Cartoonist draws vivid picture of politics, culture at GOP dinner
Chris Adams, Contributing Writer
Gary Varvel’s website describes him as a Christian, conservative, cartoonist and speaker, in that order. Speaking at the Harrison County Republican Party’s 82nd annual Lincoln Day Dinner at Lincoln Hills Christian Church in Corydon last Tuesday night, Varvel lived up to the billing as he covered a variety of topics, from religion to politics to his 40-plus-year career.
Varvel, who retired from The Indianapolis Star after 24 years in 2019 and is now syndicated through Creators Syndicate, began his address by showing a cartoon he drew in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Reminiscent of the famous photo of the firefighter carrying a baby who died in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the cartoon depicted Uncle Sam with a firefighter draped across his arms in the midst of the rubble in New York City.
“I thought, how ironic the firefighters now have become the victims,” he said, explaining his inspiration for the cartoon.
Varvel noted 343 firefighters gave their lives that morning to save tens of thousands, which made him think of the scripture John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
“I think that’s certainly what happened that morning,” he said.
Varvel also showed a related cartoon he drew almost 10 years later. This one was in response to Osama bin Laden being killed by U.S. forces on May 2, 2011. Wanting his cartoon to be different from what others would be drawing, Varvel found it interesting that Bin Laden was shot by a Navy Seal in the chest and above the left eye.
“I thought, the left eye — this guy’s face was so recognizable worldwide that I think I can crop in really tight on his left eye and show you what he was seeing the last moment of his life … a Navy Seal pointing a weapon at him,” Varvel said, adding he found it ironic that the mastermind of terror was being terrorized in the last moments of his life.
Varvel credited his daughter, who was working in the newspaper’s advertising department at the time, for the cartoon’s title: “An Eye for an Eye.” Seeing the reflection of the Navy Seal with his rifle in Bin Laden’s left eye, it immediately brought to her mind the Old Testament command.
“What my line of work is, I’m really searching for three things,” Varvel said. “I’m trying to reach people’s minds and trying to make you think what I’m thinking. I’m also trying to reach your heart, trying to get you to feel what I feel about this. But a real win is when I get people to act on it, their will. So, mind, emotion, will.”
That, perhaps, is most evident in the pro-life cartoons Varvel has drawn through the years, including one following the 1999 death of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the court’s majority opinion in Roe v. Wade from 1973. The cartoon depicts Blackmun in the afterlife with the caption “Meet the author of Roe v. Wade.” The other side of the cartoon says: “38 million fetuses want a word with you.” Varvel said that number is now up to 62 million.
“I have a Christian worldview, a biblical worldview,” said Varvel, who taught an adult Sunday school class for 25 years. “When I see things that I think are way off, I just try to point it out. I’m trying to hold a mirror up to society and show you what’s wrong.”
Varvel also showed cartoons illustrating traditionally conservative views on other topics, including gender issues and Critical Race Theory, but it was a cartoon depicting what he said are the mixed messages from Dr. Anthony Fauci regarding COVID-19 that generated the biggest response.
The cartoon, titled “Faucinocchio,” shows Fauci as Pinocchio, with his long nose as a timeline featuring various statements made by the chief medical advisor to the White House, including “Masks don’t work,” “Wear multiple masks,” “Virus not from Wuhan lab,” “It’s possible that virus came from a lab leak,” “NIH didn’t fund gain of function experiments” and “NIH funded Chinese scientists who may have done gain of function experiments.”
The cartoon, which Varvel posted on his Facebook page, received a “Missing Content” label with the explanation that Fauci’s private emails on masks dated February 2020 didn’t conflict with what he was saying.
“I didn’t say anything in my cartoon about emails. I went by video interviews,” Varvel told the audience.
However, instead of getting angry, Varvel said he had some fun, posting a response: “Warning. This cartoon contains sarcasm and satire, which may be offensive to fact-checkers who are humor challenged.”
His post received 2,100 likes; however, Varvel said a person who tried to share his cartoon on their page received a six-day suspension from Facebook, even though Varvel’s original post containing the cartoon was never taken down.
While Varvel has won numerous awards for his cartoons, including being inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 2015 and the 2012 National Headliners Award for editorial cartooning, Facebook fact-checkers aren’t the only ones who don’t always appreciate his work, Varvel said. He showed a message he received from a reader that said, “I hope you die a long and painful death, Gary!”
Sometimes, though, Varvel has been able to use humor to, if not win a detractor over, at least get them to see him in a better light.
“I had a guy who contacted me by email once from Chicago, and he said, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself. The cartoon you drew today was terrible. Obviously, you don’t know what you’re doing’,” Varvel said. “He didn’t use any profanity or anything, so I wrote him back, and I said, ‘Obviously, you’re not paying close enough attention. I’ve drawn a lot worse than this,’ to which he wrote me back and said, ‘OK, that’s hilarious’.”
Varvel concluded his address by drawing a few cartoons. On the first, he invited the crowd to guess who he was drawing. After just a stroke or two, they correctly guessed former President Donald Trump.
The last cartoon Varvel drew was of Harrison County Republican Party Chair Scott Fluhr. As the caricature took shape with each stroke, the audience’s approval, along with Fluhr’s, grew louder.
Prior to Varvel’s address, Fluhr presented former long-time elected official Kenny Saulman with the Chairman’s Award, given annually for long-standing and exemplary support of the party.
Saulman retired last December after more than four decades of service to Harrison County, including 12 years as a county commissioner, 16 years as a county councilman and 16 years as a township trustee.
“I love Harrison County,” Saulman said. “Harrison County is a good county, and it’s a good county because of the people in it.”
Fluhr also presented the Republican of the Year Award, which is given to those who have accomplished much on the party’s behalf in the past year. This year’s recipients were Herb Schneider, who also is president of the Lanesville Town Council, and Stewart Kopp, who wasn’t present.
Fluhr said the two men faithfully went to the square in downtown Corydon to show support for Trump, with Kopp holding up a sign that read “Honk for Trump.” As Election Day neared, their momentum grew, with others joining them, he said.
The party also took a few minutes to honor District 73 State Rep. Steve Davisson, who passed away on Sept. 19 at age 63 following a battle with cancer.
District 47 State Sen. Erin Houchin and District 70 State Rep. Karen Engleman, along with her predecessor, Rhonda Rhoads, talked about a man who not only was their colleague in the State Legislature, but their friend.
Houchin told of the last time she and Davisson talked, via a text message shortly before his passing. He prided himself on partnering with her from the House side to get things done for their constituents and apologized for no longer being able to do so.
Houchin said Davisson not only was a good partner, but a “true friend” to her and her family. She expressed gratitude to his family, including his wife and son, who were in the audience, for sharing their husband and father.
“Michelle, thank you for giving us Steve,” she said. “J., thank you for giving us Steve.”
Engleman recalled Davisson, despite his own health issues, always being concerned about her father, who also was battling cancer and passed away a little more than a month before Davisson.
She called it an honor to have served beside him.
“Indiana has lost a great state representative,” Engleman said.
Rhoads said she told Davisson’s wife at the funeral home how much she loved her husband.
“And I truly did, and I wasn’t the only one,” she said.
Davisson was in his sixth term, having first been elected in 2010.
Following the National Anthem, sung by Houchin, and pledge of allegiance, led by Harrison Circuit Court Judge John T. Evans, the audience joined Donnie Hussung, president of the Harrison County Council, in a moment of silence for past and present military personnel as well as members of the Republican Party who passed away this past year. Besides Davisson, they included Edsel Byrd, William Baker, Donald Engleman and Steve Boehman.
Franklin Township Precinct Committeeman Tom Powers gave the invocation, while Harrison County Surveyor Harold Klinstiver offered the closing prayer.