‘Doonesbury’ Belongs on the Editorial Page, Declares Prof. Ken Bode

by Ken Bode, Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana

Recently, a letter to the editor from an offended reader included a suggestion I heartily endorse, namely that the comic strip “Doonesbury” be moved to The Star editorial page.

Let me say up front that I am an everyday “Doonesbury” reader even though it now is buried at the bottom in the comics.

From the start, cartoonist Garry Trudeau has blurred the distinction between a comic strip and an editorial cartoon, and therein lies the challenge for readers and editors. No issue is out of bounds for its characters and no comic strip has been dropped as often for offending material.

“Doonesbury” has been dropped when it dealt with homosexuality, an unmarried couple sharing the same bed, oral sex and a semen-streaked dress during the Clinton impeachment, for references to George W. Bush’s abuse of alcohol and cocaine, for implying that Dan Quayle had connections to a drug dealer, and for references to masturbation (“self dating”). You could make a case that this stuff does not belong on the comic page.

Trudeau insists that he’s not just being provocative, but “writing about serious issues in a reasonably responsible way.” Over the years the ever-evolving cast of “Doonesbury” characters has dealt with AIDS, genocide, political corruption, presidential campaigns, business ethics and most recently John Bolton’s nomination and the Iraq war.

“Doonesbury” has been tough on the Bush family. During the 1980 campaign, it put George Sr.’s manhood in a blind trust so the Veep could become a loyal Reaganite. In 2000, however, Trudeau admitted that a Bush victory over Al Gore would be better for the cartooning trade: “Bush’s lack of gravitas is a condition that can be masked but not improved.”

Trudeau doesn’t limit himself to the comic page. During the 2004 presidential campaign, he offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could verify George W. Bush’s claims of service in the air guard. He wanted to get the whole sordid mess behind us, he said.

In real life, Trudeau definitely supports Democrats, but in the strip he shoots the windows out on both sides of the street. In 1980, The Wall Street Journal used its entire op-ed page to reprint a two-week “Doonesbury” series on the cultural excesses of the 1970s.

Over the years his characterizations of Democrats and Republicans are equally biting. Ted Kennedy: “Suffers from the family fondness for a well-turned ankle.” Jerry Brown: “America’s top flake, with a million ideas and a genuine commitment to none, the attention span of a five-year-old.”

In 1975, Trudeau was the first comic strip artist ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning. Asked how he justified cuffing people around for a living, Trudeau replied, “It’s my job. I’m a form of social control.” He considers “Doonesbury” a Rorschach test for its readers.

Trudeau’s latest crusade is the Iraq war. B.D., his main character, volunteered for Vietnam to get out of writing a term paper, then was called back for Gulf War I. Reactivated again for Iraq, B.D. was wounded, lost part of his leg and is now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Trudeau explains that giving B.D. a grievous wound allowed him to “set in motion a sustained, detailed narrative about life irrevocably changed by war.”

Trudeau lampoons the war and its management, military and civilian, but he always honors the troops. “Doonesbury” was once bounced from the military newspaper Stars and Stripes as too political but quickly reinstated after hundreds of protests by the soldiers.

The whole Iraq episode now appears in book form, “The Long Road Home: One Step at a Time.” Trudeau is donating all proceeds to a foundation that offers family members of wounded troops temporary housing near military hospitals.

The recent “Doonesbury” controversy arose over a sequence about Karl Rove’s involvement with leaks to the press. In the strip, Bush uses his longtime nickname for Rove, “Turd Blossom.” It’s a true nickname, but it caused a stink, including calls to get “Doonesbury” off the comic page. Trudeau himself called the nickname “a small masterpiece of nastiness.”

In 1973, the Lincoln Journal was the first newspaper to move Trudeau to its editorial page. If The Star did likewise, “Doonesbury” would have a larger, more influential readership.