Whether you consider him an agitator, a provocateur, or a standard-bearer for your point of view, Clay Bennett knows how to get people talking. With some of the things his cartoons say about his political opponents, it may surprise you to hear he he puts his ego on the line with every drawing. He does and he would not have it any other way.
As Chattanooga Time Free Press Editorial Cartoonist, Clay Bennett publishes his point-of-view, five days a week, many times, to the howls readers in this historically right-leaning electorate. "You know, my intent when I come into work every morning is not to make anybody mad," he said, "it's just to express my opinions. Now, usually, doing the latter will accomplish the former, I have found through my life."
Bennett is a southern boy; an army brat who attended 10 different grade schools before graduation, but he always had his drawings. "I really did, pretty much, decide to become a cartoonist when I was like 5 or 6-years old," he remembered.
His father was a lifer in the service and a Goldwater Republican. So, every night at the dinner table was like The McLaughlin Group," Bennett joked. "My sisters were always right about the issues, but they didn't quite exactly know why they were right. And so my dad would eviscerate them, you know, over the dinner table."
That is where he honed the arguments he now puts to paper; 7 years, now, at the TFP.
Bennett's mornings are spent reading, thinking, hoping that once he gets to his office, he has an idea. "Usually, I'm motivated by what irritates me the most," he explained. "What story really, really gets me charged."
On the day we visited, it was not an irritant, but an event that had his creative juices flowing; one considers a triumph. The NFL's first openly gay player had been drafted the night before. "Once I decide on an issue, then it's kind of figuring out what you're gonna draw about it; what you're gonna say about it. And that's the hard part," Bennett said.
Equally hard is how to say what he wants to say in a 7¼" X 5" box. "It's sort of like word association when you go to the shrink. You know, this is something I know quite well; going to the shrink," Bennett chuckled. You know, the word association thing where he'll say one word and you'll say the first thing that jumps into your mind. Well, you know, if you think about issues sort of that same way and then kinda make that visual."
Those visuals have won him criticism, and a wall full of awards, including the big one. "There's nothing harder to draw than the cartoon the day after you've won a Pulitzer Prize, you know? Because you feel like everybody's expecting more of you," Bennett admitted. "Hell, you're expecting more from you."
So, he goes back to his Flair pen and tracing paper. Inexpensive, but very useful art supplies. The tracing paper allows him to change perspective by simply flipping the sheet over. And, he can always see his original drawing when placed underneath a clean piece of paper, meaning he doesn't have to start from scratch when making revisions. Bennett explained, "As neurotic as I am, as compulsive as I am, as maniacal as I am in my job, I work very long hours because, you know my own sense of self, my own self esteem rises and falls with every cartoon."
That is not necessarily determined by Facebook comments, nvoice mailsmails, or his critics, but by the pressure he puts upon himself. "It's not that I care about offending people so much," said Bennett, "but I really want to offend them for the right reasons. And so, when offense is taken for completely the wrong reason, I feel like it's really my failing."
Bennett never shies away from the issues that divide the left and right. Just Wednesday, his subject was global warming and, as you would expect, it attracted a long list of comments online. "I'm a guy who leans way left in a city, a region, that doesn't," he said.
The Chattanooga Times Free press is WRCB's media partner and Clay Bennett is a panelist on Tennessee Insider, the political talk show hosted by Greg Glover each week on WTCI.