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Michael Ramirez: Walking in Memphis



The latest essay from Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez focuses on a recent trip he took to Memphis and tells a bit of Rush Limbaugh history. Ramirez reflected on changes he observed in the Tennessee town since working at the local Commercial Appeal in the 1990s.

The piece was originally published this month on Substack,

by Michael Ramirez

I was in a wedding of one of my good friends in Memphis over the weekend. Memphis used to be one of my favorite towns. I used to work at Memphis’s daily newspaper, the Commercial Appeal. It is where I won my first Pulitzer.

It brought back so many memories.

The Commercial Appeal was a glass-fronted building facing Union Avenue. My office was the old office of the editor of what once was Memphis’ afternoon paper, the Press Scimitar. My office was big, spanning the middle seven glass panels on the top floor. I could see the downtown buildings and the top frame of the I-40 bridge crossing the Mississippi River.


The river itself is not a view to behold, but it is the mighty Mississippi. I remember the first time I saw it. It was 1990, and The CA (Commercial Appeal) had just flown me in from California to offer me a job. I was having lunch at a fancy club in a tall building on the riverfront, overlooking the Mississippi, with Lionel Linder, Editor and President of the Commercial Appeal (and eventually one of my dearest friends). Lionel looked at the view and asked me, “So, what do you think of the Mighty Mississippi?” I watched as the brown, muddy waters rolled southward, carrying along the debris of a fallen tree, and replied, “It probably looks beautiful… at night.”

Lionel laughed, and I knew we were going to get along great. His reputation as the conservative editor from the Detroit News before he took over the helm of the Commercial Appeal was one of the chief reasons I took the job. It was my first big paper, and it was my first big-town experience in the South…. Well, mid-south. They put me up at the beautiful 5-Star Peabody Hotel with the Ducks during the interview process.

When I flew back, after accepting the job, they put me up at the Holiday Inn.

Lionel died tragically in a car accident on New Year’s Eve in 1993. He was a good man and a good friend.

He was replaced by Angus McEachran. Angus was a big figure in journalism. Known as the progressive editor of the progressive Pittsburgh Press. Blunt, and demanding, he was feared by everyone.  A product of the south, he had started out as a reporter at the CA and was Metro Editor during some of the biggest events in Memphis. He was the Metro Editor when Martin Luther King was assassinated and again when Elvis died.

The first week Angus returned to the Commercial Appeal, most of the city leaders, many of whom were my targets, lined up to welcome Angus back into town… and to get me fired.

The rumor was Angus was going to throw me out and replace me with the liberal cartoonist he had discovered, Rob Rogers. It got so bad that one day, Rob, who happened to be a friend, called me up to dispel these rumors. He had heard them from all the way up in Pittsburgh.

He said, “Michael, there are rumors that I am coming down to Memphis to replace you. I just wanted to tell you they are not true. I am staying in Pittsburgh.”

I felt a tiny bit of relief until he added, “Besides, I would never work for that @$$#&?! again.”

Sigh. It got worse.

Back then, I was an outspoken member of the editorial board. During the first editorial meeting with Angus, we got into a huge argument, and he kicked me out of the room. Two days later, he canned a cartoon.

It was the first time that had ever happened.

It was over a cartoon supporting Clinton’s workfare (Ironically, one of the few things I ever agreed with President Clinton) where able-bodied welfare recipients were required to get employment or training for a job in order to qualify for welfare.

I drew a cartoon of a homeless-looking Uncle Sam character in an alley, sitting in squalor holding a sign reading “WILL WORK FOR FOOD,” turning toward another homeless man and saying, “You mean, they expect us to work?”

It was a winner.


Angus refused to run it. I asked him for an explanation and he simply said, “Because I can.”

I told him that it was a legitimate issue, a legitimate cartoon, and not only did I refuse to do another cartoon, I was going to send it out to my syndicate, and it was going to run in the over 400 papers that subscribed to me. He responded, “Well it’s not running in THIS $@#! PAPER.”

It was another shot across the bow.

I called my accountant and told him to get my affairs in order and to prepare for me to move back to California. Those days, I ferried back and forth from California to Tennessee. I had a house in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, and one in Cordova, TN.

I set up an appointment with Angus for Friday of that week. I entered his office and he was reading something and just grunted. I assumed it meant to come in. After sitting down, he didn’t say a word. He just stared at me.

I told him, “If you want someone to parrot your ideology, draw your ideas into political cartoons, well, you’ve got a bunch of artists on staff that were far better illustrators than I will ever be… Tell them to do it. That’s not my job.”

“I’m an editorial cartoonist. You pay me to research and substantiate a point of view and then convey those opinions in a political cartoon…. Let’s not play games here. If you want someone to illustrate your ideas, well, I’m an editorial cartoonist. I’m not an illustrator.  Get someone else to do it.”

“If you give me the freedom to do my work, I will draw you the best editorial cartoons in the country, and I will win you a Pulitzer Prize… but if you’re going to fire me, I want you to fire me right here, right now”

Angus laughed.

He said, “I like your cartoons.”

From that day on, we got along great. He became one of my best friends and one of my most trusted confidants. I even consulted with Angus before taking the job at the Los Angeles Times. He wanted me to stay but knew it was in my best interest to take the job… but I think deep down… deep inside, way down to his spleen… he always wanted to get rid of me. Lol.

We still disagreed on issues and he still occasionally kicked me out of the editorial meetings but I drew cartoons on those same topics.

He was fair, smart, open-minded and generous. He had a big heart, and is one of the most generous men that I have known. He cared about his city and he made me a better editorial cartoonist because he pushed me to substantiate my work. He even let me influence our editorials, if I had a convincing argument.

I would go into his office and he would slam the door. The staff thought we were yelling at each other but we were telling jokes. We had fun together. And I won him a Pulitzer.

I remember when Louis Farrakhan visited the Commercial Appeal. I had just won the Pulitzer. I was late to the editorial meeting and Angus introduced me. He said, “Mr. Farrakhan, this is Michael Ramirez, our Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist.” Mr. Farrakhan, with two huge bodyguards on each side, replied, in only a way he could, “Editorial cartoonist, I loooove editorial cartoonists.” I responded, “Mr. Farrakhan, on behalf of all the cartoonists in America, WE LOVE YOU.”

I can still hear Angus laughing. He was so different from Lionel, but he was a good man too.

Memphis is a different town today. The Commercial Appeal is still a good paper but like many corporate media-controlled papers, it is a shadow of what it once was.

***SHAMELESS PLUG HERE: The Las Vegas Review-Journal is the greatest paper on earth and still has a full complement of sections ***

I used to work late into the night whenever I was readying for a trip. It was safe to be downtown back then…. Most of the time. We once had to evacuate the building because we received a bomb threat stemming from one of my cartoons. I came out of the building to the applause of the entire staff gathered in the parking lot.

My drawing board faced the street. The seven big glass panes in the center of the top floor of the CA was my office. You could see all the way to the buildings downtown on the riverfront.

I received a phone call one night, and the caller said, “I hate your cartoons and I despise you.” I told him he was going to have to get in line. He then said, I hate your Giants cap.” I just happened to be wearing a Giants cap that night, but I had worn it around town and a few times in local interviews, so that could explain that, but it was still a bit unsettling. He then said, “I hate that red sweater you are wearing through my scope…” He was describing what I was wearing to a tee.

Right before I was about to hit the deck, he started laughing and I realized it was a friend of mine, disguising his voice. He was looking at me through binoculars from the balcony of his apartment downtown.

Memphis has changed…. Or at least it feels different. These days, it is plagued with crime, a byproduct of an underzealous, progressive DA and infected by the same pro-criminal, anti-police liberal policies infecting progressive cities.

I went down to the world famous, “Charlie Vergos Rendezvous” to have the best ribs in the world with some of my favorite people in the world. It is located in an alleyway across the street from the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. In the past, it is a rare event to go to the Rendezvous and not see a bustling restaurant with packed crowds of people talking and enjoying the amazing dry ribs.

We walked in and easily got a table for 12 people. Usually, that didn’t happen until after several hours and several pitchers of beer or sweetened tea.

I remember the Rendezvous only being quiet on Wednesdays, when I would sneak in for lunch and hang out with Nick or John, Charlie’s sons. It was closed for lunch, except on Fridays. I would feast on whatever Nick was trying out on Wednesday, in addition to the ribs, of course.

I figure I’ve extended my lifespan by at least a couple of decades after I moved from Memphis.

From what many of my friends in Memphis were saying, today, you could remove a few years off your lifespan by being in the wrong place at the wrong time in Memphis.

It is a shame.

I went out east to do my friend, Earl Farrell’s radio show and was joined by my close friend and co-conspirator, Paul Shanklin. Paul and I used to sub for a couple of talk radio shows when the hosts were on vacation when I lived in Memphis.

You may remember Paul. He did the impersonations and song parodies on the Limbaugh show. I used to write with him in the beginning, while I was working on my USA Today cartoons on Sundays.

He’s a genius.

It was in Memphis where I met Paul. He was in a foursome in my very first round of golf. I didn’t know him. He owned a small business in Memphis and was a friend of a friend. The surfing in Memphis stinks, so a friend took me out to teach me to play golf. Fortunately, there was one person in the foursome who was worse than I. It was Paul. He still has to register his 4 iron with the police as a lethal weapon.

I was lining up my putt on the ninth hole when all of a sudden, I heard Reagan coaching me on the putt.

Yup. It was Paul.  He could do anyone.

We went over to another friend of mine, who worked at one of the big radio stations in Memphis.  We rewrote the lyrics and recorded Can’t Get Next to You with Bill Clinton singing and sent it to Rush. I gave Paul Rush’s address and number and waited to hear him on the radio. I called Rush and told him to listen to the recording. He was using my cartoons in his Limbaugh letter back then.

A few weeks later, Paul came into my office and I told him I had not heard him on the show. He said he called, but they were not interested. I asked him what voice he used-maybe it wasn’t his best one… He said he used his own voice. I picked up my phone, called Limbaugh, told him I had the President of the United States on the line and put him on hold. I promptly handed the phone to Paul, told him to do Clinton and the rest is history.

Earle’s show was great. Both Earle and Paul are hilarious. Earle has that laid-back Texas sense of humor, and hanging out with Paul is like hanging out with, well… Sybil, someone with multi-personality disorder… One minute, you’re talking to Paul, and then suddenly, it’s Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, Trump, Obama, Biden, and on and on….

The wedding in which I was a groomsman was at the Chapel at Graceland. Yeah, baby, we were at the King’s palace, Graceland, USA.

I stayed at the Guest House at Graceland.

I had the pleasure to meet and talk to Miss Anna, Anna Hamilton, who is the night manager there, as well as the former owner of Anna’s Steakhouse, collector of amazing Elvis memorabilia, fellow Humes HS graduate, and conduit to all things Elvis.

She gave me Elvis’ secret Peanut Butter and Banana sandwich recipe.

She is just lovely. If you go to Graceland, drop by the Guest House at night, have a peanut butter and banana sandwich, and say hello to Anna for me. You will love her.

The last time I was at Graceland was when I did the first video podcast on the grounds in 1997, during the big 20th anniversary celebration.

I was a celebrity judge for one of the early rounds of the Elvis Impersonation (They call it a “tribute” now) contest down the street at a hotel on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Because of the 20th anniversary celebration, it was the biggest gathering of fans at the time. That same year, the postal office put Elvis on a stamp.

My friend Joey Sulipeck, a local Fox News meteorologist, was the host of the first-ever video podcast from the grounds of Graceland.  He was supposed to interview some of the Memphis Mafia…, I don’t remember which ones, but Red West, Joe Esposito, and a few others come to mind. The crowd was 50,000 strong, and their car was delayed getting to Graceland. So, Joey called me.

The PR director for Graceland would not let me on the grounds because, well, let’s just say, he wasn’t a fan. Joey had to come to the gate and talk them into letting me in for the broadcast.

I didn’t know Elvis, and have no personal Elvis stories but I was a big Elvis fan. Many of the photographers from the Press Scimitar, the Memphis afternoon paper, started working at the Commercial Appeal after it closed, and I had gotten to know several of them.

The Press Scimitar was the paper that covered Elvis and many of them knew Elvis, personally. All the people that I have met that knew Elvis say the same thing. He was the nicest man. He loved America, loved his fans, had no pretensions and was generous to a fault. I relayed their stories and talked about my favorite songs, movies, the ’68 comeback in black leather, and the Aloha Concert in Hawaii.

That same year, I went to a concert at the Liberty Bowl, where they had recreated that concert, I think it was the Aloha Concert, with all the original musicians, backup singers and performers and the same background with a spotlight on the center of the stage with a microphone where Elvis had stood. They duplicated the concert live performance with everyone performing their original parts, with video of Elvis performing on the big screens on each side of the stage. It was the closest thing to being at an Elvis concert.

In the spotlight, under the lights, facing cameras, surrounded by equipment, and sitting on the grounds of Graceland, with the backdrop of his mansion right behind us, I wondered what it was like to be Elvis. It would seem incomprehensible for us mere mortals, but people tell me he was unpretentious and respectful… as regular as a regular guy could be… that was Elvis.

Friends had told me that they would sometimes see him riding his horse by himself on the grounds of Graceland when they were growing up. He had to do it in the middle of the night for privacy. Still, he would greet people at the white fences, talk to them, and sign autographs, personalizing each one.

It’s a shame that it would not be safe to do that today… in Memphis for certain, but in any town, with any celebrity.

It’s not just the city, it’s our culture.

The grounds at Graceland are gated and safe. The tourist areas are definitely secure, but further away, the surrounding area, not so much.

Elvis lived in a different time, a different era, a different culture.

I took the tour. It was only my second time. It is much bigger and much better than it was 27 years ago. The green carpet on the ceiling looks less odd and less shabby. Priscilla has done a remarkable job turning it into a first-class attraction. As you walk into the complex, you get the sense of entering a tiny Elvis Disneyland.

The Elvis in the Army exhibit caught my attention this time. Over 66 years ago, during the height of his fame, he was drafted into the army and proudly served without complaint or preferential treatment, and he spoke positively of the experience… name a celebrity who would do that today. It is a different time, indeed.

Memphis is still a great town. It has all the amenities of a big city but in a more intimate setting. The food is great, and the people are wonderful, but the feeling has changed. The owner of the store where I rented my tux told me that the store next to theirs was robbed in broad daylight as they opened the store on a Sunday morning.

As I walked from the Peabody Hotel to the garage where I parked my rental car that night, I recalled the numerous stories I had heard that week about crime, and I was glad my friend was carrying.  But I remembered all those years I lived there and worked downtown and never once feared getting accosted, robbed, or killed.

Times have changed.

Elvis, the spirit and sense of family and community, and the feeling of security of that era have all left the building.

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