In the Los Angeles Times obituary on Paul Conrad, editor Russ Stanton said, “we have missed him since the day he retired.” But it wasn’t quite like that. Conrad had been angry at the paper since his 1993 retirement—at the unforgivable way he had been treated and, most important, at the direction the paper had taken.
First, a few words about the great cartoonist and what he meant to the Times staff.
The workers on the newsroom floor admired his fierce independence, courage and idealism. We liked the way that our publishers, first Otis Chandler and then Tom Johnson, and editor Bill Thomas stood up against those who complained about Conrad’s savage satirizing of the big shots’ failings. We felt that if they stood behind Conrad and his excellent work, they would stand behind us and our journalism. And they did.
I lived through that era and the downhill slide that followed it. Then I relived it when I wrote my book “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times.” Researching the book, I learned a lot about Conrad, how he came to the Times and of the circumstances that led to his departure and to what amounted to exile.
After taking over as publisher in 1960, Chandler decided to hire Conrad, the liberal cartoonist for the Denver Post. Conrad would become the most visible symbol of the Otis Chandler Times, a daily signal that the paper was no longer a right wing Republican rag.
Some lovers of the old Times hated his cartoons, among them Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Cardinal Roger Mahony and many powerful business tycoons.
While he attacked those people with anger—and a satiric skill that drove them crazy—Conrad also was a man of considerable charm and humor capable of empathy with those who disagreed with him. At lunchtime, he ate in the Picasso Room, the executive dining room, sitting with the conservative Times business executives rather than the editors. They argued through lunch in a good-natured way, and it was obvious that the executives took great pleasure in his company.
Conrad recalled a plane flight to Los Angeles with Norman Chandler, Otis Chandler’s father, and publisher of the paper in its conservative days. “We were the only ones in first class,” Conrad recalled. “I thought, what do I do now? Pretty soon I get. ‘Hey Paul, come on up. We can chat we talked kind of all the way, I with my vodka, he with his gin he was just marvelous. Not putting me down but suggesting where in a particular situation, why I’d go the way I went (in a cartoon). So I’d explain it to him He just flat out didn’t understand liberals. I don’t blame him; there are a whole lot of conservatives who don’t understand liberals.”
Otis Chandler steadfastly protected Conrad from criticisms from conservative Chandler family members and Times Mirror executives, who didn’t feel the camaraderie that Conrad shared with his Times business-side luncheon companions. Tom Johnson said one person enraged by Conrad was Dr. Franklin Murphy, the chairman of Times Mirror. “He would come down to Otis’s office with the tear sheet of Conrad’s cartoon in hand. But to the best of my knowledge, Otis never, never told Paul Conrad he should back off.”
After Otis Chandler retired as publisher in 1980 and moved into the leadership of Times Mirror, Conrad’s troubles began. In 1986, the conservative Chandler family members forced Otis out as editor-in-chief and chairman of Times Mirror. Three years later, Johnson, who had succeeded him as publisher, was ordered to fire the editor of the editorial pages, Tony Day, a moderate who was liberal on social issues and a steadfast Conrad supporter. Johnson refused and was fired. That year, Bill Thomas, who stood up for Conrad, retired as editor. The editorial page became bland and more conservative. Conrad, the opposite of bland and conservative, was out of place and out of highly placed friends and supporters.
In 1993, Conrad accepted a buyout and was replaced by a conservative cartoonist, Michael Ramirez.
Conrad and readers were told that he would continue to appear in the Times. But as it turned out, he ran only sporadically. The impact of his daily cartoons was gone. He was just another of the syndicated cartoonists the paper occasionally used. Readers didn’t know when he would appear, or where on the pages his cartoons would run. Angry, he often called the editors, demanding to know why his cartoons weren’t being run. He couldn’t get straight answers. America’s greatest political cartoonist was being treated as if he were a rookie freelancer.
His last cartoon, according to the Times database, appeared in 2005. That same year, Robert Scheer, the popular liberal columnist, was dumped from the op ed page.
By then, the paper had long since turned away from the direction set by Otis Chandler. Gone was his commitment to a staff, including a crusading cartoonist, encouraged to pursue their craft and their obligation to society without interference, as long as they did their job well.
“Take a look at the paper, read some editorials that we’ve been working on and some we’ve printed,” Chandler told Conrad as he persuaded him to come to the Times. Conrad did. “It was marvelous, marvelous stuff,” he said. That began a great partnership that ended long before Conrad’s death.