Ted Cruz, a leading presidential candidate, released a new Christmas-themed ad — a light hearted riff on familiar themes, in which he tweaked words from a well-known holiday story to fit his campaign platform. He appeared as himself, alongside his wife and his two young daughters, who dutifully recited lines that had been scripted to further their father’s agenda.
What’s a satirist to do?
Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Ann Telnaes decided not to focus on the candidate’s message, but the manner in which it was pitched — namely, the fact that Cruz used his children as mouthpieces for his campaign.
There wasn’t any mistaking her intent, either. The headline for the cartoon, which featured Cruz’s daughters as monkeys on a leash being controlled by a Santa-clad Cruz turning an organ grinder, laid it out: “Ted Cruz Uses His Kids As Political Props.” And she explained her feelings further, in a tweet:
Ted Cruz has put his children in a political ad- don’t start screaming when editorial cartoonists draw them as well. https://t.co/7hafBacOiK
— Ann Telnaes (@AnnTelnaes) December 22, 2015
She also made her case in a note that ran alongside the cartoon in the Washington Post:
“[T]here is an unspoken rule in editorial cartooning that a politician’s children are off-limits. … But when a politician uses his children as political props, as Ted Cruz recently did in his Christmas parody video in which his eldest daughter Caroline read (with her father’s dramatic flourish) a passage of an edited Christmas classic, then I figure they are fair game.”
Yet the cartoon was pulled.
The editor who pulled the it, Fred Hiatt, said he didn’t agree with Telnaes and hadn’t viewed the cartoon before it was posted. Hiatt echoed Telnaes’s original disclaimer, saying in the editor’s note that has supplanted the cartoon on the Post’s site: “It’s generally been the policy of our editorial section to leave children out of it.” However, he said that he did not agree with her that an exception to that practice was warranted in the case of Cruz and his daughters.
Jeff Danziger, a political cartoonist and acquaintance of Telnaes, sided with her. “I think she’s right,” Danziger said in an email. “If [Cruz] uses his daughters to get votes, he’s the one putting them on the stage.” (Danziger’s work appears in The National Memo.)
So assuming Cruz’s actions were deserving of editorial comment in cartoon form, would there have been a more appropriate way to go about it? Perhaps the problem was a lack of context. Readers didn’t necessarily need to be familiar with the ad that Telnaes was referencing, which had been released three days earlier, on Dec. 19, although of course that would have helped.
It’s possible there was a broader satirical target than simply Cruz and his daughters. After all, candidates’ family members have often appeared in campaign materials: Whether it’s pictures of Hillary Clinton holding her infant granddaughter, Charlotte, or the McCain, Palin, and Romney progenitors gamely posing for group photos, children and families humanize the candidates and drive home campaign messages by putting a memorable face on abstract talking points about “safety,” “family,” and “the future.”
But the degree to which Cruz has been using his children – and his dad, and his mom, and his aunt – is worth noting. Buzzfeed recently unearthed footage posted by Cruz’s campaign for Senate that was culled from 16-hour videos of him interacting with his family, but it’s clear from the videos that these aren’t surreptitiously filmed get-togethers or spontaneous hangouts. They play eerily as though Cruz had sat down with his mom and dad, prompting them to sing the praises of their wonderfully competent son.
Does anyone really think Telnaes was attacking Cruz’s children, rather than Cruz himself?
The cartoon’s depiction of the girls as monkeys was clearly an attempt to draw them in a stock role as a beggar’s pawns; it seems highly disingenuous to advance the argument that Telnaes was in any way criticizing the girls’ looks or character, which would, of course, be an ugly and reprehensible thing to do.
Telnaes criticized their father for using them in such a grossly crass way, trying to score political points by playing cute. And now, ironically — since the cartoon caricatured Cruz as a panhandler — by pulling the ad, the Washington Post has given the Texas senator a whole new excuse to ask for more money and more ammunition to use in his screeds about how the “mainstream,” “liberal” media treats him unfairly. Cruz is still grinding that organ, and getting his daughters to dance.
Photo: Ted Cruz’s daughters spend their childhood repeating campaign slogans. Screenshot via Ted Cruz for Senate/YouTube