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Analyzing Editorial Cartoons: A Politician's "Flexibility"

Lesson Plan Objectives | Historical Context | Analyzing the Cartoon | Sources



ID: 1969 SB34 4 50
Date: May 22, 1969

Larger Image: 30.16KB

Lesson Plan Objectives

As students analyze the editorial cartoon, they will

  • Understand the context in which the cartoon was drawn
  • Discover the basic elements of the cartoon
  • Find and interpret the icons that appear in the cartoon
  • Identify the cartoonist’s message
  • Develop skill in seeing and understanding persuasive techniques used by cartoonists
  • Identify qualities of cartooning such as sensory, formal, expressive, technical, and judgmental

“A cartoon does not tell everything about a subject. It's not supposed to. No written piece tells everything either. As far as words are concerned, there is no safety in numbers. The test of a written or drawn commentary is whether it gets at an essential truth.”

“The Cartoon by Herb Block” posted at



Historical Context for the Cartoon

As is the case for many politicians who enjoy a long career, Everett Dirksen was charged with inconsistency, with changing his mind, with “flip-flopping” on issues. During his first campaign for the Senate in 1950, a Chicago newspaper reported that Dirksen had changed his position 31 times on military preparedness, 62 times on foreign policy, and 70 times on farm policy. “Taking the long view of his legislative career,” the article summarized, “observers felt that Dirksen not only stood upon both sides of some issues but also sometimes appeared to surround a question entirely.” For the rest of Dirksen’s political career this damaging account of his record in the House of Representatives (1933-49) would be repeated endlessly, cited in every important article about him and finally in his obituary. [Neil MacMeil, Dirksen: Portrait of a Public Man (The World Publishing co., 1970):87-88

Dirksen’s reply: “I long ago learned that formula of vegetate or decay, grow or die. And government is not unlike that. I think it’s just like individuals; you simply have to grow; you have to feed on new things; re-orient your thinking; keep abreast of what goes on; because the world is certainly not a static place where things suddenly stand still. It’s a dynamic thing and is constantly moving forward and so you’ve got to be abreast of change . . . . ”

“Cartooning is an irreverent form of expression, and one particularly suited to scoffing at the high and the mighty. If the prime role of a free press is to serve as critic of government, cartooning is often the cutting edge of that criticism.”

“The Cartoon by Herb Block” posted at



Analyzing the Cartoon

What follows are guidelines for analyzing or interpreting a cartoon. Not all of them will apply to every cartoon, of course.

Visual Elements

  1. List the objects or people you see in the cartoon. Sometimes cartoonists overdraw, or exaggerate, the physical characteristics of people or things in order to make a point. When you study a cartoon, look for any characteristics that seem overdone or overblown (facial characteristics and clothing are some of the most commonly exaggerated characteristics.) Then, try to decide what point the cartoonist was trying to make through exaggeration.

  2. Which of the objects on your list are symbols? Cartoonists use simple objects, or symbols, to stand for larger concepts or ideas.

  3. What do you think each symbol means?

Words (not all cartoons have words)

  1. Identify the cartoon caption or title.

  2. Locate three words or phrases used by the cartoonist to identify objects or people within the cartoon. Cartoonists often label objects or people to make it clear exactingly what they stand for. Watch out for the different labels that appear in a cartoon, and ask yourself why the cartoonist chose to label that particular person or object. Does the label make the meaning of the object clearer?

  3. Record any important dates or numbers that appear in the cartoon.

  4. Which words or phrases in the cartoon appear to be the most significant?

  5. List adjectives that describe the emotions portrayed in the cartoon.


  1. Describe the action taking place in the cartoon.

  2. Explain how the words in the cartoon clarify the symbols.

  3. Explain the message of the cartoon.

  4. What is the cartoonist’s opinion on this issue?

  5. Who would agree or disagree with the cartoon’s message? Why?

  6. Did you find this cartoon informative? Why or why not?

  7. Did you find this cartoon persuasive (not all editorial cartoons are drawn to persuade, however)? Why or why not?

“The political cartoon is not a news story and not an oil portrait. It's essentially a means for poking fun, for puncturing pomposity.”

“The Cartoon by Herb Block” posted at



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Subject Headings Chronological Listing Value of Cartoons for Educational Purposes