A job well drawn

When it comes to editorial cartooning, maintaining a special brand of slightly cantankerous humor ranks right up there with being politically savvy.

For the Monitor's Clay Bennett – who can now add the words Pulitzer Prize winner to his credentials – that blend of wit and wisdom was honed around the dinner table while he was growing up in the South.

It was there that his two older sisters, passionate liberals, would take on his father – a career Army officer and well-informed conservative. Mr. Bennett had known since age 4 that he wanted to be a cartoonist, but it wasn't until he was 13, and had spent some time around that table, that he decided on editorial cartoons.

On Monday he won journalism's top honor, becoming the seventh Monitor staff member to do so since 1950, the first since David Rohde's 1996 award for international reporting for his investigation of mass executions in Bosnia.

Eight of the 14 awards given by Columbia University this year focused on the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath, with the The New York Times winning a record seven Pulitzers – including those for public service, international reporting, and commentary. Previously, the most any paper had won at once was three.

The Wall Street Journal was honored for its breaking-news reporting. The paper continued to publish even after the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 forced it out of its offices. The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times each took two prizes, and Newsday and the Monitor each won one.

According to jurors who decided the cartoon finalists (the winners are determined by the Pulitzer Board), the number of cartoon submissions was up by about 25 percent this year. Bennett's cartoons, about everything from science to privacy, stood out for their European style – largely captionless – and their execution.

Monitor editor Paul Van Slambrouck says of Bennett: "This man is obsessed, in a good way, with his work. This award is so richly deserved because he cares so much about what he does."

For Bennett, his decision on which cartoons to submit changed after Sept. 11, with 12 of the 20 submissions created after the attacks. "When you get to the end of 2001," he says, "cartoons on tax cuts and political wranglings in Washington seem fairly insignificant."

Still, he says, not every issue he tackles has great gravity to it. To him, humor is something that can be used to win people over to a certain point of view – it sneaks up on them, and while making them laugh, also makes sure the message stays with them. He calls it "bringing it in through the back door."

Bennett started out as an editorial cartoonist for his college paper at the University of North Alabama, eventually working for The St. Petersburg Times for 13 years and as a syndicated cartoonist before joining the Monitor.

His cartooning style has changed little over the years, but he says technology – specifically the computer – has given him more control. "It made me a better artist."

Last year, he was named Editorial Cartoonist of the Year by Editor & Publisher magazine. This year, Bennett has won two other industry honors, the John Fischetti Award – named for the late Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist – and a Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists, which he also found out about on Monday.

In the weeks before the Pulitzer Prizes were announced, he struggled to keep his mind on his work. As in the previous three years when he'd been a finalist, Bennett knew in advance that he was on the short list.

Though Bennett says he is by now skilled at putting thoughts of winning out of his head, sometimes the anticipation would prove to be too much for the 22-year veteran, and he would let off steam in a way that his family now affectionately refers to as "Pulitzer tension."

When word came that the prize was finally his, he praised the paper that hired him in 1998, at a time when he had thought about giving up on the profession he'd pursued since he was a teen. "It's been a really good run ever since I've been at the Monitor," he said. "All good things have happened to me since coming here."

In his victory speech, Bennett jokingly expressed but one regret about his employer: "I finally win it, and I'm at a paper that doesn't drink champagne!"

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