Jerry Robinson (by Christopher Irving)
The cartoonist Jerry Robinson, the co-creator of “The Joker” (i.e. Batman’s enemy) died December 7 in New York at 89. Many have celebrated his graphic skills. But he was among many other things very active in helping persecuted political cartoonists around the world. This interview by Gary Groth at The Comic Journal gives a very interesting story about how Elliott Abrams tried to thwart one such effort. Here is Robinson’s wikipedia page. Thanks to Jeet Heer, who alerted me to this story. A wonderful story about how the U.S. State Department works and what it means to lead a worthy life.
GROTH: You became president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in 1973. .. My understanding is, you became very active in trying to help cartoonists around the world.
ROBINSON: Yeah, that’s true.
GROTH: Who were suffering under authoritarian regimes. Can you tell me something about that?
ROBINSON: Well, there were two instances of that that I can recall offhand. Of the things I did, I think these are the most interesting. I got a call one day from my friend Jules Feiffer, of course he knew what we had done with the Siegel and Shuster affair. He said he got a call from Amnesty International in London, I believe, about a cartoonist in Uruguay, who was currently in jail and tortured by the current Uruguayan government, which was a real Fascist regime who overthrew the democratic government. They closed all the press, and one of the best known magazines called Marcha — a very fine magazine of literary and political affairs. Whoever they caught at the magazine, they jailed. The editor escaped and fled, went in exile into Mexico, and the artist in question, Francesco Lorenzo Pons, went underground. He couldn’t flee, he was married and had a small child, a boy. He was cited by Amnesty as being a “prisoner of conscience,” which was very important, which meant that he just opposed the regime in his writing and drawing. He wasn’t a bombthrower or assassin. So on that basis, I felt we should do something.
And so at that time I was president, which was why Jules called me. Our AAEC board is all over the country. The a vice president might be in Denver and the secretary in Florida and so forth. I briefed the board about the case, and I recommended we should take it up as a cause, because here’s this political cartoonist who’s jailed and brutally tortured, as it turned out, for his views. I could hardly describe the torture to you. Somebody who was a political prisoner is treated worse than a murderer or a criminal.
I thought that maybe we could collectively use our strength and contact the press throughout the U.S. to pressure to at least get him out jail or stop the torture or whatever we could do. That started a two-or-more year odyssey in working to free him. I just have to summarize what we did, because it was over a long period of time and a lot of effort. Fortunately, my successor as AAEC president was Sandy Campbell, who was the editorial cartoonist for the Nashville Tennessean — very great guy. He knew about it and so he agreed to continue the effort. When he took office, we worked together as a team. We did all sorts of things. We even met at the White House, we met at the State Department, we met with Nixon’s chief of staff, Meese, who is back in the news recently. Ed Meese.
GROTH: Edwin Meese, right.
ROBINSON: And Elliott Abrams. In fact, I’ll tell you a really incredible story of coincidence. I met with Senator Tsongas of Massachusetts, who I had met at Cape Cod, through a friend. I was able to contact him, and we held auctions to raise money. We had worked out a system where we knew somebody who was going back and forth to Uruguay where they could bring the money to his wife and child because they had no means of support. As a prisoner, they become nonentities. So we did that.
And then we kept the press informed of the plight of Lorenzo Pons in jail, just for opposing the regime in words and pictures. So we got good press. We met with the New York Times and the Washington Post, who ran articles. Again, I sent that information abroad to some of our artists in Mexico and London; anything we could do to bring some pressure on the Uruguayan government. Meanwhile, we’re getting some advice from Amnesty, who knows how to handle those cases. We weren’t getting anywhere, we couldn’t get to sit down with the Uruguayans, to try to get him out.
One day, I just got a brainstorm. I invented an award, “Distinguished Foreign Cartoonist Award,” to be given by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, and we would give the award to Lorenzo Pons, supposedly not knowing that he’s in jail. To make it more authentic, we would also give it to another cartoonist, and old friend, the dean of Polish cartoonists, Eric Lapinski. Poland was still under communist rule. This way, we’d have a right-wing government and a left-wing government to make it sound more authentic.
We invited Eric to come over as a legitimate — he was a world-class cartoonist, he was the dean of Polish cartoonists, as I said, and founded the international humor magazine Spilki. We gave an exhibition of his work to make it even more legitimate. And he was free to come.
So we wrote the Uruguayan government an official letter from the AAEC, inviting their prominent cartoonist Lorenzo Pons to receive this very distinguished award — an honor for Uruguay — and also for an artist in Poland. This is the highest award that American cartoonists give and we asked for a meeting at the embassy in Washington to give them the details. So they gave us an appointment to come. The ambassador then — I guess, briefed by Amnesty — was really a crony of one of the worst leaders there, the Fascists, and he himself was one of the worst guys there, that’s why they made him an ambassador to Washington. You know, plum assignment. [Groth laughs.]
We were really worried about meeting with him. But Sandy and I met with him. It was a very tense time, he brought us into this big conference room and laid out the thing. Of course, we described this award, and lo and behold, we feigned great surprise, we were told he was in jail. We said it would be a great honor if he was were able to release Pons to receive this award, it would be an honor for Uruguay. That was our pitch, just as it was an honor for Poland, who was sending over their leading cartoonist. Well, I knew from Amnesty that they never released a political prisoner, and we didn’t really have much hope for that. But we also asked his wife and child to come with him for the award. That’s how it was left. We didn’t hear anything from them until about a week or 10 days before the event. We got a call that they were giving a visa to the United States to his wife and child, not him of course, he remains in jail as a hostage to ensure that they would come back.
We were all amazed that that would even happen. It was the first time they ever allowed the family of a prisoner out of the country, because they usually would never go back. She wouldn’t stay; she went back because she wouldn’t stay leave the country with her husband in jail, being tortured. So she stayed about a week, and we had a celebration in Nashville and she went back.
She told us that she was able to visit him once a month a few minutes or so, and we kept sending money to her and informing her of all the things we were doing, people we were meeting with, and so forth, and she would convey that to Lorenzo. She was convinced that our efforts kept him alive, that the Americans are involved, fighting for him. He was so amazed that American cartoonists who didn’t know him, never met him, knew nothing about him, were trying to get him out of jail. It was incomprehensible to him.
As we learned from her and from Amnesty, the thing that kills most prisoners is when they give up hope. Most of them don’t have any family or anybody on the outside or if they do, they don’t dare to contact them because they’ll be persecuted. So most of them wither away or commit suicide. In fact, this happened to prisoners in cells on both sides of him; they committed suicide while he was there. And others, if they’re sick, they get no health care, no doctors, nothing.
Well, we soon learned, sending this courier back and forth, that his wife has said that once we got involved he was taken to the infirmary and given some medicine. It wasn’t great treatment, but at least they gave him something. And the torture stopped. The torture was awful. I mean, they would have vats of excrement that they put the prisoners in head first, and keep them there until they couldn’t stand it, and ingested the filth, which they would get infections and die from.
ROBINSON: I mean it was the worst kind of torture, they did all kinds of things. So that was big step, that they at least didn’t torture him.
GROTH: Now this was, they were torturing him for — I mean, they weren’t trying to get information out of him.
ROBINSON: No, no, just for being in opposition.
GROTH: Just a punishment.
ROBINSON: He was a cartoonist and a writer for the magazine, that just opposed the regime. It was for that he was tortured. I don’t think he had any secret information.
ROBINSON: The other amazing thing that happened was, I had told you we had contacted Senator Tsongas of Massachusetts. Well, my son Jens was then in either Dartmouth … he went to undergraduate at Dartmouth or to Northwestern law school. He was probably in college. When he went to Washington for a couple semesters, he got a job as an intern with Senator Tsongas. Not because I had this casual meeting with Tsongas, it was just a coincidence he got the job with Tsongas. So then when I wanted to get the support of Congress, Tsongas was the logical one to go to. When I contacted Tsongas and made an appointment to see him, he got interested in the Pons cause. Elliott Abrams was then in the State Department. He was a real bad man, you know. You know anything about him?
GROTH: He was one of the prime liars during the Iran-Contra scandal.
ROBINSON: Right, I think he was jailed or something.
GROTH: He was either indicted or served time or should have.
ROBINSON: Or should have, real evil. So he was supposedly in the office of human rights. Something involved with that [Groth laughs]. As they usually do, they put the wolf in charge of the henhouse [Groth laughs].
GROTH: You have to admit, our government has a good sense of humor.
ROBINSON: Yeah. So we presented the case to Tsongas, and he got interested in the justice of it. We established that he was a prisoner of conscience, and moreover, that they were calling him a communist in Uruguay. Anybody in Uruguay at that time who was left of Attila the Hun was a communist. Tsongas asked for proof of that. So Eliot Abrams sends over proof, which turned out to be clippings from the Uruguayan press. [Laughter.] So, you know, they closed up every opposition press, including the magazine that this guy worked for. So Tsongas was a very good man and saw through that right away. In fact, he even bawled Elliot Abrams out on the phone for taking that position and swallowing that line. So, Tsongas calls Jens in, he was the intern, and said, “Look, I’m working on this case for some cartoonist trying to get this guy out of jail in Uruguay, and here’s the statement I’ve written up, I’d like you take it around and get as many co-signers as possible in the Senate.” And of course Jens knew about the case; and told Tsongas, “That’s my father.” Imagine the coincidence? [Groth laughs.] I mean, it’s just unbelievable that he appointed Jens to go around to get signatures.
GROTH: That is something.
ROBINSON: Which he did. And we got, a couple dozen from the right and left, Republican and Democrat. He got Kennedy, He got Baker, who was the top Republican at that time. God, I can’t remember them all. I remember those two specifically. About 19 senators and congressmen. That’s when Abrams got wind of this, and sent over a packet saying that Pons is a communist and we shouldn’t try to get him out of jail. And he sent that to all the Senators and Representatives who had signed this letter that was going to go to the Uruguayans to free him, telling them to take their names off it, because they don’t want to be tarred with trying to help a communist.
Imagine that? That’s when Tsongas asked for the proof, and they sent over the clippings, and that’s when he bawled him out. Only one person, I can’t remember who, took their name off it.
GROTH: Is that right? One person did.
ROBINSON: Only one did. Tsongas gave the rebuttal to all of them and they all held fast. So that went a long way. Tsongas presented that letter to the Uruguayans and so from that time on, he wasn’t tortured, but he was held prisoner.
GROTH: That’s amazing.
ROBINSON: Another really remarkable coincidence that happened, it’s kind of an epilogue, really — I’ll jump ahead and say that Pons was originally sentenced, I think, for six and a half years. Of course, that means nothing, they had people there sentenced to six months or a year that were there 10 years later, even when the sentence was through. So even though that was the sentence, he could have been there rotting the rest of his life. Finally, he was released, I think it was some months, or maybe six months, before that original sentence was up. We’ve been in touch since. He was a trained architect, he went back to the field of architecture, and that junta eventually was overthrown. But as they told us later, they were there for enough time to build in a lot of bureaucracy of their people. So even though the top ones were ousted, there was a still a lot of Fascists in power so it was still dangerous some years later.
The other strange coincidence happened, in fact I don’t think I told this to anybody, because it happened more recently. A nephew of mine got married in New Jersey. Gro and I went to the wedding, and we didn’t know the family he was marrying into. There was a group of young people who were talking, and I just overheard one say he was in the State Department. So I kind of edged in to join in the conversation or at least listen. Believe it or not, when I asked him what position he held, he said, “Oh, I was a human-rights officer in Uruguay.” And then my ears were really burning. This was the U.S. State Department Human Rights Officer to Uruguay, this was the guy we were depending on for help with Pons. The coincidence was beyond belief. He was describing the kind of things he dealt with there. “There was one case where these American cartoonists were bugging the hell out of me to get this guy out of jail in Uruguay. [Groth laughs.] And then I didn’t have to answer anything.”
“Why was that?” I asked.
And he said, “Well, he was in jail for something. He was probably a communist. And I was supposed to get him out.”
So I asked, “What did you do?” So he said, “Well, you know, things like that, they don’t understand: When you’re a Human Rights officer, or anybody at an embassy, our job there is to make friends with the regime, and not to provoke them.”
GROTH: [Laughs.] Right.
ROBINSON: So he says, “I couldn’t go say, ‘go let his guy out of jail.’”
So I said, “What did you do?”
He said, “Well, I was at a party somewhere and I saw my counterpart, I’d say ‘Anything new on the Lorenzo Pons case?’ And they’d say, ‘No,’ so at least I’d make an inquiry. I couldn’t bug them about it — or I’d be transferred or lose my job.”
That was what they did (or didn’t do). All the effort that we put in to galvanize our State Department and our human rights efforts. And the other coincidence was the Secretary of State, Jeane Kirkpatrick, was going to stop in Uruguay, on her way on a tour and wind up in Europe. And so we had petitioned her to make a presentation on behalf of Lorenzo Pons when she’s in Uruguay. We were assured she would. So, after this group broke up, I called this guy over and I said, “That was very interesting, what you said.” I said, “Incidentally, I’m the guy who was bugging you.” [Laughter.]
So I said, “At one point, the State Department assured me that Kirkpatrick would take it up with the Uruguayan government.” At her level, that might have done something.
So he says, “Oh, no. She never mentioned that, nor would she. That was too small a thing for her to get involved in.” So that’s the people we have in these countries trying to further human rights, who wouldn’t dare bring anything up. The job was just the opposite.
But anyway, that was one effort of time. But we really felt wonderful when Pons finally got out of jail. I’ve spoken to him about a year ago, a year and a half ago. told that now that boy who was probably about four or five at the time, a youngster, “Yes, he’s now in college.” And he said, “He still has the picture of Batman framed on his wall.” [Groth laughs.] I forgot I ever did that.