The decline of Garry Trudeau -- and of baby boom liberalism.


A kid calls the FBI's terrorism tip line. "I am very serious," he says. "I know of several Americans who have helped train and finance Osama bin Laden." The feds ask him for the names. "Well, let's see. First one is Reagan. That's R-E-A-G…Hello? Hello?"

That was an October edition of The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder's comic strip about a precocious black radical. The cartoon caused a small furor, with several newspapers refusing to run it. The New York Daily News went further, dropping the strip for a month and a half, while other papers shuttled it to the opinion page.

If that sounds familiar, it's because McGruder is scarcely the first cartoonist to have run into such troubles. Walt Kelly's Pogo—a much better strip—paved the way in 1953, when it caricatured Joseph McCarthy as a wildcat named Simple J. Malarkey, prompting papers to move the strip to the opinion page, to threaten to drop it entirely, and, in one case, to alter Malarkey's face to tone down the senatorial resemblance. But the king of the controversial cartoonists was Garry Trudeau, whose Doonesbury first caused an uproar in 1972, a year before Kelly's death.

It was a Sunday strip. Zonker, Trudeau's permanently blissed-out hippie, was asked to entertain a boy at a day care center. He obliged with the tale of a "gentle freak named Douglas" whose kindness to rabbits was rewarded with a weekend in Nirvana. There, the gods gave him "his weight in fine, uncut hashish."

As soon as the episode appeared, complaints poured in. The editor of The Abilene Reporter-News wrote, "I have seldom experienced such an angry reaction on anything in my 20 years as the chief editorial executive of this newspaper."

I found that quote on doonesbury.com, Trudeau's newly revamped Web site, which includes a self-congratulatory archive of "controversial strips." There is a pattern to these ire-inspiring cartoons. The early ones—the aforementioned tale of rabbits and hash, or the 1973 strip declaring that Watergate conspirator John Mitchell was "Guilty, guilty, guilty!!"—are famous, at least to those of us who follow the funny papers. These episodes made Trudeau's reputation and built his audience; for every editor who refused to run them, another two picked up the strip. Sometimes the figure being satirized even issued an angry public rebuttal. The original George Bush, in his vice presidential days, declared that "the American people are going to be speaking out, and we'll see whether they side with Doonesbury or the Reagan-Bush message."

The controversies kept coming, through the '70s and early '80s: A law student reveals he's gay; a woman goes to bed with a man not her husband; a reporter takes a tour of Reagan's brain. When Frank Sinatra was awarded the Medal of Freedom, Trudeau ran a series on the singer's mob ties. In 1985 the Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes Doonesbury, implored Trudeau to withdraw a series mocking the anti-abortion film Silent Scream. He published it instead in The New Republic.

If there was brilliant satire here, there was also brilliant marketing: Doonesbury was now branded as a strip for smart people. Trudeau had already won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, an award never before given to a comic strip (and rarely given to someone who is actually funny). Now he was being published in The New Republic, which in those days stood at the commanding heights of the Washington pundit class. When Trudeau won his Pulitzer in 1975, the Editorial Cartoonists' Society passed a resolution condemning the decision.

No cabal of thinkocrats issued a similar dictat 10 years later.

With influence came power. While newspapers steadily reduced the sizes of the strips in their funny pages, Trudeau alone was able to insist that his cartoon stay unshrunk. Not that it always mattered what went on in the comics section: Like Pogo before it, Doonesbury was often printed on the opinion page, away from all the cartoon rabble. Papers originally shifted the strip to the op-ed page to ward off children's eyes and reader anger, but its new residence soon became a mark not just of danger, but of seriousness.

But for a humorist, the wrong kind of seriousness can be fatal. Keep reading that archive of controversial strips, or examine the Web site's even more extensive timeline of Doonesbury's history. Gradually, two things happen: The controversies become less familiar, and the strips become less funny. The two phenomena were conjoined in 1990, when some papers refused to run a bland series mocking Dan Quayle's notorious purchase of "Pedro, the anatomically explicit gag doll." When the Pine Bluff Commercial blocked the strips, its editors wrote, "Those of us in the newspaper business are obliged to cover the tasteless, but we see no reason to publish material on this page that is both tasteless and boring." The site quotes the Commercial's complaint. It fails to note that the paper had a point.

By 2001, while McGruder was stirring up trouble with The Boondocks, Trudeau was quietly withdrawing the cartoons originally slated to run the week after September 11. The strips had questioned the president's intelligence, you see, and now just wasn't the time for that sort of thing. A handful of papers accidentally printed the withdrawn strips, and Trudeau received some angry e-mails. One appears on the Doonesbury site: "How can you possibly be so insensitive and out of touch with the national sentiment? I am shocked and dismayed that your September 17 strip would attack the president in a time of national crisis."

The scathing reply: "In response to the 9-11 attacks Trudeau withdrew a week-long series of daily strips critical of Bush—already mailed to client newspapers—replacing them with 'Flashback' strips. Unfortunately a handful of papers, including the one you read, did not follow these instructions for the first few days of the week of 9-17."

Not that Trudeau gave up on satire. In a November strip—a good one, to give the cartoonist his due—Karl Rove informs the president that "it turned out that the missile defense program, and corporate tax cuts, and subsidies for the power industry, and oil drilling in Alaska…in fact, most of the items on our political agenda…are all justified by the war against terrorism!"

"Wow…what a coincidence… thanks, evildoers!" replies Bush.

Neither Rove nor Bush felt the need to respond to the cartoon, and no newspapers refused to run it—or if they did, doonesbury.com uncharacteristically fails to mention it. Instead, the site has printed a selection of e-mails attacking the strip. "Garry, the blood of the Sept. 11 victims is on your hands," says one. Another asks, "What junior college did you drop out of?"

So Trudeau still has the power to piss people off. It says something, though, that he has to publish their complaints himself.

Controversy and quality are not the same thing, of course. But there is a direct link between Doonesbury's declining relevance and Doonesbury's declining merit, a common cause for both afflictions. Trudeau's career arc mirrors the evolution of baby-boom liberalism, from the anti-authoritarian skepticism of the 1970s to the smug paternalism of the Clinton years. In 1972 the strip was engaged with the world; in 2002 it is engaged with itself.

I mean that literally. In 1972 Doonesbury rewarded intelligence; in 2002 it rewards familiarity with its own mythology and conventions. In 1972 it trusted readers to know the politics and pop culture of the day; in 2002 it trusts us to understand that a floating waffle represents Bill Clinton, a floating bomb represents Newt Gingrich, and a floating asterisk represents George W. Bush. The strip has grown so self-referential that it makes jokes about its own self-referentiality, with Sunday strips devoted to charting the relationships among the characters. And so Doonesbury folds in upon itself, and Trudeau ends up producing his own fan fiction.

This becomes even more obvious at the Web site—not just because it is filled with trivia games and the like, but because it now includes every single Doonesbury since the strip was launched in 1970 (plus the two years of Trudeau's college strip Bull Tales, featuring the same characters, that preceded that). The result is one giant hypertext novel, a nearly complete guide to the Doonesbury universe. Only a 1977 TV special, a 1983 Broadway musical, and some Web-only material produced during the 2000 election are missing.

One effect of this is to put the oldest and most recent strips on the same plane, to let one jump easily from the '70s to today and back. The results do not flatter the modern cartoon. True, the drawing is better-crafted now, though that's not necessarily an improvement: There's something to be said for the static poses of the strip's first decade and a half, at least when compared to the sometimes self-indulgent shifts in lighting and camera angles that prevail today. In its art as in its humor, the early Doonesbury combined understated irony with bursts of absurdity. The later strip never stops hitting you over the head.

A subtler change: how young people talk. Trudeau was in his 20s during the strip's early run and thus had no trouble imagining that college students—at the time, most of his major characters were in college—would be smart and engaged with the world. (Or, in the case of Zonker, smart and engaged with his own world.) They have the same self-awareness as the strip, and they speak like educated people. When draft registration returned in 1980, for example, the cast discussed it like this:

Zonker: It's not fair! Why is it we 20-year-olds have to pay for the failures of U.S. foreign policy?

Mark: That's the way it's always been, man.

Mike: Well, it's not like we've been drafted. Carter's just trying to send the Kremlin a message.

Those characters, like their creator, are now middle-aged, and they still speak the same way. Meanwhile, there's a new crop of college kids in the strip, and they don't know much about the world. They speak the way an older man expects teenagers to speak: They say "yo" a lot, and they ask questions like, "Can you teach us how to get shaggy with the babes?" If Trudeau no longer captures the Zeitgeist, it might be because he's started writing about it from the outside.

But the biggest change is political. There was a libertarian streak to '70s liberalism: Disillusioned by Watergate and Vietnam, invigorated by the rebellions of the '60s, it was socially tolerant, supportive of civil liberties, suspicious of executive power, ready to investigate and dismantle the national security state, and even open to deregulation when it was presented in populist garb. (Few remember that it was Ted Kennedy and Ralph Nader, not Ronald Reagan, who pushed through airline deregulation.) Needless to say, this current quickly disappeared—banished from the Democratic mainstream by the '80s, its last gasp in that party was Jerry Brown's presidential campaign of 1992. But it had an effect on popular culture, not least with the pox-on-all-houses tone of the younger satirists and their outlets: Trudeau, the Rolling Stone that published Hunter Thompson in his heyday, the early Saturday Night Live. This obviously wasn't a strong strain, or else it wouldn't have vanished so quickly in the '80s, either capitulating to the new political tone or adopting the anybody-but-Reagan stance that flung liberals back into the arms of Hubert Humphrey. (Walter Mondale, actually, but for practical purposes they're the same thing.) Still, for nearly a decade, an anti-authoritarian style was regnant within American liberalism.

Not, mind you, that Trudeau was a libertarian then, any more than he was a Clintonite 20 years later. But there was an unmistakable shift in the strip's political tone, even when the strip's politics stayed the same; it moved from the clever to the loud, from the smart ass to the ass. If there was a turning point, it was the late-'80s introduction of Mr. Butts, the enormous talking cigarette who soon came to embody the entire tobacco industry. ("Hey, teens!…Getting hooked on cigarettes is fun—and surprisingly easy! For just a few dollars a day, you'll have a glamorous new habit for life!") Similar characters followed, notably Mr. Jay, Mr. Brewski, and Mr. Dum-Dum, representing pot, alcohol, and firearms.

What did this mean for the strip? Consider one issue where Trudeau's opinion hasn't changed but his tone has: gun control. First examine this 1981 exchange between the strip's resident outlaw and a flunky from the National Rifle Association, set in a Washington bar:

Springfield: Duke…it's me, Springfield! From the N.R.A., remember?

Duke: Oh…Springfield, what's the idea of sneaking up on me like that? I coulda blown you away!

Springfield: I'm sorry. That would have been your right.

Now jump to 1993, as a giant cigarette and a giant bullet prepare to lobby Congress.

Mr. Butts: Still on a tear, Mr. Dum-Dum?

Mr. Dum-Dum: Hey! The N.R.A. never rests! The gun-control nuts keep trying to slip the Brady Bill past us! But it ain't gonna happen! No way! We've been shooting our way out of tight squeezes since 1871! And look at the results! Over 70 million happy gun owners ready and able to defend our way of life!

Mr. Butts: Wow…are we safe yet?

Mr. Dum-Dum: Not yet. Tragically, many children are still unarmed!

I disagree with Trudeau about gun control, but I still think the first strip is funny. The second one just hectors us. It isn't controversial so much as it's annoying.

Trudeau is not the only cartoonist to decline with age. Frank King's Gasoline Alley brought high art to the Sunday funnies in the 1920s and '30s, but it never matched those masterpieces in the decades that followed. Charles Schulz's Peanuts was in top form from the mid '50s through the mid '70s, then grew blander; by the end, it was not so much a comic as an outgrowth of the greeting card industry. Even Pogo peaked early, in the 1950s, though it stayed funny, relevant, and controversial until its creator's death in 1973.

If Trudeau's only sin were not living up to his early work, that would be understandable. But he's moving toward a far less pleasant future, toward a fate like that of Li'l Abner auteur Al Capp. Capp's strip, insightful and hilarious in its day, was little more than a permanent tantrum at the end; it felt like the product of a befuddled old man, desperately angry at the youth movements of the '60s but too far removed from them to lampoon them effectively. (There was sharper satire of the hippies in the underground comics of Robert Crumb, wiser cracks about the New Left in—well, in the early years of Doonesbury.) There's an unpleasant parallel between Li'l Abner making dumb jokes about "Joanie Phoanie" Baez the millionaire folk singer and Doonesbury shooting witless potshots at Mr. Dum-Dum. And there's another parallel, no less ugly, between the decay of Capp's generation of liberals and the decay of the later left that shocked Capp in the '60s, reinvigorated liberalism in the '70s, then suffered its own sad decline.

If Doonesbury is still sometimes interesting, it is because its world is so vast, so sprawling, that it cannot help intersecting with ours. After losing his way in the late '80s, Trudeau recovered, temporarily, with the Gulf War. His barbs weren't as sharp as they were during Vietnam, but the universe he'd built allowed him to examine the new war from multiple angles—one week in Iraq, the next in Washington, the next in Hollywood. Even Mr. Butts briefly became funny, putting down his satiric sledgehammer to tend bar in Kuwait, where his fumes mixed with those of the burning oil wells.

In that way, occasionally, Doonesbury returns to form: when the strip's Vietnam veteran returns to Southeast Asia, when its title character starts a dot-com, and even, yes, after September 11, when each of the comic's scattered characters responded to the crisis in his or her own context. Garry Trudeau's fans surely enjoyed such moments, and perhaps a crank or two even sent some angry e-mail to the cartoonist.

It's not clear, though, that anyone else noticed. The strip still appears in almost 1,400 newspapers, but it's lost its cultural cachet. Years ago, Henry Kissinger remarked that the only thing worse than being in Doonesbury would be not to be in Doonesbury. At some point since then, the strip simply stopped being a fashionable place to be seen.