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Garry Trudeau profile (longish)

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Gene Weingarten, Washington Post:

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 at a steakhouse just a few blocks from the White House. The restaurant 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. Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, hunkered right down in front of a soldier, eye to eye, introduced himself and proceeded to ignore every single diplomatic nicety.

"So, when were you hit?" he asked.

"Oct. 23."

Trudeau pivoted his body. "So you took the blast on, what ... this side?"


Brian Anderson, 25, was in shorts, a look favoured 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 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 honouring them by listening.")

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 enormous sandwich; Garfield kicked Odie off the table again; and in Beetle Bailey, the only military-themed comic strip, Lieut. 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 armoured 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 at the steakhouse 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, 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 remained 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 analysing, reflecting and even helping to 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, she lives in Ethel, Louisana, pop. 2,000. 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-centre 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."

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 past 21/2 years, after the United States invaded Iraq and Trudeau made the startling, uncartoonish decision to mutilate one of his characters.

It was not just any character. B.D. had been a Doonesbury fixture since Day 1. On the day the strip debuted in 28 newspapers nationwide -- Oct. 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 its original cultural references.

It's Doonesbury that survived and evolved 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 humour, nothing else in Doonesbury has ever approached the storyline of B.D's injury and convalescence. It hasn't been political at all, 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.

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. 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.

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 licence 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.

Also, he's a smartass. But you knew that.

- - -

Like any satirist whose work endures, Trudeau has been right about a lot of things. From the moment that hippie college deejay Mark Slackmeyer gleefully declared that 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. He was right about the greed of '80s big business, about the cynicism of the marketing industry, about Bill Clinton's polls-based approach to governance (Doonesbury regularly portrayed Clinton as a greasy waffle).

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 Manhattan. Although 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, textbook doodling.

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. "It's serviceable, is the best I can say about it," Trudeau demurs.

- - -

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.?"

The image people saw two days later was B.D. on a stretcher, one leg a bandaged stump.

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.

When you ask Trudeau 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. He amputated B.D.'s left leg, on the theory that he'd ... think of something.

What happened next was unusual. Within a day or two of B.D. lying broken on that stretcher, Garry Trudeau, bane of every presidential administration since Nixon's, got a call from the Pentagon. The brass was offering to help him figure out where to go next.

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 Gerald 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.

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 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.

- - -

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."

- - -

"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 ..."

Trudeau is a highly opinionated public policy wonk. When he reads a book, he edits in the margins, correcting grammar, syntax or cloudy thinking.

Bingo. Trudeau's a nerd! 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 he gets away with having the nerve to date Candice Bergen (he did, way back when) and then marry America's Sweetheart? I was hoping for an unattractive defence of his virility, but Trudeau wouldn't bite.

Finally, in desperation, I asked, 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."

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. 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.

But week after week in the newspapers, the quite remarkable story of B.D. continues.

In one, B.D. is flirting with Celeste, a secretary at the vets' clinic, perhaps considering cheating on Boopsie, which hasn't happened in 20-plus years of an eccentric but strong marriage. But Celeste deals with it nimbly, redirecting B.D.'s attention to what's really important (his wife), reproaching him for hitting on her, but in a way that leaves his dignity intact.

There are many types of therapy, and it's not all dispensed by licensed professionals.

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