The decline and rise or fall or maybe all three of U.S. civilization, by Doonesbury

January 07, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Garretson Beekman Trudeau, who calls himself Garry and signs his work "G.B. Trudeau," graduate of St. Paul's School and Yale and descendant of the man for whom New York City's Beekman Place was named, has just produced his sixty-first outraging book: "Flashbacks: Twenty-Five Years of Doonesbury -What a Long Strange Strip It's Been" (Andrews and McMeel. 332 pages. $18.95).

I like the book, intemperately. In his quarter-century peregrination of the superhighway of American life, Mr. Trudeau leaves no turn unstoned.

More about my enthusiasm below. First, to comprehend the work's impact, consider four appreciations from contemporary American thought leaders, statements that appear along with lots of other delights and confections in the margins of this book:

George Bush: "This Doonesbury - good God. He speaks for a bunch of Brie-tasting, chardonnay-sipping elitists."

Gerald Ford: "There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what is going on in Washington: the electronic media, the print media and Doonesbury - not necessarily in that order."

Frank Sinatra: "He's as funny as a tumor."

Jerry Brown: "I consider Doonesbury to be one of my key political advisers."

Reading the book straight through, pictures, text and all - it is serious reading - it is hard to escape the speculation that 100 years from now, maybe 200, this volume might do more to make comprehensible the last 30 years of the 20th century in America than any other single book, at least any written thus far. His insights into public response to Vietnam and to drugs are major accomplishments of social commentary.

Indomitable pomposity

This book should not be seen or read as more than 300 pages of comic strips; it should be studied as campaign dispatches from the war against complacent certainties and public pomposity. Some of those blights endure, perhaps to prove the indomitability of the human spirit, but 25 years of Doonesbury has made it a great deal more perilous to be an arrogant damned fool in public.

How does it, how does Mr. Trudeau, work? On page 14 of this collection, from soon after the comic strip's 1970 launch, there is a fourth-panel declaration to readers that became a Doonesbury trademark. This one comes from a football huddle. It says: "Beneath the cool exterior of a huddle lurk the subtle dynamics of a nursery school recess."

The rest of the book makes it transparent that Mr. Trudeau intends the iconography of the college football-game huddle to embrace virtually all collective human endeavors, from presidential cabinet meetings to marriages to journalism. The nursery school recess is a sustaining metaphor for the strip's central vision of life.

A question: What does true literary art do? It brings about change in perception, in awareness. It sees through to truth or truths otherwise unavailable or undiscovered.

There can be no doubt this has been the main function of Mr. Trudeau's work. He more closely fits the model of the great keen-eyed social-critic writers than that of the classic cartoonists. More Voltaire than Daumier, more Dickens than Hogarth. More Evelyn Waugh than Herblock. The work is generally carried more by words than pictures, but beyond that, it is more narrative than imagic.

Mr. Trudeau's work drives home the importance of skepticism, the essence of writer as critic. No one can imagine that he is not liberal in the broadest social-consciousness sense of the term. (Weekly in New York City, he does a volunteer stint at a homeless shelter.) However, more characteristically he is a fundamental skeptic.

One cannot imagine him being supportive, or not for long. His portrayal of President Bush was nothingness, a void in space. Dan Quayle was a feather, a small one. Newt Gingrich is a classic spherical bomb with a sputtering fuse. All Republicans, you may say, under liberal attack. But no, Bill Clinton is, and never otherwise, a waffle. A waffle floating in air. In Doonesbury, all heroes are outsiders, largely lone ones.

The Trudeau targets

Always, the strip attacks matters most acutely bedeviling the American people. In the 1970s, those were Vietnam and Watergate and drugs and communes and the effects and events associated with them. Later targets: the self-esteem movement, George Will, performance art, "co-nurturing," Caribbean medical schools, the pomposities of higher education, the mindlessness of "political correctness," excesses of feminism.

This is not the work of a polemicist. This speaks not from a political agenda, but rather for the crusade of someone with a profound sense that a life of the mind has one cardinal duty: to doubt and question and to drive others to do so as well. Orthodoxy demands ridicule.

The collection makes a strong case that Garry Trudeau is the premier American political satirist of the last quarter of the 20th century.

Sad to say, that period has not been a good time for satire. Why? Because the primary political and social orthodoxies in America have recklessly become their own most pungent parodies. Gingrich/Gramm "conservatism" is a sort of slapstick burlesque of earnest Goldwaterism. Much of the residue of 1960s liberal movements is now grossly selfish victimization claims, masquerading as a kind of faux leftism.

But G. B. Trudeau is better at that stuff than I am. Much better. Get the book. You'll wallow in it for years to come. If you become pathetically addicted, for $59.95 you can buy a Mindscape CD-ROM containing every strip going back to the first, on Oct. 26, 1970.

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