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The Rolling Stone Interview: Garry Trudeau

In a rare interview, the award-winning cartoonist talks about the wounds of Iraq, the coming election and his old classmate George W. Bush

Gary Trudeau

Gary Trudeau is on hand for the after-screening party at the Screening Room for the Michael Moore movie 'The Big One.' , March 31st, 1998.

Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

In 1971, a year after he graduated from Yale, Garry Trudeau went on the game show To Tell the Truth. He had just launched a crudely drawn comic strip called Doonesbury, but nobody knew who he was: Only one celebrity panelist correctly guessed his identity. ”I don’t remember which one picked me,” Trudeau says with a laugh. ”Orson Bean?”

If Trudeau repeated his appearance today, even hardcore media junkies would still have trouble identifying him. His work appears in 700 newspapers worldwide, he was nominated for an Academy Award for a Doonesbury special, he is the only artist ever to receive a Pulitzer Prize for a comic strip, and he is married to Jane Pauley. But Trudeau gives so few interviews — he’s appeared on TV only once in the past three decades — that he has earned a reputation as the J.D. Salinger of cartooning. The low profile is mainly an act of self-preservation: His daily strip generates so much controversy that putting out fires could consume all his time. ”I didn’t need to do it,” he says with a shrug, ”so why not save myself the aggravation?”

Breaking his long silence, Trudeau sat down with Rolling Stone in the modest studio in Manhattan where he creates Doonesbury. Despite the flecks of gray in his hair, at fifty-six he has the easygoing, curious manner of a grad student still fascinated by the world around him. It’s no exaggeration to say that Trudeau revolutionized the funny pages, creating a space where reactionaries and radicals alike squabble over the issues of the day. His style is part Charles Schulz, part Charles Dickens. Over the years his characters have grappled with everything from AIDS and abortion to Alzheimer’s. But with the election of George W. Bush, who attended Yale with Trudeau back in the Sixties, Doonesbury has taken on an urgency and relevance reminiscent of its early, gleeful assaults on Nixon. Trudeau offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could verify that Bush fulfilled his duties in the Air National Guard, and he brought home the reality of the war by having his character B.D. lose a leg while fighting in Iraq. For the first time, Trudeau also drew B.D. without the helmet he has worn since the days when he enlisted in Vietnam to get out of writing a college term paper.

You’re focusing a lot on the war in Iraq, I’ve noticed that your military characters, like B.D. and Ray, sound like real soldiers. Have you been talking to the troops for research?
Yeah. During the first Gulf War, I’d meet them because they contacted me. This war is a lot easier, because it’s an e-mail war. I hear from soldiers who are actually in the field. That changes all the rules of the game. They can’t censor soldiers with laptops — it’s literally impossible. It’s a way for somebody like me, sitting in this office, to get a view of what soldiers are experiencing.

What did you do to prepare for B.D. losing his leg in combat?
In the case of B.D. suffering this grievous wound, I went down to Walter Reed hospital, in Washington, D.C., to talk to some of the amputees. It’s important to me to get the details of his recovery right. There’s a great deal of pain on Ward 57, where the amputees are sent. Most of the soldiers will admit to having bad days when they feel overwhelmed — either by their physical pain or by the hard work of looking at themselves in a new way. But it’s not as depressing as you might think. In fact, it’s uplifting and inspirational. Part of it has to do with the fact that these guys are wrapped in a culture that is very positive, very can-do. Their whole mind-set is: This is a problem I can overcome. Almost all of them want to return to their units, which is a fascinating response to the crisis they’re undergoing.

That’s one of the first things you have B.D. say when he wakes up in the hospital — that he wants to get back to his unit.
The soldiers I met in Ward 57 feel guilt about being away from their unit — but mostly I think they feel great affection for their fellow warriors. I spoke with an MP in her late twenties who was tasked to defend an Iraqi police station. She was up on the roof, which was stacked with sandbags, and she took two RPG rounds, one of which blew off her hand and part of her forearm. She tells this story almost matter-of-factly, as if it had happened to someone else, and with a great deal of feeling about the response of her fellow soldiers. They came and pulled her out of the sand, took her down below and put her on the hood of a Hummer. Then her sergeant and another trooper went back up to the roof to recover her hand. They fished around in the sand until they found it, and they pulled off her wedding ring. She tells this story with tremendous pride and affection for these people — that they would do something so important to her. She says, ”I know it’s just a ring, but it meant a lot to me.” She’s in this terrible situation, and yet in it she finds something to be grateful for.

Some writers regard their fictional characters almost as real people. But you don’t seem very broken up about blowing B.D.’s leg off.
Well, the terrible truth about writers is, they create characters and then they put them in harm’s way. That’s what drama is about. As a writer, I don’t have an emotional link to the characters. I have to summon them up — I have to pull them out of the toolbox and put’ em to work. They don’t live in my head. So I was overwhelmed by some of the letters that came in about B.D. It was so emotional. People wrote that it made them feel they had a personal stake in the war — like someone they knew had been harmed. People were even more astonished when B.D.’s helmet came off. It signified his vulnerability and made it all the more difficult for them to accept. I was talking to a soldier in the hospital, and I said, ”I draw this comic strip, and I have this character named B.D. who lost his leg,” The soldier’s eyes widened: ”B.D. lost his leg?!” Here’s this mangled, broken hero lying in his bed, and he’s concerned that this character he knows had such a terrible thing happen to him. It was very moving.

Do you see parallels between Iraq and Vietnam?
Both were discretionary was entered into under false assumptions, and you could argue that both initially had worthy goals. The Iraq adventure, however, was crippled by a fatal arrogance from the onset. The Powell doctrine of using overwhelming force to reach achievable goals with a clear exit strategy — conceived in reaction to mistakes made in Vietnam — was summarily discarded, inviting nearly all the consequences the doctrine was designed to avoid.

You came of age during Vietnam. Who were your political heroes as a kid?
I wasn’t particularly politically attuned growing up. There wasn’t much debate at our dinner table. My parents were Republicans, so the GOP was my team, and Ike was our genial manger. In ’60, I was too young to really respond to JFK’s charisma as intuitively as I was repelled by Nixon’s sleaziness, and in 1964, I was so disengaged that I actually designed placards for both parties at my high school. Later I came to admire Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but more as pop figures than as visionaries who changed the world. Vietnam was the wake-up call. That’s when I really started paying attention, and by then heroes were in scarce supply. Besides, who needed role models? We had the certainty of youth. It’s amazing what an authority you can become on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution during one four-hour bus ride to visit your congressman.

You were two years behind Bush at Yale?
And four years behind Kerry. Joe Lieberman was also at Yale, and Howard Dean was in my class. My feeling is, there should have been a cap this year on Yale graduates running for president [laughs]. Howard Dean I knew quite well from boyhood. We’d gone to a summer camp together. When Howard became governor, he told some reporter that he’d gotten his sense of humor from me. I wrote him and said, ”That’s utter bullshit. When you knew me as a teenager, I didn’t have a sense of humor. Life was much too grim.”

I think Howard did an astonishing thing with his campaign. When people look back at 2004, it’ll be obvious just how much he turned an election that Bush could have walked away with into a real competition. He forced everybody to take on the war issue. And his fine, righteous anger got the base motivated, in a way that might not otherwise have happened.

Did you know Bush as a student?
We both served on the Armour Council, which was the social committee for our residential college. Nobody in my freshman dorm knew what the council was. But I apparently had shown some leadership qualities in the first three or four days of school, so I was elected unanimously. George Bush was chairman. Our duties consisted of ordering beer kegs and choosing from among the most popular bands to be at our mixers. He certainly knew his stuff — he was on top of it [laughs].

Even then he had clearly awesome social skills. Legend has it that he knew the names of all forty-five of his fellow pledges when he rushed Deke. He later became rush chairman of Deke — I do believe he has the soul of a rush chairman. He has that ability to connect with people. Not in the empathetic way that Clinton was so good at, but in the way of making people feel comfortable.

He could also make you feel extremely uncomfortable. He was very good at all the tools for survival that people developed in prep school — sarcasm, and the giving of nicknames. He was extremely skilled at controlling people and outcomes in that way. Little bits of perfectly placed humiliation.

Did you get along?
Our paths crossed in a most interesting way in sophomore year, when a classmate of mine wrote an exposé for the college paper about the physical hazing at Deke house. Apparently, initiates had been branded with hot irons — the delta on their backside. The editor asked if I would illustrate the article. So the very first cartoons I did for the Yale Daily News were about Deke and George Bush. It became a minor scandal on campus — and it was the first time. Bush was interviewed by the major media. He told The New York Times it was just a coat hanger, and, you know, it didn’t hurt any more than a cigarette burn. It does put one in mind of what his views on torture might be today.

Did he say anything to you about it?
No. By then he’d pretty much written me off. It’s hard to believe, looking back, but there was a major generational chasm between the class of ’68 and the class of ’70. The culture had turned so radically, in such a short period of time, that we no longer identified with people only two years older than us. They were old Yale. They were closer to the values of our parents. Even those of us who went to boarding school and came from the same background as Bush felt we were part of something different. Bush felt alienated from the kinds of people I hung out with. In fact, he took my roommate aside at one point and said, ”You shouldn’t be hanging out with those people.” He felt that what was coming behind him was threatening — an interesting thing for a twenty-year-old to feel. So that nugget of conservatism was already there.

He has his Texan bravado, and he had the accent. It’s interesting that his brothers didn’t hold on to it, and he did. That probably has a lot to do with his finding a place in the family. As my friend Jacob Weisberg at Slate puts it, Bush’s career path was a cartoon version of his father’s. It touched all the same bases, but he got there a very different way.

Ann Richards says that Bush senior was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.
She didn’t have it quite right. Bush senior actually worked pretty hard at playing the noblesse-oblige game — of being worthy of what he was given. His son wasn’t interested.

It seems like the Bush family takes what you do personally.
Some years ago I was approached by Jeb Bush at the Republican National Convention. I’d done a series in which his father had placed his manhood in a blind trust when he became vice president so as not to upstage Reagan with actual opinions. And Jeb came up and poked his finger in my face and said, “I have two words for you: Walk softly.” Then he just walked off.

Bush senior used to say he wanted to come down and beat me up. He would lash out at me every day during campaign stops, which was a huge mistake. A comic strip isn’t one of those things you want to seem too worried about. He was probably mystified that somebody who seemed to have so much in common with him in terms of background could make such strong, unsympathetic statements about him. I think he thought I was a traitor to my class [laughs]. George W. doesn’t make that mistake. He knows not to react to the press in a way that gives them any importance.

If somebody had told you back in college that Bush would be commander in chief one day, what would your reaction have been?
Complete confusion. He was just another sarcastic preppy who gave people nicknames and arranged for keg deliveries. On the other hand, I didn’t know him very well — there might have been undetected gravitas, an unseen thoughtfulness in his off-peak hours. That’s a laughable image now, but at the time, you never know. FDR seemed a lightweight in his early years, but the course of his later life completely transformed him.

When Doonesbury appeared, its rhythm was different from other strips — often a pause in the third frame, followed by a double punch line. Who influenced your style?
There is a fuguelike quality to the way I write strips, and I’m astonished that it has worn as well as it has. I learned a great deal about timing from Peanuts. And Jules Feiffer had an enormous impact — his art was so minimal and repetitive that you knew from looking at it that he wanted to bring ideas to the reader, without the clutter of the art interfering. My style was so unprofessional — it was this kind of urgent scrawl that played into the marketing of the strip as something that was supposed to be dispatches from the front. It looked like it had been created in a frenzy, and that gave it a kind of authenticity. After that, bad drawing became acceptable. I made the world safe for Cathy and Dilbert and other people who can’t draw.

Yet you decided, after taking a long hiatus in the Eighties, to emphasize the art more.
That was because I was bored and needed to amuse myself [laughs]. Actually, I took the strip in a rather reactionary direction. It was quite postmodern when I started; now it looks more cinematic, like one of those story strips from the Forties.

You write about current events that require a lot of research. How do you go about putting the strip together?
When I first entered the business, you had to submit work six weeks in advance — they would ship six weeks of work all at one time, because it was more economical. I functioned fine with that, because I was also in grad school at the time, so I had to alternate between school and working on the strip. But as I moved into more time-sensitive topics like Watergate, we kept having to call back strips that had been overtaken by events. Now I work about a week in advance. The early part of the week is given over to research. I just marinate in the news, reading and exploring topics. But very often I find myself on a Friday morning without any idea, and I’ll have to produce a week of work within that one workday. A lot of the time it’s just entirely on the fly. The thing that saves me is Google. It’s kind of a Swiss Army knife as a research tool — it allows me to postpone research in a way I never would have dared do in the past. When it came time to draw a little helicopter for the cover of Rolling Stone, for instance, I just wrote the word “medevac” into Google Images and, boom, I’ve got all the imagery I need.

Which cartoonists do you like now?
My favorites have gone away — Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and Gary Larson (The Far Side). It’s much easier for someone like me, who is telling stories, than it was for somebody like Gary, who had to come into it cold every single day, without the crutch of any of the normal conventions — no characters, no story, no topicality. I can have an off day because I can do bridge strips that tell a story. I try to play the percentages. In a good week, you know, I’ll hit a couple of singles — maybe one double. Rarely a home run. I think I only have warning-track power. There are very few days I leap out of my seat [laughs] and say, ”That’s it!”

How does Bush as a subject compare to other presidents, from Nixon to Clinton?
Nixon was the gold standard. He made many careers, including mine. If you couldn’t place Nixon in your sights, you were in the wrong business. Ford was a place-marker president, so we mostly gave him a pass. Carter’s earnestness and malaise-mongering made him a fine target, but by the end I didn’t really have the heart to go after him much. He was a man down, and it felt like piling on. Reagan had facial features that cartoonists pray for, but he was so affable that he blunted — and in some cases disabled — their sense of outrage. George Bush was a competent public servant but no leader. Now, of course, he seems to me a paragon of decency, moderation and thoughfulness, everything his arrogant, radical, proudly ignorant son is not. What a shame the world has to suffer the consequences of Dubya not getting enough approval from Dad.

The Clinton era signified a broadening of what a president could be attacked for; every night Jay Leno would tell six blow-job jokes. Dubya, tragically, is the best target so far. I’ll never forgive him for giving me such a huge stake in bad news. At least with Clinton, people didn’t get hurt, outside of Mrs. Clinton. Bush has created more harm to this country’s standing and security than any president in history. The contradiction of this man of the people is that he has utter contempt for them. Reagan would say, ”This is my philosophy, and these are the policies that flow from it.” He had the courge of his convictions. Bush says, ”We know best, but don’t ask us about our policies, because we don’t trust you to support them.” Instead of saying, ”The country is overregulated, and we think the trade-offs between business and the environment are out of whack,” every Friday afternoon he quietly guts an environmental regulation and renames it ”Clean Skies” or ”Mossy Trails.” Hence the secrecy: The Bushies simply do not trust the people to get it right. So like the pigs in Animal Farm, they rewrite the laws that protect us all, in the middle of the night. You thought you had certain rights under the Constitution? Guess again, partner — you forgot to read the Patriot Act.

Why haven’t you taken on John Kerry?
Long ago, I did some strips about Kerry as he was emerging as an antiwar leader, tweaking him for the narcissism that seemed part of the package. But that was basically sanding the burrs off someone who had formidable talents. I’ll do Kerry eventually, but I’m not going to parrot the Bush ads and unfairly portray him as a panderer. Like most Americans, I’ve been forced to unambiguously take sides, and I’m not particularly happy about it.

How do you view Kerry as a candidate?
He has been very, very careful, which has allowed him to stay under the radar of most cartoonists. Believe me, we’re a craven buch, and a good cartoon trumps personal ideology every time. If that weren’t the case, Clinton wouldn’t have been savaged by satirists so relentlessly.

Your characters are an entire microcosm of boomer culture. Do you have a favorite?
Certain characters are much more fun to write than others. My all-time favorite was Lacey Davenport. I can’t say why, but there’s something about her that the words came very easily. Zonker, of course, is an ongoing delight to write. Duke is fun, but because he started life as a parody, he is the least complicated of all the characters. He suffers no ambiguity. He’s very binary: This is either good for me, or it’s not good for me [laughs]. In that sense, he’s the shallowest character in the strip.

You’ve had some run-ins over the years with Hunter Thompson, who was angry that you modeled Duke on him. It always seemed to me that he had a point.
Sympathy’s a mistake — you just wind up eating shit [laughs]. I wrote some strips about his then-wife, Sandy, which were in no way derogatory, but I heard from a mutual friend that she was upset. So I wrote her a letter apologizing if I caused her any distress. Later I hear Hunter mocking me, saying that Sandy hadn’t been upset at all. I think at times he’s been ambivalent about the strip, because it’s had a usefulness in his career, heightening his profile. But mostly, I take him at his word that he hates being in the strip and has no love for me.

I think his exact words were, ”I’ll rip his lungs out.”
Yes. He was either gonna rip my lungs out or chain me to his porch and make me sweep peacock shit for the rest of my days. 

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