Revealing more about himself than he ever has, Garry Trudeau gives us tantalizing clues about what’s behind his venerable comic strip’s recent burst of genius, and pain.
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, October 22, 2006; W14
IN THE BANQUET ROOM WERE MEN WHO WERE BLIND, men with burns, men with gouges, men missing an arm, men missing a leg, men missing an arm and a leg, men missing an arm and both legs, men missing parts of their faces, and a cartoonist from the funny pages.
We were just a few blocks from the White House, at Fran O’Brien’s Steak House. Fran’s was hosting a night out for casualties of the current war, visiting from their hospital wards.
It’s hard to know what to say to a grievously injured person, and it’s easy to be wrong . You could do what I did, for example. Scrounging for the positive, I cheerfully informed a young man who had lost both legs and his left forearm that at least he’s lucky he’s a righty. Then he wordlessly showed me his right hand, which is missing fingertips and has limited motion — an articulated claw. That shut things right up, for both of us, and it would have stayed that way, except the cartoonist showed up.
Garry Trudeau, the creator of “Doonesbury,” hunkered right down in front of the soldier, eye to eye, introduced himself and proceeded to ignore every single diplomatic nicety.
“So, when were you hit?” he asked.
Trudeau pivoted his body. “So you took the blast on, what . . . this side?”
Brian Anderson, 25, was in shorts, a look favored by most of the amputees, who tend to wear their new prostheses like combat medals. His legs are metal and plastic, blue and knobby at the knee, shin poles culminating abruptly in sneakers.
Trudeau surveyed Brian’s intact arm. “You’ve got dots.”
“Yeah.” Dots are soldier-speak for little beads of shrapnel buried under the skin. Sometimes they take a lifetime to work their way back to the surface. At this, Brian became fully engaged and animated, smiling and talking about the improvised explosive device that took his vehicle out; about his rescue; his recovery; his plans for the future. Trudeau, it turned out, had given him what he needed.
(“In these soldiers’ minds,” Trudeau will explain afterward, “their whole identity, who they are right now, is what happened to them. They want to tell the story, they want to be asked about it, and you’re honoring them by listening. The more they revisit it, the less power it has over them.”)
Trudeau has been talking to injured vets for a couple of years now. It’s partly compassionate support for people he has a genuine regard for, and it’s part journalism — the damnedest sort of reporting, for a professional cartoonist.
This was April 25. On the comics pages that day, Dagwood fixed himself an absolutely ENORMOUS sandwich; Garfield kicked Odie off the table again; and in Beetle Bailey, the only military-themed comic strip, Lt. Fuzz accidentally dropped a glass of water and cussed in funny cartoon hieroglyphics.
In Doonesbury, this was the story: B.D., the football coach and Vietnam vet who went to Iraq with the National Guard and lost a leg in a rocket-grenade attack near Fallujah, has been shamed into entering therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder because he overheard his little girl, Sam, tell a friend that she’d become afraid of her daddy. On this day, B.D. will begin to relive the battlefield event he has repressed, the one that made him a moody, alcoholic paranoiac and that torments him with guilt and shame that he does not understand. Through the rest of the week, B.D. will retell what happened when his armored vehicle came under attack from insurgents and — desperate to escape and save himself and his men — he gave the order to flee through a crowded marketplace, mowing down civilians.
Not many of the injured vets in Fran O’Brien’s were where B.D. was yet. Their deepest wounds, like the dots, had not yet surfaced. On that day they were jovial, mostly, and indomitable, all of them, stolid and impervious, more so than the moms, wives and girlfriends who hovered at their elbows, lovingly kneading shoulders, patting thighs, holding on, looking bravely upbeat and just a little overwhelmed.
Trudeau bellied up to another vet.
“So, when were you hit?”
IF YOU DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT GARRY TRUDEAU, AND YOU PROBABLY DON’T, it’s because he has done his best to keep it that way. With the exception of the time in 1980 when his island wedding to America’s sweetheart, TV personality Jane Pauley, turned him into a sullen bridegroom hounded by paparazzi in boats and helicopters, Trudeau, now 58, has managed to remain comfortably obscure. Aside from a couple of semi-recent TV interviews, he’s had almost no public presence for three decades. Considering the extraordinary reach of his comic strip, and the role it has had over the years in analyzing, reflecting and even helping shape American culture, he may be the most famous unknown person.
It’s an odd type of fame, one that attaches hungrily to what you do but not at all to who you are. Take this woman here, at a lunch counter in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. Her name is Connie Dubois. A candle maker, Connie lives in Ethel, La., pop. 2,000, a fleck on the map of East Feliciana Parish, which itself contains only two traffic lights. Connie, who is 50, has just flown on a plane for the first time in her life, heading to a trade show for candle makers.
“Do you know what ‘Doonesbury’ is? I ask her.
“Sure,” she says, putting down her sandwich. “It’s a cartoon. In the paper. Been around a long time. It’s a little off-center and radical, and I like that.”
“Do you know the name of the guy who draws it?”
Dubois scrunches up her face, thinking.
“Nope. No idea.”
Dubois says she wouldn’t know the cartoonist if she saw him, which is undeniable, since at the moment Trudeau is sitting four feet away. He is head-down, digging into his Caesar salad, doing his best to disappear. He hates things like this. Trudeau is so viscerally averse to self-promotion that he once threw up before a scheduled interview for a Time magazine cover story, then canceled it. (Time wrote the story anyway.)
I’m at Trudeau’s elbow on a trip out West because I’m doing the first extensive profile of him in the 36 years since he began the comic strip that became an American icon. That’s reason enough, but the fact is, something astonishing has happened to “Doonesbury” in the last 2 1/2 years, after the United States invaded Iraq and Trudeau made the startling, un-cartoonish decision to mutilate one of his characters.
It was not just any character. B.D. had been a Doonesbury fixture since Day One. Literally. On the day the strip debuted in 28 newspapers nationwide — October 26, 1970 — B.D. was alone in the opening panel, sitting in his dorm room on the first day of school, football helmet inexplicably on his head, wondering what kind of roommate he’d get. To his everlasting annoyance, it turned out to be Michael Doonesbury.
That was so many years ago — a generation and a half, really — that the strip has outlasted even its original cultural references. Does anyone remember that “B.D.” were the initials of Brian Dowling, the hotshot quarterback at Yale when Trudeau was there in the late ‘60s? Or that in Eastern prep-school lexicon of the time, a “doone” was something of a doofus?
It’s “Doonesbury” that survived and metamorphosed over the years into what is essentially an episodic comic novel, with so many active characters that Trudeau himself has been known to confuse them. “Doonesbury” has always remained topical, often controversial. Unapologetically liberal and almost religiously anti-establishment, Trudeau has been denounced by presidents and potentates and condemned on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He’s also been described as America’s greatest living satirist, mentioned in the same breath as Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.
But for simple dramatic impact and deft complexity of humor, nothing else in “Doonesbury” has ever approached the storyline of B.D’s injury and convalescence. It hasn’t been political at all, really, unless you contend that acknowledging the suffering of a war is a political statement. What it has been is remarkably poignant and surprisingly funny at the same time. In what Trudeau calls a “rolling experiment in naturalism,” he has managed every few weeks to spoon out a story of war, loss and psychological turmoil in four-panel episodes, each with a crisp punch line.
Here’s one :
It is a cliche, and it is also true, that humor springs from existential pain — from a need to blunt the awareness that life is essentially a fatal disease of unpredictable symptoms and unknown duration. Usually, though, the laughter comes through indirection — acknowledging that death awaits us all, for example, by joking about memory loss as we age. But there’s been nothing comfortably oblique in these episodes of “Doonesbury,” no comic exaggeration, no use of metaphor. There is no distance whatever between the pain and the humor.
Over the years, “Doonesbury” has been remarkably consistent in its quality, if not universally beloved. Republicans can make a reasonable case that Trudeau’s lefty politics sometimes make him seem a water boy for Democrats. He is not above the occasional cheap shot, such as when he devoted an entire week in 1991 to a felon’s unsubstantiated charges that Vice President Quayle had been a pothead. At times, he has seemed to lapse unattractively from political satire to political advocacy — lending his characters’ support to John Anderson in 1980 and Howard Dean in 2004. Some feel he has occasionally been tone-deaf to popular culture — buying too readily, for example, into the notion of a slacker Generation Y. Undeniably, the strip’s edge dulled a little in the mid-1990s, when a Democratic ascendancy left him without a meaty political issue to lampoon.
But there aren’t many people — especially among experts who read and critique comics for a living — who are calling the continuing saga of B.D. anything other than genius.
“What it is,” says comics historian R.C. Harvey, “is breathtaking. Just a stunning body of work.”
SO, WHO IS TRUDEAU, REALLY?
It turns out he’s not afraid of publicity so much as he’s horrified at being perceived as the kind of person who wants publicity. He treasures his literary license to kill but feels a twinge of guilt that it isn’t really a fair fight. He’s a genuinely humble know-it-all. His regard for injured soldiers is sincere, his knowledge of their lingo profound, almost as if he’s one of them; watching this, you can’t help but hear faint, soul-rattling echoes of Vietnam, which he escaped, like many sons of privilege, by gaming the system. He’s got the greatest job on Earth — no boss, his own hours, enormous clout, public adulation, a seven-figure income, absolute creative freedom — but he speaks with longing about a different career altogether, one that the huge success of “Doonesbury” ensured he’d never have.
Also, he’s a smartass.
But you knew that.
IT’S MONDAY NIGHT OUT FOR THE MEATHEADS, as they call themselves. These are Trudeau and some of his best friends, who assemble irregularly on weeknights in Manhattan to attend excellently terrible movies their wives won’t see with them. Today’s choice is “Poseidon.” They’re pumped for a real stinker.
“A lot of research goes into this,” Trudeau explains, “so we don’t make many mistakes. We get these movies when they’re dying, so we have the theater to ourselves. We like to talk to the screen.”
“And throw popcorn.”
This is David Levinthal, 57, who looks like the manager of a Jiffy Lube but is an acclaimed modern artist. Levinthal’s medium is plastic toys: He arranges them in unusual ways, photographs them in intriguing lighting and sells the pictures for thousands of dollars. Not long ago he had a show entirely of made-in-Japan erotic dolls.
Levinthal is not the most unusual guy here. That would probably be Fred Newman, 53, who is, at this very moment, barking like a dog. It’s the best imitation bark you’ll ever hear. Newman’s a professional sound-effects man, author of a popular how-to book called MouthSounds and is a regular whistle, boing and honk man for Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” When you’re doing a woof, Newman is saying, the rookie error is to blow out. You’ve got to suck in.
We’re sitting outdoors at an East Side Manhattan burrito joint, so Newman is entertaining more than just our table. He once taught Meryl Streep how to convince a radio audience that she was lighting a cigarette and blowing out the match, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
The guy with the graying ponytail is David Stanford, who handles the elaborate Doonesbury.com Web site and edits Trudeau’s Doonesbury books.
Trudeau is the normal one. He “travels incognito,” as Levinthal says. It’s true. The guy could blend into a room of waiters. He dresses with an elaborate lack of vanity. He is a millionaire many times over, but Jane cuts his hair.
Dinner over, the meatheads assemble in the second row of a mostly empty downtown Manhattan theater, as the credits for “Poseidon” are beginning to roll. The meatheads are hoping this one will be a lot worse than the last film they saw, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which turned out to have some disappointingly redeeming qualities. The best worst recent choice was a Lou Diamond Phillips flick where a car exploded and then, in a later scene, the same car drove off a cliff.
In the opening minutes of “Poseidon,” as the characters are being introduced, Trudeau and his friends start to loudly handicap who will live and who will drown. “You think Kurt Russell will live?”
“No, he’ll die, because the kids are the future.”
“Okay, right, he’ll die, but he’ll die saving people.”
Popcorn is definitely being flung.
“The nasty guy’s gonna die in a really bad way.”
Fred is making excellent glub-glub noises.
“Richard Dreyfuss is suicidal? If he wants to die, then he won’t die.”
“Right, he needs to learn that life is a gift .”
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the meatheads were right about everything.
LIKE ANY SATIRIST WHOSE WORK ENDURES, Trudeau has been right about a lot of things. From the moment that hippie college deejay Mark Slackmeyer looked at the reader and gleefully declared that an as-yet-unindicted Attorney General John Mitchell was “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” Trudeau has shown a world-class instinct for piercing a babble of crosstalk and nailing the truth. He was right about Vietnam (When a conservative columnist said that he saw a “a light at the end of a tunnel,” Michael asked him: “When you’ve dug yourself into a hole, why do you always insist on calling it a tunnel?”). Trudeau was right about the greed of ‘80s big business, about the cynicism of the marketing industry, about Bill Clinton’s flippy-flop, polls-based approach to governance (“Doonesbury” regularly portrayed Clinton as a greasy waffle).
At times his prescience seemed more clairvoyant than calculated: During the waning years of the Reagan administration, Trudeau sent his trench-coated TV newsman, Roland Hedley, into the president’s brain, where he confronted a desolate, soupy wasteland of fizzling synapses. It seemed funny then, if mean-spirited; if you look at those strips now, they’re chilling.
Most recently, Trudeau was right about Iraq. As the invasion began amid optimistic forecasts of a quick and decisive victory, before mandatory re-ups became routine, National Guardsman B.D. matter-of-factly informed his stunned wife, Boopsie, that he’d see her again “in five to seven years.”
Surely, after three decades of being right, the man is bound to be a little smug. I went searching for signs of this in his studio, an airy fourth-floor walkup in the East Seventies. Though the walls are covered with original classic comic art — Saul Steinberg, Jeff MacNelly, George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” and Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland” — there is no “Doonesbury” visible anywhere. Just . . . nothing.
“Why would I have my own art up?” Trudeau asks. “I want to show the work of people I admire.”
The quality of Trudeau’s drawing has been a matter of some debate in the cartooning world since the strip’s debut. Back then, a common joke was that Trudeau had “made the comics pages safe for bad art,” which was, in a sense, true. Before there were Dilbert” and “Pearls Before Swine” and other strips drawn with meticulous infantilism, there was “Doonesbury,” which resembled, in its early years, the sort of thing someone’s moderately talented kid brother scribbled into the flyleaf of his textbook.
There was nothing meticulous about it. Trudeau was consciously trying to imitate Jules Feiffer’s sparsely sophisticated style, but he didn’t progress much past sparse. Sometimes he just didn’t bother giving his characters mouths. They never had feet — their legs would just flutter off the page in mid-calf. Heads would swivel in physiologically irreproducible ways.
Over time — particularly after Trudeau’s famed 20-month hiatus in 1983 and 1984, when he allowed his characters to ripen into reluctant adulthood off the page — he seemed to learn the fundamentals of cartooning, and then some. The art in “Doonesbury” became far more professional, with inventive angles, cinematic shading, even intimations of an occasional foot. This led to a widespread suspicion that Trudeau was getting major help from the man who ostensibly just did his inking — a suspicion nudged into an assumption a few years ago when Entertainment Weekly stated flatly that Trudeau wasn’t drawing it himself.
“For years,” he says, laughing, “I was blamed for my art, and then I couldn’t get credit for it.”
For the record, the art is his. I’m looking right now at Trudeau’s pencil drawings of a recent week of “Doonesburys” before they were sent to the inker. They are rich in detail, identical to the finished version, and every line is Trudeau’s, even the lettering.
“It’s serviceable, is the best I can say about it,” Trudeau demurs. “I will say this: It’s a signature style. It doesn’t look like anyone else’s.” Even this modest bit of immodesty does not go immediately unpunished.
“But my stuff’s amateur hour compared to this.”
Trudeau is pulling open a drawer. Inside are a few originals drawn by the great Walt Kelly, whose “Pogo” strips of the 1940s and ‘50s were among the first to mine politics for humor. Kelly was a masterful artist. “Look at this — this one’s pure motion,” Trudeau says. “And look at this detail; look at the bugs.” It was a single-panel Sunday strip of the Pogo characters poling a raft through their swamp. Even the tiniest characters — insects a few millimeters high — had expressive faces.
Eventually, I did find some Doonesiana displayed in Trudeau’s studio. There were nine framed covers of major magazines — Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, etc., spanning 30 years, all either drawn by Trudeau or about him. And yes, Trudeau’s got ‘em right up there, framed, on a wall, plain as day, inside a closet where he stores pushpins and computer paper.
ON THE MORNING OF April 19, 2004, newspaper readers were served something startling with their morning coffee. The first panel of “Doonesbury” was completely black, except for the word “Hey.” Then, framed by the smoke of war, a soldier’s face. It’s Ray Hightower, B.D.’s buddy. He’s sweating, looking scared. He calls for a medic. Then, black again, as though someone is drifting in and out of consciousness. The gut-punch line comes at the end, with a shouted name. “B.D.?”
And here is the image people saw two days later:
It was shocking for obvious reasons, but in another way, as well: B.D. had never been seen without his helmet. It was as if Trudeau was declaring that something fundamentally and forever had changed.
Ask creative people where they get their ideas, and they will roll their eyes. It’s the most common question, but it’s also a bad one because the answer is inevitably disappointing. From the inside, creativity seems like an arduous task, often involving plebeian, imperfect choices, driven less by inspiration than by deadline. And Trudeau is a deadline junkie, always pushing it to the limit. (“Once a week,” he says, “I am a very desperate man.”)
So when you ask him why he decided to take B.D.’s leg, the answer isn’t very satisfying. Trudeau doesn’t regard his characters in romanticized terms, or even as people; “Doonesbury” has always been more about ideas than personalities, so Trudeau thinks of Mike and B.D. and Zonker and Joanie as puppets. He pulls the appropriate ones out of the closet when he has a point he wants to make. In this case, he says, he wanted to make a statement about the suffering in this war.
Originally, he was going to kill Ray, but Ray got spared when Trudeau decided that a death would not leave much of a storyline to pursue. So, with a bit of sang-froid, he amputated B.D.’s left leg, on the theory that he’d . . . think of something.
What happened next was unusual, to say the least. Within a day or two of B.D. lying broken on that stretcher, Garry Trudeau, bane of every presidential administration since Nixon’s (particularly the current one, which he has absolutely lacerated), got a call from the Pentagon. The brass was offering to help him figure out where to go next.
THE TYPICAL DAILY NEWSPAPER COMIC STRIP HAS A DEGENERATIVE ARC. The cartoonist’s best years come early, when the ideas are fresh, the gimmick is still a novelty and the grind of daily deadlines has not yet taken its toll on creativity. Three years of excellence is a pretty good run before the inevitable decline, as the cartoonist runs out of new things to say and becomes content to imitate himself. It’s easy to forget, but many of today’s formulaic, intellectually listless strips, such as “B.C.,” “Cathy” and “Dennis the Menace,” were once lively and daring and different. They’re still around because their bland familiarity becomes a sort of comfort food, and newspaper editors are loath to drop them.
“Having a successful daily comic strip,” Trudeau says wryly, “is the closest thing to tenure that popular culture offers. But it doesn’t seem to have freed up creativity any more than tenure for professors has. It’s been an open invitation for complacency.”
“Doonesbury” has never become complacent, partly because Trudeau is no ordinary creative talent but also because the strip feeds continually off the culture it lampoons. Trudeau is very much a reporter — what Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter once called “an investigative cartoonist.” When two of his principal characters were homeless, Trudeau spent time working in shelters. When “Doonesbury” accompanied President Ford to China, so did Trudeau. When B.D. served in the Persian Gulf War, Trudeau briefly went to Kuwait. So when the new invitation came from the Pentagon — essentially, carte blanche to visit injured vets — the investigative cartoonist leapt at it, not sure what he would find.
The very first person he spoke to was a 27-year-old MP named Danielle Green. She had been a college basketball star, a left-handed point guard at Notre Dame. Green had just lost that hand in Iraq. She’d been on the roof of a police station, behind sandbags, trying to defend it from enemy fire, when she took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade.
“This was an elite athlete, and she’d lost her whole professional identity,” Trudeau said, “but that’s not what she wanted to talk about. What she wanted to talk about was how her buddies carried her down, put her on the hood of a Humvee, where they stopped the bleeding, then went back up to the roof, against orders, and found her hand buried under sandbags. They took off her wedding ring and gave it to her. She’s telling me this with a million-dollar smile. This was not about bitterness or loss. It was about gratitude.”
And so Trudeau started taking notes.
“DOONESBURY” HAS DEALT WITH EMOTIONAL SUBJECTS BEFORE, most notably when gay lawyer Andy Lippincott died of AIDS in 1989, wisecracking to the end. Trudeau was never entirely satisfied with that sequence, because Andy was two-dimensional — literally and figuratively. He became a bravely noble funny man dying with bravely noble humor. “Andy handled it with more grace and humility than any human would,” Trudeau says. The problem was, Trudeau hadn’t known people with AIDS.
The access he has had to injured vets has given him a sure-handedness he didn’t have then; the B.D. storyline has shown extraordinary emotional complexity.
At a VA program for post-traumatic stress disorder in Menlo Park, Calif., Trudeau was allowed to sit in on the treatment of a 40-year-old military truck driver who had been delivering a weapons system to Baghdad airport when his convoy came under fire. He to flee through a crowd — just as Trudeau would later have B.D. do.
“The guy was back home, living with his parents, isolated with his TV, his PC and his alcohol,” Trudeau says, consulting his notes. “He hated public places and would only go shopping at night at 24-hour stores, when no one was around. He told us he was late for a job interview, but he had an hour, and it wasn’t an hour away. It turned out he had to go by back roads, because he would not drive under an overpass. Overpasses freaked him out.” Overpasses could give snipers cover.
“He was a computer expert, but he decided to take a $10-an-hour job over a $25-an-hour job,” Trudeau said, “because he wanted to work at a nursery, with plants. It was only when he talked about working with plants that his face softened.”
HE’S GARRY, NOT GARY, BECAUSE HIS GIVEN NAME IS GARRETSON. Trudeau is a blueblood, albeit one of a strange sort. The boring summary is that he’s the end-of-the-line son of four generations of physicians. But to leave it there would be a grave disservice to the narrative arts.
Trudeau’s great-great- grandfather, James de Berty Trudeau, was a friend of John James Audubon, for whom he shot birds. He lived in the wilds with the Osage Indians in the Louisiana territories. Oh, and he was a medical doctor in 19th-century New York City who ran afoul of his peers over his hobby of sculpting amusing figurines of the most dignified medical men of his era. To this they did not take kindly, drumming him out of polite society and down to New Orleans.
During the Civil War, he was made a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, apparently more for his status as a gentleman than for his military prowess. In short order, he assisted in the mismanagement of not one but two enormous Confederate defeats — Shiloh, which was the turning point of the war, and the battle of Island No. 10, which left the Mississippi undefended clear to Vicksburg. Who knows how many more miserable, crushing losses he would have helped midwife, had he not been captured, held under house arrest and released to continue his medical practice?
Meanwhile, the general’s wife had left him and headed for Paris, where their son — Trudeau’s great-grandfather, a lad of just 10 or so — distinguished himself by whapping the Confederate ambassador in the back with a pellet from a slingshot. (“Actually, I see a lot of myself in him,” Trudeau laughs.)
Tuberculosis ravaged the family, which brought the next generations of Trudeau doctors to the fresh air of Saranac Lake, N.Y., in the Adirondacks, where they set up the nation’s first TB research sanitorium. Garry’s father, Francis Trudeau, was the town’s family physician, a man with grave responsibilities and appropriately sober mien. He once informed his son: “Life is not something to be enjoyed, so just get on with it,” a statement so splendid and outrageous it would eventually find its way into “Doonesbury.”
Francis Trudeau was dignified and reserved, and a father figure to an entire city. “I would hear him leave the house at 4 a.m., sometimes in snowshoes. I knew even then that the sense of mission was too big for me to take on.”
Eleven years ago, Francis called his son into his den, handed him a medical book and asked him to read an entry on a relatively rare illness called amyloidosis. “Now,” Francis said, “as you can see from the prognosis at the bottom of the page. . .” That is the way Garry learned his father was dying.
We’re sitting on the roof deck of Trudeau’s studio, talking about the cartoonist’s famous aversion to publicity. The conversation goes right to his father.
“Late in his career, he was sued by a patient. He didn’t share it with me for three years. It was nothing, just a nuisance suit that was thrown out, but it shattered him to have his integrity challenged in a public forum. I grew up in a household where reputation was placed above all else.”
“So it helped me when fame was introduced into the mix.”
There’s a difference between reputation and image, Trudeau explains. “These get confused in people’s minds,” he says, but one involves character, the other public relations.
“I just refused to get entangled by issues of image maintenance that fame implied. I made a deliberate retreat from a publicly visible life.”
What resulted was an unusual guy with a wall between his public and private selves, a guy who is intellectually fearless but so personally unassuming, Jane Pauley says, “that’s he’s afraid to return a shirt that’s the wrong size.”
“Inside Garry, there’s a little boy and a man,” Pauley says. “And the little boy is secretive and vulnerable, and the man isn’t. It would hurt him if I made a joke at his expense, but if the president of the United States says something negative about him, he puts it on the cover of his book.”
“SUFFICE IT TO SAY THAT I HOLD HIM IN UTTER CONTEMPT.”
This is John McCain, the former prisoner of war, speaking about Trudeau on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1995. He was angered by a “Doonesbury” strip suggesting that presidential candidate Bob Dole was exploiting his war injury for political gain. That was then. This past year, it was McCain who wrote the introduction to Trudeau’s The Long Road Home , a for-charity book compiling the strips about B.D.’s injury and recovery.
A curious thing has happened to Trudeau’s image as a result of the B.D. subplot — nothing the cartoonist could have predicted. The predictable, in fact, happened almost immediately: Calling Trudeau a “committed leftist,” Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly wrote in an online column that “a case can be made that Trudeau is attempting to sap the morale of Americans vis-à-vis Iraq by using a long-running, somewhat beloved cartoon character to create pathos.”
O’Reilly doesn’t talk about Trudeau anymore. He can’t, really.
We’re in Tucson, at the National Leadership Conference of the Vietnam Veterans of America, where Trudeau is about to take the stage to receive the group’s award for excellence in the arts. These are fifty- and sixtysomething guys, many with ponytails, tattoos, ample guts and an attitude. They weren’t treated right; they want better for new vets, returning home scarred.
This is a potentially tricky audience for Trudeau’s acceptance speech. As they’ve aged, their politics have moved rightward, and many of them have a lingering distaste for antiwar talk, particularly from people they might consider draft dodgers. (Back in 1970, Trudeau pulled a disastrously low draft-lottery number — 27, which he later bestowed on his slacker surfer-dude character, Zonker, in the strip. Trudeau wound up getting a medical deferment because of old stomach ulcers that hadn’t given him trouble for years, and haven’t since. His dad the doctor suggested he try that.)
As apolitical as the B.D. story is, elsewhere in the strip Trudeau regularly unleashes his disgust for the Iraq war and the man who is waging it. Trudeau’s time at Yale overlapped with George W. Bush’s — he knew him slightly and disliked him even then, largely for what he saw as a sense of smug entitlement (“all noblesse and no oblige.”) In the strip, often on Sundays, with maximum readership, Trudeau just kills Bush. One Sunday this year, Michael Doonesbury and his old friend Bernie were discussing the Iraq war and wondering whether it keeps the president awake at night because of its enormous, heartbreaking human toll. In the final panel, Trudeau cuts to a signature exterior nighttime view of the White House. From inside come two dialogue balloons: “What’s wrong, dear?” And: “It’s the stem cells. I hear their cries.”
So is Trudeau going to play it safe in this speech and stay away from politics? I’m apparently not the only one wondering. The instant the cartoonist rises to take the mike, a large American flag behind him suddenly and inexplicably crashes to the ground. From a group of organizers near me comes a whisper, “Oh [expletive], not a good sign.”
The speech starts benignly, praising the courage of the soldiers he had met, but here’s how Trudeau wraps it up:
“When I talk to wounded veterans, I usually don’t ask them what they think the mission was. I don’t presume, because their lives are wrenching enough without the suggestion that their sacrifices may have been without meaning. Moreover, if that is so, it will become apparent to them soon enough . . . The young men and women who we’ve repeatedly put in harm’s way are paying the price for this misbegotten mission, and as long as it continues, I, like so many of our countrymen, must walk this strange line between hating the war but honoring the warrior. I don’t know how long we can keep it up. . .”
He finishes to a standing ovation.
If there had been any lingering antipathy to Trudeau in this crowd, the story of B.D. appears to have wiped it out. It’s as though he’s been in the jungle with these guys.
IT IS A BALMY 90 DEGREES AT NIGHT IN TUCSON. In a patio outside the convention hotel, Vietnam veterans are slow-dancing with their wives, in a mournful shuffle, to a live band’s version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
“She said, There is no reason, and the truth is plain to see . . .”
If there is one thing this convention has made plain, it’s that plenty of Vietnam vets still live with the madness of that war, still suffer from PTSD. You can hear it in their stories, read it in their eyes. It won’t be different in this war. B.D.’s story is fiction, but it is true.
Inside at the bar, Trudeau and I have taken shelter from the heat. We’re discussing whether he believes in God (“Why should I? Is there anything in the last five years in particular that suggests to you a divine purpose to life?”) and whether he thinks Bush is evil or just stupid. (“I think he is smart but willfully ignorant, and he uses his ignorance for strategic advantage, which is appalling. He substitutes belief for thought. It protects you from self-doubt.”) The only fact marring the sepulchral seriousness of this conversation is that it is occurring as we sit side by side on full-size Western saddles, mounted on poles, facing the bar. There’s an enthusiastic cowboy theme here.
You can take only so much of that, so we grab our drinks, dismount and mosey on over to a table.
Trudeau claims that he never thinks about “Doonesbury” unless he is actually drawing it; it may be true, but it’s misleading. He’s a born listener, and, in a sense, he is always thinking about “Doonesbury” and filing things away.
At the table is a filmmaker named Chuck Lacy, who just produced a documentary called “The War Tapes,” which followed three National Guardsmen to Iraq and back home. Lacy is saying there is something about this war unlike any other in history. The Internet has made it possible for soldiers to be in country, in a theater of war, but still communicate daily with their families, in real time, sometimes with video.
Is that good or bad? Trudeau asks.
Both, says Lacy: The soldiers say it’s their lifeline, but it’s also a terrible drain on their emotions; they’re dealing not only with their own anxieties but also with the anxieties of their families 6,000 miles away. It can be surreal. They’ll come back from a firefight and then try to resolve a mortgage problem.
A few weeks after returning from Tucson, I opened the newspaper to “Doonesbury” and saw this.
It was Day One of what would be a very funny, oddly disturbing week of the strip, in which Ray tries to stay alive while placating his wife and stepson back at the home front. I immediately e-mailed Trudeau. Until I told him, he said, he hadn’t remembered exactly where the idea came from.
“CLINTON MADE A MISTAKE in letting ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ be the defining issue of his first month in office, to be followed by the health-care disaster. He should have gone directly to welfare reform. It was intellectually dishonest to say the existing system was working. If welfare had been his biggest priority . . .”
We are on the plane heading back to New York , and Trudeau is in his geek-drone mode. He is a highly opinionated public policy wonk, and this sort of thing just happens from time to time. When he reads a book, he edits in the margins, correcting errors of grammar, syntax or cloudy thinking.
Bingo. Trudeau’s a nerd! It’s no big deal, but I’ll take it. Negative assessments are important when you write profiles, but with this guy they’ve been hard to come by. He’s generous with his time, gracious to everyone and shrewd with me. I tried to bait him, asking where a dillweed like him gets off having the nerve to date Candice Bergen (he did, way back when) and then marry America’s Sweetheart? I was hoping for an unattractive defense of his virility, but Trudeau wouldn’t bite.
Finally, in desperation, I decided to get help from America’s greatest living satirist. What would Trudeau ridicule, if the subject were himself?
Basically, he says, though not in so many words — he’s a bully.
“Occasionally, people accuse me of courage,” he says. “And that’s wrong. I’m sitting on a perch of safety. Cartoonists have a tar-baby immunity. The more people react to us, and the more angrily they react, the better it is for us. So we’re invulnerable. It just doesn’t seem fair.”
The first George Bush learned that the hard way. When “Doonesbury” accused him of having “put his manhood in a blind trust” after becoming vice president and changing his politics to match Reagan’s, Bush repeatedly lashed out at the cartoonist — at least five times between 1984 and 1988. (“Garry Trudeau is coming out of deep left field. The American people are going to be speaking out, and we are going to see whether they side with ‘Doonesbury’ or the Reagan-Bush message.” “He speaks for a bunch of brie-tasting, Chardonnay-sipping elitists.”) This blowback further elevated Trudeau’s stature and made Bush seem like a petulant, humorless old fud.
As the plane begins its descent to LaGuardia, Trudeau remembers something interesting, something from his teens, when he had a summer job working at Time magazine.
“As I was walking out the building one day on my lunch break, two-thirds of a block away this spectacularly beautiful young woman in a very short miniskirt was walking toward me . . .”
Not sure where this is going, but I’m taking notes as fast as I can.
“She was in her early twenties. I was 16 and looked all of 12. You could feel it in the air, her coming at you. Her presence was destabilizing the street for a one-block radius. Guys were gawking, cars were slowing. This woman was a menace. She was walking in a confident way, with a swing to her hips. I was geeky and shy, too shy to make eye contact. I wouldn’t even have known what to DO with eye contact. My discomfort must have been obvious because, as she passes me, she leans over, her breath is warm, and she softly . . . growls in my ear.”
“I thought to myself: I’ve just been handed the most extraordinary gift. She showed such wisdom, with such a generous use of power. She just changed the life of a young boy. I thought , Anything is possible.”
Trudeau sits back in his seat, smiles. “So I guess you could connect the dots to Jane, actually.”
Or you could extrapolate it to the entirety of his life, the whole improbable arc of it, the combination of a fundamental humility and humanity empowered by an otherwise inexplicable, blazing self-confidence. You could find, in one moment from a man’s teens, the entire key to who he is and the unlikely, monumental achievement of his professional life.
I vocalize some of this. Trudeau just looks at me.
Okay, we’ll just stick with connecting the dots to Jane.
TRUDEAU IS A YANKEES FAN, so we’re catching a Sunday afternoon game at Yankee Stadium against the White Sox. Some people’s lives just seem to be charmed, and so it’s not surprising that this afternoon turns out to be historic — Yankees great Mariano Rivera comes in with a 6–4 lead and closes out the last two innings for the 400th save of his career.
At one point, Trudeau’s attentions turn to the ballpark itself — specifically, the facing of the mezzanine deck, a long, narrow strip that, as in many modern stadiums, is used as an electronic crowd-hooching display board. “The dimensions are about 1 to 20,” Trudeau says, “but see how much they get out of it, how much they say with just a suggestion? That’s great use of design.”
Trudeau’s got a master’s degree in graphic design. It was his first career choice until “Doonesbury” — a success right from his college newspaper days — made everything else moot. Design remains, to this day, the thing Trudeau longs to be doing. In all the time we’d spent together, the only artwork of his that he’d shown me with any particular pride were “Doonesbury”-themed coasters, cups, T-shirts and figurines that he had designed for free. They wound up raising $1 million for a Starbucks-sponsored reading charity. It was a subtle piece of work, marrying the Starbucks corporate logos and design with the Doonesbury characters.
“I had more flow as a designer,” Trudeau explains. “I could just drop down into the zone and stay there for hours. With cartooning, I’m constantly coming up for air, procrastinating, looking for reasons not to be doing it. I spend all day granting myself special dispensation, with ‘creative process’ as my cover story. Carpenters and deli countermen can’t do that, so I think they may feel better about themselves at the end of the day.”
Midway through the game, Trudeau’s younger son shows up. Tommy, 20, a student at Brown, has a summer job in the Yankees’ front office. He gets to fraternize with the players and play pickup softball games with co-workers in the outfield, from which he’s hit balls into the upper deck. Not bad, for a summer job.
Pauley and Trudeau’s two other children, twins Ross and Rickie, are both 22. Ross graduated from Brown and is heading off on a teaching career; his sister, a Yalie, wants to be a pop singer, which worries Trudeau more than a little.
He played me an audio file of Rickie singing Alicia Keys’s “I Ain’t Got You.” Kid’s definitely got the voice. It’s all personality. Trudeau knows this but also knows the odds against success in that business. “I want her to follow her passion,” he says, “but I just hope she’s sturdy enough.”
It’s an interesting worry for a guy who could easily have been a doctor in a long-established family practice, but chose cartooning despite certain initial practical obstacles, such as a basic inability to draw. Being a father inspires a completely different risk-aversion calculus.
As we leave the stadium, the three of us are joined at the subway by Ross, who was sitting elsewhere with friends. The camaraderie between father and sons is effortless and unencumbered. The whole family thing seems almost comic-strippy perfect, like Dagwood and Blondie and Cookie and Alexander. Only this is real family, not to mention a “Doonesbury” family, so you know you’re going to have some complexity, somewhere.
AT 55, JANE PAULEY IS STILL BEAUTIFUL, and she still projects frank vulnerability, or vulnerable frankness, or whatever is that subtle combination of qualities that made her America’s preeminent morning-show host in the 1980s. We’re meeting for breakfast because there is something Trudeau wouldn’t really talk about, and Pauley will.
In 2001, Pauley nearly lost her mind. After receiving steroids to control a case of the hives, she began doing oddly intense things. How intense? She bought a house one day, for no good reason, on impulse, from an ad on the Web. Misdiagnosed with depression, she was hospitalized under an assumed name, to protect her privacy. Eventually, she was found to have a bipolar disorder — triggered but not caused by the steroids — for which she is still undergoing treatment. Pauley chronicled her struggle in a 2004 memoir, Skywriting .
Trudeau was largely absent from Skywriting , and he had been guarded with me about the effect of Pauley’s illness on him and the family. He volunteered only two things: “I was told by a doctor that 40 percent of marriages just don’t survive it, so from the beginning I knew we were up against something really significant”; and, “The disease subverts your basic survival instinct in the sense that the people who you need to help you survive are the same people you are attacking.”
So that’s what I ask Pauley about.
“Yes,” she says, dryly, “there is a free-floating anger that needs a target and will find one.”
For a year or so, Pauley says, before her symptoms were under control, Trudeau and the family lived with her irrational rages. The twins were hunting for colleges, Trudeau was pressed by deadline after deadline, and Mom was a fulminating piece of work — demanding, histrionic, impossible. “It was just incredible torment for them,” Pauley says. “Garry was keeping the house together. It has to have been the most painful part of his life.”
Pauley has recovered with the help of lithium, a drug she says she will be on for the rest of her life. Things are mostly fine, she says, except for some side effects, such as a persistent tremor to the hands. She looks murderously at her coffee cup, which the waiter has overfilled, almost to the brim.
“For example, I can’t risk trying to pick that up.”
Pauley thinks the story of B.D. has been something special, the best work Trudeau has ever done. And then she says:
“I don’t think he’s consciously aware that it has anything to do with me.”
With . . . her?
Pauley smiles. “Garry’s mind is very compartmentalized. The department doing the strip in his brain is not directly connected to the husband part, but . . .”
Pauley takes a forkful of scrambled eggs.
“. . . it defies credulity that on some level it is not present in his work. What is he writing about, really? He’s writing about mental illness, and how it’s possible to find a way out of it, with help. It’s very hopeful.”
I start to say that Trudeau has never made that connection to me, in fact denies that his private life ever intrudes into the strip. But Pauley is ahead of me.
“He’ll want to say no, but it’s hard to argue with. Isn’t it?”
TRUDEAU’S GREATEST WORK is coming at a time when “Doonesbury” is fading a bit from the national consciousness. He’s still in 600 newspapers, but that number has been higher; there simply aren’t as many newspapers as there once were, and their readership is dwindling. Young adults who know “Doonesbury” today are mostly picking it up haphazardly from the Web. The “Doonesbury” compilation books are not selling the way they used to.
Trudeau is considering experimenting with sophisticated animation, for “Doonesbury” online. He’s just finished a screenplay, a comedy about a teenager who is elected mayor of a small town. His newest “Doonesbury” compilation — The War Within , about B.D. dealing with his mental health issues — has just hit the bookstores, and a second compilation, Heckuva Job, Bushie , is due out this month.
Since I last saw him, the investigative cartoonist traveled to New Orleans to see the hurricane desolation firsthand. This past September 11, as politicians on both sides sought political traction in a battle of coordinated outrage and strategic shows of grief, the meatheads took in pro wrestling at Madison Square Garden. (In the main event, Vince McMahon defeated Triple H with the help of a folding chair.)
And week after week in the newspapers, the quite remarkable story of B.D. continues. Check out this one.
Let’s see what’s going on here. B.D. appears to be considering cheating on Boopsie, which hasn’t happened to our knowledge in 20-plus years of an eccentric but strong marriage. It’s surprising, but maybe not that surprising. From the swiftness and specificity of Celeste’s reaction, it’s clear that she — the secretary at the vets’ clinic — has seen this sort of behavior before. Can it be that many vets who’ve lost a limb might well be tempted to assert their manhood in unwise ways? But see how nimbly Celeste deals with it, in what one might call a generous use of power? She redirects B.D.’s attention to what’s really important, reproaching him for hitting on her, but in a way that leaves his vulnerable dignity intact.
There are many types of therapy, and it’s not all dispensed by licensed professionals.
Four panels. Forty-eight words. Funny, too.
Meanwhile, the same day, in “Blondie,” Dagwood and Herb go fishing, but Dagwood is so hungry he eats the bait!
Gene Weingarten is a staff writer for the Magazine.