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Flashbacks: Twenty-Five Years of Doonesbury.

In the beginning, there was B.D. In the first block of the first strip of "Doonesbury," the football-helmeted, stone-faced character sits in an armchair, with a blank college pennant hanging on the wall. Then Mike Doonesbury walks in. Over time, the rest of the cast-mark Slackmeyer, Boopsie, Zonker and the rest-climbed out of Garry Trudeau's brain and onto his drafting table. At first, their lives swirled around dorms and football fields. Then B.D. dropped out of college to fight in Vietnam. Mark latched onto the war as well-from the other side. (Lucky callers to his radio show received not t-shirts or records but free copies of the Pentagon Papers.)

The characters had entered history. And history answered back. "If anyone is going to find any defendant guilty," The Washington Post scolded after a series of merciless strips on Watergate, "it's going to be the due process of justice, not a comic strip artist." Years later, Trudeau tore into the town of Palm Beach, Florida, where blacks and Hispanics were randomly stopped by police under a law that required domestic servants to register with the police. The law was repealed. The ultimate example of life imitating Doonesbury came out in 1994, when a stolen carton of Brown & Williamson documents arrived at the office of a University of California professor; the return address read simply "Mr. Butts."

"Doonesbury" is a paradox-politico-cultural satire that rans alongside "Marmaduke" and "Cathy" in hundreds of American newspapers (and on editorial or feature pages in others); a comic strip as comfortable with wars and financial crises as with domestic humor. (The Persian Gulf War occupied the strip for almost 250 straight days.) But the principal peculiarity is this: hi a fictional world populated by a car-rot-nosed ad man, a retired sustaining champion, two homeless eccentrics, and two Slackmeyers--the inside-trading, Reagan-loving, tobacco company-lobbying father and his liberal, gay, public radio host son--Trudeau creates a world that is in many ways more real than the world viewed through traditional journalism. Blending actual figures and events with fiction, Trudeau achieves a clarity that often eludes more restricted forms. His portrait of Jimmy Carter manning the White House switchboard or Ronald Reagan carrying cue cards for a cabinet meeting--("Sit down in chair. You unbutton coat (optional). Do not remove shoes")--are strinkingly authentic. By collapsing entire industries into a single character--Sid Kibbitz speaks for Hollywood, Mr. Butts for the tobacco industry, Duke for the sleaze-dujour--and planting his characters at such spectacles as the O.J. Simpson trial, Trudeau achieves a sort of X-ray camera effect, providing a glimpse of the truth behind the vagaries and obfuscations and P.R. campaigns that dominate so much of public discourse. One strip shows a lobbyist in Al D'Amato's reception area trying to see the senator "about my bid on a HUD contract." Rebuffed, he writes a $5,000 check. "I hope I'm not being too ... uh ... forward here," he says. He's told not to worry. "What a relief. I mean, there are senators who would call the police." "Don't be silly," the secretary says. "Let me give you our brochure."

At times, as in the Palm Beach case, Trudeau has demonstrably forced political change. But mostly he has engaged minds, stirred controversy, and provided an example of a popular medium that appeals to the best in us without sanctimony, and preaches without raising its voice above a wry whisper.

Trudeau's success over the last 25 years--the strip now runs in 1,600 daily and Sunday papers and regularly commands the attention of the public figures it features--also should give hope to this country's beleaguered liberals. When he began drawing "Bull Tales" for the Yale Daily News in 1968, liberalism was beginning its sharp descent. Today, "conservative" is a positive modifier and "liberal" an epithet. On "Larry King Live" recently, Hillary Clinton even denied that she was a member of the species.

Many liberals see cause for their decline in the fact that conservative ideas are more easily compressed into soundbites. But if there's anything that "Doonesbury" reminds us, it's that liberal values can be expressed succinctly, powerfully, and with a sense of humor. More importantly, Trudeau's liberalism isn't one of interest groups and hot-button issues, but of broad values of decency, opportunity, and fairness. The implicit and explicit arguments of his strips are that the disadvantaged are human and deserve a hand-up; that well-off businesses and individuals should adhere to standards of decency like the rest of us; that government has a role to play in protecting and preserving a good life for its citizens.

Trudeau punctures conservative fantasies by carrying their ideas to the logical--and preposterous extreme. Like supply-side economics. When the elder Slackmeyer is defending the Reagan economic plan, he beckons his servant, Jonah. "Why, his people are 100% behind supply-side economics! Isn't that right, Jonah?"

Jonah: "Oh, yes, sir. We're very excited by the trickle-down effect."

Slackmeyer: "See? Hell, they've got safety nets coming out their ears." Seeing those word--"We're very excited by the trickle-down effect"--actually spoken by a working stiff puts the dissonance and illogic of supply-side theory in full relief. Another strip from 1981 shows all oil executive (recurring character Jim Andrews) gloating over James Watt's proposals to "restore mountaintop mining, expand offshore oil drilling, ease strip-mining," etc. His wife asks what's to keep people like him from running lands, air, and water.

Jim: "Um... Wait a minute... That's in here somewhere... Ah, here it is! `The goodness of our hearts.'"

Wife: "Oh, is that like states' rights?"

Returning to these strips touches off deja vu--a sign that Trudeau's influence has been limited. But it's also a sign of his prescience and his ability to, in a reverse of the common saying, send the truth halfway around the world before the he gets its pants on. The strip is liberated from "objectivity"--even the facts. If Trudeau thinks inventing a character or a scene will help him get at a larger truth, he does it. In itself, that's not so rare--comedians do it all the time. But Trudeau's blend of fiction, satire, and news is not merely comic relief. It's the real world.

At the same time, it's not an accident that Trudeau won the Palitzer Prize in 1975 not for cartooning but for commentary; this strip is as much about journalism as it is about humor. In August 1995--well before the mainstream media did substantive reporting on the perils of the Republican plan for rules. on the environment, health, and safety--a series of strips portrayed lobbyists rewriting the Clean Air Act and other laws. Well before the national press caught on, Trudeau broke the story nationally that Brett Kimberlin, a small-time dealer who said he sold pot to Dan Quayle, was given unusually stiff punishment by federal prison officials and kept from speaking publicly. Trudeau's predictive ability sometimes borders on the eerie: In 1971, B.D. proclaimed Ronald Reagan his "hero." In 1984 a character worried that he would "wake up someday in a country run by Newt Gingrich."

Of course, Trudeau can hardly be called an obedient follower of the liberal line. Bill Clinton, represented in "Doonesbury" by a waffle soaked in butter and syrup, can't claim Trudeau's loyalty the way that, say, Gingrich claims Limbaugh's. And Trudeau regularly mocks the left's tendency towards identity politics. When a black faculty member visits President King of the strip's fictional college with news from the African-American caucus, the president buries his head in his hands. "So what is it now?" he asks. Um," replies the visitor. "The kids want their own water fountains." This strip has extra punch in the context of "Doonesbury's" wide range of personalities and groups. The point isn't tokenism, but to illuminate the challenges and triumphs of different experiences. The gay characters encounter discrimination and misunderstanding, but they persist. When Mike loses his job, and J.J. drives a cab to pay the bills, this reflects a bitter reality of American life.

Trudeau also pushes issues that most liberals won't touch. Like the drug war, for example. Though it eats up an increasing share of government budgets and has devastated the poor communities it is supposed to help, the war continues to escalate. Trudeau cuts straight through the hypocrisy when Mr. Butts (with Miss Nickie, a pack of nicotine gum) pays a visit to William Bennett, who admits to being addicted to nicotine, but nevertheless defines prohibition of heroin, marijuana, and cocaine as a moral issue. "How many deaths a year did the Surgeon General implicate me in?" Mr. Butts asks the drug czar. "About 395,000, right? ... Meanwhile, poor Mr. Jay doesn't have a single death to his credit, and you spend billions trying to eradicate him." Mr. Jay is a walking marijuana joint.

"Wake up and smell the smoke," Mr. Butts tells Bennett. "You're an addict! The fact that your drug of choice is legal, and another can send you to jail, is an accident of history! Let's stop driving addicts underground and start helping them! ... It's time to formulate policy for the post-prohibition era."

"Over my dead body," Bennett answers. "That's a possibility, honey," Miss Nickie says.

Many perceive a meanness in Trudeau because he goes after individuals. "There is a genteel school of satire," he writes in the introduction to Flashbacks, "that holds that the practitioner should spare the individual and attack the larger vice." He cites "the goodnatured, Will Rogers-style put-down of politicians for their hypocrisy or lawyers for their greed" that gets good laughs, without making any one individual suffer. But Trudeau's response is that that tradition "is at heart profoundly cynical." "Categorical attacks," he writes, "leave no room for hope. This explains, I suppose, my personal taste for the ad hominem. I prefer to attack a Dan Rostenkowski or a Johnny Cochran in the specific, because such satire implies--or should--that there are moral choices in life, that not everyone behaves this way, and with reason."

When greedy businessmen, sleazy personalities, or superficial politicians find themselves mocked in "Doonesbury," the purpose isn't laughs for laughs' sake, but to tweak the noses of those who don't stay focused on solving problems and helping people. The strip is enormously skeptical--but ultimately idealistic. When Mike is asked to make a spot pitching cigarettes to kids--Mr. Butts springs from his guilty nightmares--we see from his conundrum that much of life is a struggle of good people confronted with hard choices. But the consistent message of the strip is that it is still possible for individuals to make the right decisions, and for the political system to be honest and effective. To many, these ideas are pie-in-the-sky. To listen to Rush Limbaugh, you'd believe that it's impossible for government to work--we might as well turn the whole deal over to Philip Morris and Time-Warner. Even many mainstream journalists have passed the threshold from skepticism to cynicism. That's why "Doonesbury"--often buried deep in these papers--is such a breath of fresh air.

It might seem incongruous for such lofty purposes to be wrapped in a comic strip-occasionally a "Doonesbury" strip will stay serious for all four frames, but it's rare. Still, there's much to be said for helping us laugh at life's absurdities. Making government effective and relevant, stigmatizing greed and selfishness ... these aren't small-time goals but lifetime projects. At a point, wringing hands and moralizing is not an asset but an impediment. When Andy Lippincott is dying of AIDS, he keeps making light of his own tragedy. Joanie Caucus asks him: "Andy. How can you make jokes?" And he answers, "How could you not?"
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Author:Shenk, Joshua Wolf
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Words:1935
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