Watermelon toothpaste may seem like a rather benign topic for a cartoon, but when it’s paired with subject matter that surrounds an African-American man, it takes on an entirely different meaning. When that man is the President of the United States, it causes a problem for the artist…and the publication that distributed it.
The Boston Herald issued an apology today for a cartoon which depicted just that, saying, “As Jerry Holbert discussed on Boston Herald Radio this morning, his cartoon satirizing the U.S. Secret Service breach at the White House has offended some people and to them we apologize. His choice of imagery was absolutely not meant to be hurtful.”
The cartoon referenced an incident from last week in which a man named Omar Gonzales scaled the White House fence, ran across the lawn, and made it into the building before he was detected. The scene depicts President Obama brushing his teeth in the White House bathroom as a stranger bathes in the tub behind him and is captioned, “White House Invader Got Farther Than Originally Thought.” The man in the tub asks the president, “Have you tried the new watermelon-flavored toothpaste?”
The cartoon was changed before it was distributed to clients of his syndicate–Universal Uclick–to read “raspberry toothpaste” at the request of Holbert’s editor, but it had already run in the Boston Herald and forced the question of whether it was meant as a racist commentary.
“I had no intention at all of offending anybody. I thought this was a very lighthearted cartoon, just suggesting that the guy got as far as the bathtub and he’s recommending a different toothpaste for the president. They said there’s a racial element to it, and I disagreed to be honest with you, but I did it anyway because that’s what they were asking for. I didn’t think people would think that way. Obviously that was very naive on my part, that was stupid on my part,” Holbert said.
Holbert says he “detests” racist humor and never uses it in his cartoons. The White House has not commented on the incident.