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40 years of Doonesbury during three GOP revolutions

Published 8:48pm Sunday, November 14, 2010

I’ve been reading “Doonesbury” for 40 years, from Vietnam and Watergate to Afghanistan and the Tea Party (which Garry Trudeau decided how to handle while watching “Toy Story 3”).
There was even a time when Trudeau’s venerable Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip appeared in our newspapers.

I learned the hard way about the bad blood that existed from Yale between Trudeau (he was a junior when the strip started) and George W. Bush in my one-on-one interview at Andy Anderson’s house in December 1987.

Trudeau had put George Bush Jr.’s dad’s manhood in a blind trust and Newsweek’s cover reported on the “Wimp Factor,” so asking about Doonesbury seemed an obvious question.
His eyes flashed and for a moment I had visions of the future leader of the free world (and author) taking me outside for an old-fashioned thumping alongside Main Street.

Up close, Bush closely resembles his dad, but I always got the impression that in temperament, he takes after his mom, Barbara, in the sense of keeping score in his head.

For something that has been a national institution for decades, Trudeau seldom does interviews, so I was pleased to see him sit for one with Rolling Stone for its Nov. 11 issue with Chip Kidd, designer of the magazine’s 40th-anniversary issue.

The interview coincides with the release of “40: A Doonesbury Retrospective” of 1,800 of more than 14,000 strips to date.

I thought of my daughter reading he wanted to be a graphic designer because she’s well on her way to being something else, too.

Savannah might even appreciate that one reason he “stepped away” from the design studio he opened near the Yale campus was, “The first time I heard the Beatles, I thought, ‘That’s going to inspire 10,000 bands, and it’s going to cause another 10,000 bands to leave the business immediately.’ They would just be overwhelmed at what it sounds like to get it right, note perfect, every song.”

I could also relate to his comment about his favorite comic books growing up: “All the superheroes. I started, as most kids did, with Batman and Superman, and then the revelation of what Stan Lee was doing at Marvel took over, and I fell into that rabbit hole with Spider-Man and his peers.”

At 12 cents each, you could buy two and a piece of penny candy with a quarter.
The father of three’s studio is in midtown Manhattan. I don’t even associate him with a particular place. With the kids grown (is he still married to Jane Pauley?), he’s traveled widely, researching the issue of wounded warriors.

I didn’t know where Mike Doonesbury’s name came from.

A “doone” was slang at Trudeau’s prep school for doofus-y nice guys.

His college roommate, B.D., named for quarterback Brian Dowling, eventually shed his football helmet and lost a leg in Iraq, which landed him on the RS cover. Uncle Duke made the cover, too.

Duke, of course, parodies RS’s own Hunter S. Thompson.

Zonker Harris, resident druggie, was named for one of the Merry Pranksters who hung out with Dowagiac visitor Ken Kesey.

Trudeau made a conscious decision in 1983 to place his characters into real time, so they started aging.

Mike’s daughter, Alex, a recent college graduate, was born in 1987, so she’s 23.

“If I were graduating now, I’d be standing with my portfolio outside of Pixar. I don’t know if I’m a lifer,” he says, “but the strip will perish with me.”

In the meantime, he finds President Obama “difficult to get a handle on as a subject. He doesn’t have salient features, either physically or in terms of his temperament or his policies. I know there are people who think he’s a fascist or a socialist. I happen to think he’s a raving centrist, so in that assessment of him, I find it difficult to exaggerate as cartoonists do.”

My third Republican revolution: The confetti had not yet been swept up from election night and the GOP was talking tax cuts.

First we had Ronald Reagan rolling back Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

He accomplished some tax reform, but skipped spending cuts that would have kept deficits from mushrooming.

From 1981 to ’85, the federal budget deficit more than doubled. Instead of tax-and-spend liberal Democrats, the idea of borrow-and-spend “conservatives” was in its infancy.

His budget director, our former congressman Dave Stockman, in his book, “The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed,” blames congressional Republicans for not getting on board with reducing federal spending.

Then came the ’90s and House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s revolution, the Contract on America, during the Clinton administration.

Given GOP gains in the 1994 midterms, there was some spending restraint yielding some surpluses and fewer federal employees.

But surpluses resulted from Clinton raising taxes, which every single congressional Republican opposed.

If Republicans seriously intended to rein in spending, they blew their chance in 2002, when they ruled Washington.

John Eby is managing editor at the Dowagiac Daily News. E-mail him at

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