Garry Trudeau

The most powerful voice for truth and justice in American journalism is the junkyard dog of editorial cartooning -- and the creator of "Doonesbury."

Published November 2, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Much has been made of Ronald Reagan biographer Edmund Morris' invention of himself as a fictional character in order to plumb the cryptic psyche of our cherished former president, but consider this: In 1987, Garry Trudeau, creator of "Doonesbury," beat Morris to the punch, only inversely. Battered by the realization that after eight bizarro years Reagan was basically beyond satire, Trudeau couldn't let go of him. So in one of "Doonesbury's" more perverse tropes, he created a Reagan alter ego called Ron Headrest, who existed in electronic form only and mischievously popped up at will on people's TV screens.

Based on the computer-generated, stuttering '80s TV character "Max Headroom," Headrest was a shtick-figure Reagan with an unleashed id who could smear the 1988 presidential candidates at will ("So is P-P-Paul Laxalt mobbed up?") and finally declared himself one. "If elected president I promise to lie, lie!" cracked a leering Headrest from the tube. "I'll s-s-set up illegal covert operations and lie about them to Congress and the American p-p-people! If detected I promise to falsify documents, shred evidence and preserve plausible de-de-deniability! Then I'll take the Fifth! But with moist eyes! And selflessly ...!"

It was a bit of hysteria on Trudeau's part, and not the first time he seemed to be playing Ahab to Reagan's White Whale. On the eve of the Carter-Reagan election in 1980, Trudeau did a series of strips in which his blowhard TV correspondent Roland Hedley Jr. took a tour of Reagan's brain, pointing out the frayed synapses and dead neurons. It was not subtle. It was as if Trudeau, just days before the election, was using his daily comic strip as a megaphone to yell, "Reagan's a moron! Don't vote for him!" Now, while Trudeau may have been technically correct, you can't really blame the various newspaper editors who refused to run the strips. On the scores of occasions editors have killed Trudeau's strips over "Doonesbury's" 29 years, this was probably the only time the news hacks had even a shred of justification.

But Trudeau has never had an entirely comfortable relationship with the editors who buy his strip. In fact, "Doonesbury" is one of the most controversial comic strips of all time. And it's also one of the greatest, for many of the same reasons. He drives editors crazy, but there's not really a whole lot they can do about it because they know Trudeau is smarter than they are. He can express ideas more clearly, succinctly and wittily than they can, and he does it through a secret weapon -- a combination of images and words that we somewhat mundanely call the comic strip. The great cartoon artist Art Spiegelman may call comics "the hunchbacked, half-witted bastard dwarf stepchild of the graphic arts," but don't tell that to Trudeau. Out of about 250 comic strips circulated in English-language newspapers throughout the world, "Doonesbury" is in the top 10, carried in 1,400 papers. That "Garfield," "Cathy" and "Hagar the Horrible" are carried in even more papers says little beyond elucidating the sorry state of the millennial newspaper comics page. The fact is, Trudeau has won over his millions of readers through the power of his words and ideas, without having to resort to endlessly repeating overweight gags or the foibles of neurotic cat owners.

Ah, you may ask, but isn't that what the comics page is for? Cute drawings, gags and whimsy? Does the bleary-eyed reader, recently roused from sleep with coffee cup in hand, really need to see the president portrayed as a waffle? Or a menacing, cigarette-wielding guy in sunglasses brandishing a gun and popping pills? Or two men getting married? The numbers powerfully answer yes, but that hasn't halted debate over whether "Doonesbury" belongs on the comics page. In fact, several papers run the strip on the editorial page, and may well be justified in doing so. Trudeau, mindful that many of his strips constitute editorializing, has said he doesn't care where newspapers stick "Doonesbury." In 1975 he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning -- the first time the award went to a comic strip artist -- and he was a finalist for another one in 1989. But the subversive thing about Trudeau is that he gets his message across to all those comics page readers who couldn't care less about the editorial page.

Wiley Miller, who draws a semi-political comic strip called "Non Sequitur," calls Trudeau "far and away the most influential editorial cartoonist in the last 25 years." That's a bold statement to make in a journalism world populated by opinion page artists like Tom Toles, Pat Oliphant and Herblock. But while acknowledging their genius, Miller says, "They're not influential."

Garretson Beekman Trudeau starting drawing "Doonesbury" while he was a student at Yale in the late-'60s. The strip evolved from an earlier comic he drew for the Yale Daily News called "Bull Tales," which gently but piquantly satirized campus life through the prism of a cast of college characters, primarily a football jock named B.D., who was based on Brian Dowling, the Yale -- and later professional -- gridiron hero. "Bull Tales" caught the eye of an entrepreneur who wanted to start a comics distribution outfit, and who convinced the 20-year-old Trudeau to sign on, thus launching the Universal Press Syndicate, which continues to handle "Doonesbury" along with strips like the afore-scorned "Garfield" and "Cathy." Trudeau got the title of his new strip by combining the word "doone" -- which today would translate as "dweeb" -- with the name of his roommate, Charles Pillsbury. It's also the name of the strip's putative central character, Michael Doonesbury, who back then was a nebbish who could never get a girl, and who now is a divorced dad and head of an Internet start-up that has just had an IPO.

Like George Bush Sr., who also attended Yale and whom Trudeau has savaged with special relish, the cartoonist is well-pedigreed, with ancestors who landed in the colonies in the 17th century. His father is a doctor, as was his grandfather and great-grandfather. Other relatives include former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a treasurer of the United States under Lincoln and the financier after whom New York's Beekman Place was named. Garry grew up wealthy in the upstate New York town of Saranac Lake, attended St. Paul's boarding school, then Yale. In 1980, while he was still living in New Haven, Conn., he married TV personality Jane Pauley, and they're now raising three teenagers on Manhattan's Central Park West. The family is serious about privacy -- Trudeau has submitted to only two major print interviews in the past 20 years, although he delivers an occasional speech.

"Doonesbury" premiered on Oct. 26, 1970, united around a group of misfits, including B.D., Michael and Zonker, who attended fictional Walden College and lived together in a commune, making wry observations about their personal lives and world events. Trudeau thus became a member of an elite tradition of humorists who have constructed well-defined communities from which to aim their satire. His primary influences are two late comic-strip legends: Walt Kelly, whose brilliantly drawn Okefenokee Swamp critters in "Pogo" waxed on about the vagaries of life while occasionally being visited by real-life politicians in animal guise, and Al Capp, who relished deflating the rich and powerful from hillbilly Dogpatch in "Li'l Abner." Also in this place-based camp are radio's Garrison Keillor, who lampoons society from Lake Wobegon on "A Prairie Home Companion," and perhaps Trudeau's greatest progeny -- Matt Groening, whose "The Simpsons" and its cast of characters did for TV what "Doonesbury" did for the comics page.

But while "Doonesbury" has unquestionably earned its way into the canon of great comic strips, it's through no thanks to Trudeau's drawing skills. He's the first person to denigrate his own draftsmanship, and indeed, his characters are simply drawn, distinguished from one another by hair, nose and head shape variation alone. If Trudeau had come along in the golden age of strips when people like Elzie Segar ("Popeye"), George Herriman ("Krazy Kat") and Winsor McCay ("Little Nemo in Slumberland") ruled the comics pages, he would have been laughed out of the newsroom. Al Capp once said of Trudeau, "Anybody who can draw bad pictures of the White House four times in a row and succeed knows something I don't. His style defies all measurement."

Drawing strips consisting of four panels of the same static object, whether it be the White House or somebody watching TV, is a trick Trudeau learned from Jules Feiffer, another political cartoonist with lots to say, and it's effective. As the words tell the story, the artwork sets the scene, and a slight modification in the last panel's image, say, a change in facial expression, serves as a rim shot to the punch line -- badda-boom! But the static-image formula is only one option available to Trudeau, and the way he alternates it with strips featuring more varied panels gives rise to a kind of meta-rhythm for "Doonesbury" over the weeks and months.

But Trudeau's major contribution to the genre is of the content kind. He was the first -- and is still one of the only -- strip artists to pick real people and real current events as the targets of his humor. This was nothing new to editorial cartoonists, of course, but they didn't have the luxury of being storytellers. Trudeau could creep up on his targets and then destroy them like a great stand-up comic. Ah, but if only Lenny Bruce had had an audience of millions every day.

Trudeau is dangerous -- arguably the most powerful voice for truth and justice in American journalism -- and he's hilarious. Steve Benson, widely syndicated editorial cartoonist for the Arizona Republic and president of the Association of Editorial Cartoonists, calls Trudeau a "demigod." "He takes on all comers. He's like a junkyard dog -- he just doesn't let go. But he mixes up his punches. Sometimes he can work like a skilled surgeon. Sometimes he can be like a chainsaw. And I think he's at the top of his game."

Trudeau had the luck to introduce "Doonesbury" in a defining moment of postwar America, when a youth counterculture preaching equality, fraternity and love was hitting the streets and trying to take back a country deemed hijacked by war-making white men driven by greed and indifference to human life -- Richard Nixon, of course, being the epitome. But if all Trudeau had to offer was anti-war propaganda, "Doonesbury" never would have succeeded. He was as apt to make fun of his campus radical exemplar, Mark Slackmeyer, as to give him a platform, and the same could be said for all his characters. With the possible exception of B.D. and his bimbo wife, Boopsie, who are reactionary comic foils, each member of the "Doonesbury" crew is as multidimensional and fully realized as humans can be in a comic strip. They've earned their characterizations over 29 years. And each has evolved, in synch with Trudeau's finely tuned radar for the themes that have defined the American landscape.

Lovable Mike, the Pinocchio-nosed schlemiel who seems to have finally made good, is the "Doonesbury" figure who most captures the tenor of the times. Starting out as the most adrift of the Walden commune members, he entered the '80s as a classic Reagan Democrat, later to turn Republican. Trudeau, cynically but tenderly, led Mike further and further down the sellout trail, until he went to work for an ad agency and created the enduring Mr. Butts character for the tobacco industry. (His ex-wife, J.J., sold out, too, making art for Donald Trump, who, now that he's seeking the presidency on the Reform Party ticket -- real-life here, folks! -- is already beginning to suffer some fresh barbs from Trudeau's pen.)

Mike, relocated to Seattle with his computer-genius daughter, Alex, has borne the brunt of Trudeau's Internet Age satire. As a non-computer-savvy baby boomer, Mike found himself in a bewildering culture of e-mail chat groups, programming geeks, corporate downsizing, Microsoft domination, venture capital and initial public offerings. In one of "Doonesbury's" current story lines, Mike has launched on IPO on the struggling Internet start-up he runs with his new Gen-X bride, the Vietnamese Kim. Trudeau takes this opportunity to bash an industry that seems bent on rewarding money losers, and along the way he gets in some scathing shots at Nike, which employs one of Kim's relatives in a Vietnamese sweatshop.

Neither has the rest of the "Doonesbury" crew sat still. Mark became a left-wing radio host, came out of the closet and married a conservative businessman. "I can't imagine what you have in common with my son," Mark's appalled father, Phil -- a former Reagan official who served time for insider trading and who's now a tobacco lobbyist -- says to Chase in one strip. "Well, it's physical, of course," chimes in Mark.

Eternal hippie and ever-unemployed Zonker achieved glory as a competitive tanner, served as nanny to the children of Mike and J.J. and B.D. and Boopsie, won $20 million in the lottery, purchased a British peerage title and squandered all the dough. Feminist icon Joanie Caucus got a law degree and went to work first for liberal Republican Rep. Lacy Davenport -- who later developed Alzheimer's disease and bequeathed her fortune to a homeless woman -- then President Clinton. And Zonker's drug-addled, gun-crazed Uncle Duke, modeled on gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, has been involved in adventures ranging from being ambassador to China to turning up as the 53rd Iran hostage to cocaine smuggling to working for David Duke, Oliver North and Donald Trump to running an orphanage to becoming a zombie who gets sold into slavery in Haiti. "He could use the discipline," one of his friends says.

Then there's the politics -- the ruthless savaging of politicians, public figures and attending sycophants that drives so many newspaper editors crazy. Trudeau's treatment of his first presidential victim, Nixon, was almost tender, such an easy target was he. President Ford had to veto a bill Congress passed to lay him off; the Carter administration was dominated by his Secretary of Symbols, who really flourished on the Jerry Brown campaign; Reagan was so baffling that even his own handlers couldn't fathom him, much less the press corps; Bush was the invisible man, unable to take a position on anything, who when campaigning had his manhood placed in a blind trust; Quayle was and continues to be depicted as a feather; Newt Gingrich was a bomb that Trudeau took great pleasure in finally exploding; Clinton is a waffle who seduces not only woman but all the reporters covering him.

And that's just the presidents. Trudeau has delivered indelibly sly, vicious portraits of Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, Pat Buchanan, Eldridge Cleaver, Alfonse D'Amato, Ed Meese, Jesse Jackson, Michael Huffington and on and on and on.

Trudeau has rendered an account of our times so rich in detail it makes you gasp. And if he has proven one thing in the nearly 10,000 strips he's drawn, it's that there's nothing new under the sun. Think George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" slogan is an original concept? Zap back to a "Doonesbury" from 1981, when Walter Mondale describes his philosophy as "neo-nice." Was it not clear that the Desert Storm invasion of Iraq was for the benefit of big oil? Well, Zonker learned something like that in 1980 when, while registering for the military as per President Carter's request, he was asked, "If called upon by your country, would you be willing to give your life to protect the interests of U.S. oil companies?" (When Zonker screeches "OIL COMPANIES!?" the clerk responds, "It's only hypothetical. We're just trying to get a head count.") Was it funny to you when Sonny Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., in 1988 and later to Congress? At a benefit concert he was about to play in 1976, rock star Jimmy Thudpucker says, "Awe-inspiring isn't it? One vibrant kinetic mass of 30,000 sun-bleached Santa Monica rock junkies. You know, it's a good thing that vote can't be harnessed, or our next governor would be Sonny Bono." Remember Dana Carvey, doing his spot-on impression of George Bush at the debate with Clinton on "Saturday Night Live," waving his arms around and pleading, "Please, oh please, don't let me be a one-term president!"? Wonder if Carvey had in the back of his mind the 1980 "Doonesbury" in which Bush, then ambassador to the United Nations and a presidential candidate, is summing up his storied career to a group of prep school kids. When one asks him how long he'd like to be president, Bush replies, "The big four. I'm an optimist. I think I can go the distance."

A steady stream of news items, editorials and letters to the editor about "Doonesbury" has served as a kind of chorus to Trudeau's influence. Newspapers have taken reader polls asking if "Doonesbury" should stay or be banished. Editors pondering killing certain strips or moving them to the editorial pages question Trudeau's fairness. In a 1990 interview with Newsweek, Trudeau said fairness isn't the issue: "Criticizing a political satirist for being unfair," he said, "is like criticizing a nose guard for being physical." Trudeau said he's propelled "by a sense of moral indignation, which you hope doesn't slip into malice when you're executing. The critical difference is that you're not only against something, you're for something. It springs out of a sense of hope. The day I start writing from a scorched-earth viewpoint is the day I don't think I can justify my presence in the business."

And it's true, nobody thinks of Trudeau as a curmudgeon. "Doonesbury," harsh as it can be, has a warm, fuzzy quality that celebrates the inherent absurdity of Homo sapiens. And he rarely takes himself seriously. One color Sunday "Doonesbury" from '93 had Zonker picking up the White House while explaining to readers that it's just a scale model. Then he tosses it, with a little Clinton voice yelling, "Aiee!" and says, "Of course, what really counts are the regular characters." In another strip, an especially sexily drawn, bikini-clad Boopsie, getting photographed for Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue, wonders if there's a sweeps week on the comics page.

And you gotta love a guy who wants to better himself. In the winter of '83 he began a 21-month sabbatical from the strip to try his satirical hand at play writing, collaborating with musician Elizabeth Swados first on the Broadway version of "Doonesbury," which ran for about five months, and then on a musical revue called "Rap Master Ronnie," which traveled around the country for several years. He returned to the strip with a bigger-is-better approach, enlarging his characters literally and philosophically, and using his clout to demand that editors run "Doonesbury" at least 7.33 inches wide, which was a former standard that cost-conscious editors had been steadily eroding. Other comic strips ended up running larger as well, thanks to Trudeau's influence.

Later in the decade he demonstrated his writing chops for a brilliant HBO film series (available on video) called "Tanner '88." Directed by Robert Altman, it introduced a fictional neoliberal presidential candidate into the '88 campaign, pitting him against the real contenders. Like "Doonesbury," only live-action, it blended fact and fiction to mordantly skewer political institutions and the press that attends them.

But Trudeau has insisted that pumping out "Doonesbury" is his primary gig, one he'll continue unto old age. At this point, it's hard to imagine living without it. It almost makes you happy that George W. Bush could be elected our next president. On the other hand, that might just drive Trudeau crazy.

By David Rubien

David Rubien is a writer in San Francisco.

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