. And boy, did they take sides. Lane wasn’t the greatest artist; he couldn’t draw caricature the way The Sun’s remarkable Kevin (Kal) Kallaugher can.
But Lane was funny, smart and courageous, and he could break your heart, too. When the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, Lane drew the spacecraft headed toward heaven and God’s big hands extended through the clouds to carry it home.
He was part of a cartooning fraternity that once seemed vitally important to newspapers. Think of Bill Mauldin, Herb Block, Pat Oliphant, Jeff MacNelly, Tom Toles, Paul Conrad and the great Kal. The list goes on and on. Or used to, anyway.
A century ago, U.S. newspapers employed more than 2,000 fulltime editorial cartoonists. Today, there are a few dozen. As the dailies gasp and wheeze, they cut costs by cutting salaries. But sometimes, they cut their own heartstrings.
Mike Lane was there for the great years. He gave Baltimore his heart and his art, and his insights and courage.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.