WASHINGTON — HE'S been called Bill Clinton's most severe critic, even by the newly inaugurated United States president himself. But George Fisher, the Little Rock, Ark., cartoonist who has documented Mr. Clinton's political career with sometimes brutal honesty, says the Arkansas governor cum leader of the free world has publicly acknowledged that "he is a better man for it."
"I don't draw to hurt. I draw to help," says Mr. Fisher, who has been crafting caricatures since World War II, when he was an infantryman in Europe and penned for his regimental newspaper. He became intensely interested in political satire, he says, when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to fight federal court orders to desegregate the state's schools.
"There was no voice against Faubus, so I went to work." Since then, he says, "I've learned that crises never end. And I haven't kept my pencil sharp. I keep drawing."
While Fisher is accomplished on national and international issues, his most appreciated work these days is his collection of drawings about Clinton that date back to the 1970s. For more than a decade, Fisher estimates, he has drawn more Clinton cartoons than anyone else in the business.
Clinton's political road to the White House began when he was 32 years old, and he became the youngest man ever to be nominated to be governor of his state. By the following year, he held the distinction as the nation's youngest governor. Fisher tracked Clinton's development in the Arkansas Gazette, a leading paper that folded in 1991.
"I used a lot of vehicles in my pictures. At first, he was so young, I put him in a baby buggy, but he didn't take too kindly to that," Fisher recalls. "So I drew him on a tricycle, riding away after he dumped his baby buggy in the trash."
When Clinton succeeded in his third bid for the governorship (he lost in his second run for office, because of an overzealous attempt to push for too much change, too quickly), Fisher says he "graduated him to a pickup truck." But Clinton was soon "demoted back to the tricycle" when he failed to hurdle obstacles to his political agenda.
Over the years, Fisher has recorded Clinton's run-ins with opponents over tax hikes, education reform, and special interests.
He says his depictions of Clinton disturbed the young governor. "I saw him at the state legislature, and he said to me quite seriously: `If I get my program for schools through the special legislative session, will you put me back in the pickup truck?' " Fisher said he put him back in the pickup truck, "but with a small engine, because he wasn't doing as well as he had hoped."
What does Fisher think of the vehicle his former governor rode in during the inaugural parade in Washington this week? "That limousine was no surprise."
Fisher says he expected Clinton, now the youngest president since Kennedy, to triumph in his run for the presidency.
While the press has been kinder to Clinton since the early days of the presidential campaign, the new president will be an easy target for journalists, Fisher says. "But they'll also look at him with a critical eye, especially because he's so colorful. He does things Bush wasn't apt to do, being so proper and from an elite family."
Fisher says the nation's cartoonists are having trouble producing an accurate portrayal of Clinton, but they'll have plenty to work with. "He's big and he's handsome. But he has a big nose. I made that bigger. He has a big chin. I made that bigger, too."
Unlike Richard Nixon's big features that Fisher said looked sinister, Clinton's are friendly.
The 42nd president will be under media scrutiny, and cartoons could provide some of the bluntest assessments of Clinton.
Fisher, who now does cartoons for a local Arkansas television station and the weekly Arkansas Times, doesn't intend to let up on his favorite subject.