Why George is gorgeous

For 300 years, cartoonists have immortalised politicians' every quirk, stupidity and physical defect

On 25 January, George Galloway MP is due to open "Misunderestimating the President", an exhibition of cartoons of George W Bush, at the Political Cartoon Gallery in central London. As I write this, the duly elected member for Fallujah is still languishing in the Celebrity Big Brother house; I can only pray that he will be kicked out in time. However, this exhibition is a source of embarrassment to me for reasons that have nothing to do with Gorgeous George, so it is only right that I take this opportunity to confess and seek forgiveness. The thing is, in 2004, almost every fibre of my being yearned for Bush to be defeated in that autumn's presidential election, for the sake of America, the Middle East, humanity, the planet, the environment and my sanity. But it was only almost every fibre, and in my heart of hearts I knew that all that was outweighed by my recognition, as a satirist, that Bush is almost too good to be true.

It's not just that he's possibly the most creatively inarticulate American since Samuel Goldwyn, nor that he's an almost unbelievably naive, wide-eyed Christian utopian, nor that he's also a lazy, dumb, recovering-drunk playboy surrounded by a gang of crooks and Yankee imperialists. On top of all that, and on top of leading an administration that gives every impression of having been hijacked by the Corleone family (which somehow or other has made Fredo the Godfather instead of Michael), it's the way he looks. It's the eyes so close together that you expect him any moment to blip into cyclopsism; the permanently puzzled, furrowed brow; the grey-flecked eyebrows that dart across the upper part of his face like retarded yet hyperactive mice. It's his pointy ears, his goofy, hey-I-just-trod-in-some-doggy-do grin, his strangely simian upper lip, which manages to make everything he says sound as if it's issued from lips that weren't exactly designed for human speech. It's all those little things which mean that, purely and simply, I just love drawing George Bush.

This may seem to be a rather selfish reason for wishing a further four years of Bush on an undeserving world, but it demonstrates something about political cartooning and, for that matter, political cartoonists.

You could describe it as a bizarre variant of Stockholm syndrome, or perhaps a more accurate analogy would be some disgusting kind of reluctant yet consensually abusive sadomasochism. Either way, cartoonists and their subjects/victims tend to fall in love with each other. I remember phoning Steve Bell after John Major's crushing defeat in 1997, and Steve told me he had lost his reason for living (I, however, was licking my lips at the prospect of all that fresh new Labour meat). On the other side of the equation, it has often been said that the one thing worse for a politician than being put in a cartoon is not being put in a cartoon: if you're considered sufficiently important and, more significantly, recognisable to be stuffed through the cartoonist's meat grinder, it means you've arrived.

This has always been the case in the 300-year-long history of the political cartoon as a cultural - although not necessarily artistic - phenomenon, during which time the form has hardly changed at all. To take just one example, in the 1790s, the ambitious Tory MP George Canning recognised that he needed the imprimatur of featuring in a satirical print by James Gillray to prove that he was an important player in contemporary politics. To this end Canning's friends and agents browbeat Gillray for months to put their man in a cartoon. Gillray refused, until he was arraigned before a maverick Christian magistrate in Covent Garden on a trumped-up charge of blasphemy. Canning succeeded in getting him off, so Gillray repaid the favour in a wonderful print of what London would look like under a Jacobin reign of terror, with Charles James Fox flogging Pitt the Younger at a whipping post, the heads of George III and his ministers on spikes and, just detectable deep in the background, Canning hanging from a lamp-post. In a way this print encapsulates the nature of the love affair between cartoonists and politicians: we need each other, and yet also deeply resent each other, and each would probably gladly kill the other.

The satirised, given their positions of power, all too frequently have had both motive and opportunity to do just that. David Low and Vicky were both on the Gestapo death list, and in 1987 Naji al-Ali, the leading cartoonist of the Palestinian resistance, was assassinated on the street in London. None the less, cartoonists, although armed only with a bladder on a stick, have intentions just as deadly.

All political cartoons, drawn from whatever political perspective, are engaged in a kind of voodoo - doing damage at a distance with a sharp object, in this case a pen. They are also about control, about transforming an individual politician's appearance through the primitive shape-shifting magic of caricature, and then taking the recreated individual and setting him or her up in a ludicrous, demeaning or damaging narrative of the cartoonist's own choosing, enabling the readers to laugh or sneer at their leaders. This is all an entirely healthy dimension of the sublimated civil war that has been going on since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and part of the unending dialectic between the rulers and the ruled that has been central to human society for much longer. So, without getting too pompous about it, political cartoons are simultaneously political assassination without the blood and a kind of carnivalesque feast of fools, cutting great men down to size and thus, in some vague, indefinable way, simply making us feel better.

We're getting into murkier and murkier psychological waters here. For instance, the very visual nature of the medium makes people react quite differently to a brutal picture of, say, George Bush from the way they do to any amount of harsh, written words. Politicians mostly recognise this, and often buy cartoons of themselves, partly as a way of reinforcing their status (or maybe even their existence: Low once observed that "politicians are all waxworks; it's the cartoonists who bring them to life"). But they also do it to diffuse the voodoo, as a kind of therapeutic potlatch ceremony, and invariably hang the bad magic in their toilets.

I have put too much shit in my cartoons for either the peace of mind of my editors or the stomachs of my readers, so I will leave that thought hanging there. To get back to my perverted love of George W Bush, however, it's clear that the political cartoon has an enduring power to amuse, comfort, outrage and disgust in equal proportion. A brief stroll through the blogosphere will reveal cartoons by Steve Bell and me illuminating legion websites. Where they've nicked the image with approval, there is usually little comment. However, in what has become known, in a felicitous phrase, as "the conservative echo chamber", the comments pour out: "sick", "outrageous", "disgusting", "de-ranged", "repellent" and (my particular favourite) "morally imbecilic" give you a general flavour of the depths of reaction to what are essentially stupid little drawings of the American leader.

So though God only knows what Dubbya would make of the cartoons on display in "Misunderestimating the President", I still love him, needless to say, for making them all possible.

"Misunderestimating the President" is at the Political Cartoon Gallery, London WC1, from 26 January to 18 March. For further information call 020 7580 1114

Martin Rowson's cartoons appear regularly in the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, the Scotsman and the Daily Mirror. His first novel, Snatches, is published by Jonathan Cape on 26 January

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