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Mightier than the sword

With a practiced pen, longtime syndicated cartoonist Jeff Danziger skewers the current administration

DUMMERSTON—It’s been just over a year since Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States.

The depth of dislike for his presidency is easy to see in Vermont, the state that gave him the smallest percentage of the vote of any state in 2016.

A large majority of Vermonters don’t like Trump, but few have disliked him more and for a longer time than Jeff Danziger, the award-winning syndicated editorial cartoonist who splits his time between Dummerston and his native New York City.

Danziger, whose work appears locally in the Rutland Herald, the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus, and VTDigger.org, has been making fun of Trump since the 1980s, when Trump was merely a boorish New York City real estate developer and casino operator, rather than president of the U.S.

When Vermont humorist Bill Mares wanted to put together a collection of essays about how the Green Mountain State would deal with a Trump presidency, his frequent collaborator, retired University of Vermont political science Professor Frank Bryan, declined to participate.

Bryan reportedly told Mares he didn’t think there was anything funny about Donald Trump.

Danziger agrees with Bryan, but thought the idea of the book was good one. He even gave it its name — “The Full Vermonty.”

Published by Brattleboro’s Green Writers Press, The Full Vermonty: Vermont in the Age of Trump is a 134-page paperback that features a who’s who of Vermont writers, politicians, thinkers, and humorists. Connecting the essays are the biting cartoons of the 74-year-old Danziger.

Mares didn’t have to do too much to convince Danziger to participate on this book, although Danziger agrees with Bryan that there is little that is funny about Trump, or the people who helped him gain power.

“I hate the c---suckers,” Danziger said during a talk in Brattleboro earlier this year. “Here they have the power to make life better for so many people and all they do is try to make things better for themselves, when their lives are already immeasurably better. I don’t understand.”

Long ties to Vermont

Danziger’s ties to Vermont are strong. He bought a farm in 1966 after graduating from the University of Denver, when it was still possible to buy an old farm for next to nothing.

He didn’t get much time to enjoy it. He was drafted into the Army in 1967, and ultimately did a combat tour in Vietnam. As an intelligence officer and a linguist, he earned the Bronze Star and the Air Medal in 1970. He would rather not talk about his wartime service.

“It was unpleasant. I did not like the Army, and the Army did not like me,” he said.

When he got back to Vermont in 1971, he ended up at the newly-created U-32 High School in East Montpelier as an English teacher.

“I was the only Vietnam veteran they hired when they opened the school,” he said.

While he came from a family of artists, he never really considered cartooning as a career. But as he started his teaching career, he also started sending cartoons to the Times-Argus, which switched to offset printing in the early 1970s and could then run local artwork without the cost of engraving.

Nick Monsarrat was the editor of the paper, and liked Danziger’s work. According to Danziger, Monsarrat wanted to run his cartoons in the paper, but there was one catch; they had no money in the budget to pay more than what they were paying for syndicated cartoons — $1 per drawing.

Needless to say, he didn’t quit his day job right away. He said that the $1-a-cartoon rate was a shock, but it was too much fun seeing his work in print.

“As my friend, [New Yorker cartoonist] Ed Koren once said, ‘cartooning is a good way to get into the high two-figures of income,’” Danziger said. “But the Mitchell family [the longtime owners of the Herald and Times-Argus until last year] gave me a lot of breaks and a lot of support over the years, so I can’t complain.”

His relationship with the Times-Argus and the Herald changed in 1975, when the Mitchells decided to start a Sunday paper.

“They suddenly had all this space to fill, so they gave me some of it,” Danziger said. The tradition of the full-page Danziger cartoon on Vermont topics was born, as well as his long-running weekly cartoon series about a Vermont farm family, “The Teeds.”

From there, his reputation grew, and so did his client base. While still drawing for the Herald and Times-Argus, he worked as a part-time editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News from 1980 to 1985, and as the staff cartoonist for The Christian Science Monitor from 1987 to 1997.

For the past two decades, he has been an independent syndicated cartoonist. His work is currently syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group.

Danziger’s style is dark, and he pulls no punches.

“The first responsibility is to be amusing or humorous or interesting,” Danziger told WNYW-TV earlier this year, “and the second responsibility is to be at least somewhat close to the facts.”

He told The Commons that he knows for his readers, especially his Vermont readers, he is “preaching to the choir” about President Trump and his administration, “but you never know. If you can leave an image in people’s heads, it can last longer than the words. Think of Herblock [the late Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Lawrence Block] and the way he drew Richard Nixon, with the 5 o’clock shadow. That’s how people remember him.”

A year of pain

Last year was a hard one for Danziger. His wife, Kim Elizabeth Gale, and his eldest son, Matthew Mercer Danziger, both died of cancer — Kim in January, Matthew in June.

Kim, a Barre native, was a banker in New York City. She and Jeff had been together for about 25 years, and Jeff said they wanted to find a place in Vermont that was closer to New York, but not too far from her family in the Barre area.

They bought a home in Dummerston in 2015 and were in the process of restoring the dwelling to be their permanent home when she retired.

Jeff said she seemed to be in remission, but a return of the cancer, complicated by sepsis, took her life.

Nearly six months later, Matthew died. He grew up in Vermont and worked in the banking industry, like his stepmother.

“It was an awful year. The first thing you think is ‘this can’t have happened, I’m going to wake up and it will be back to where it was,’” Jeff said. “Kim’s mother, Nancy, and my first wife, Jan, who is Matthew’s mother, were very helpful. We’re all friends, and my second wife, Kim, had actually gone to U-32, although I don’t remember her from back then.”

The Dummerston home that he was going to share with Kim now holds just Danziger and his elderly cat. He is staying there for now.

Democracy and Trump

In The Full Vermonty, Danziger predicts that Vermont will “get through the next four years somehow, with inventiveness, cooperation, care for one another, and the sure knowledge that someday it will end and be forgotten, like a storm, powerful but transient.”

That is how democracy works, he says.

“You start to appreciate how people govern themselves, which is at issue in America now.” he told The Commons. “Why do we have majority rule? Because it stops riots. It doesn’t mean that the right thing is going to happen or wisdom is going to prevail. What it does mean, generally speaking, is that if the majority approves of something, you’re not going to tear the place down out of anger.

“In addition, you can say that, if it is wrong, ‘Well, you voted for it. What did you expect?’”

But in the case of Trump, a majority of voters — by nearly 3 million — cast a ballot for his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the Electoral College, designed by founders skeptical of direct democracy, gave Trump the presidency.

Just the same, Danziger thinks Trump won’t finish out his term, let alone run for re-election.

“I don’t think he’s going to finish four years,” he said. “It’s going to be for the same reason that Nixon resigned, ‘Screw you, if this is the way you want it, goodbye!’”

But Danziger believes that if Clinton had won the presidency, things wouldn’t be much better. “The only thing is that she would have smarter, better people working for her,” he said. “This crop of secretaries Trump has working for him, not only are they cruel and stupid, they’re losers.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #434 (Wednesday, November 15, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.

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