President Jimmy Carter stood up in his Oval Office yesterday and announced, in a major statement of policy, that he was delighted to meet Charles Schulz, creator of the comic strip "Peanuts."
"D'you think the president likes the strip or just the name?" the cartoonist was asked afterwards.
"Oh, I don't think it's the name 'Peanuts' he likes," said Schulz. "I never liked the name. For 30 years I've been trying to change it."
Anyhow, the president likes it. He received Schulz and three children to mark the beginning of the 1979 Christmas Seal campaign of which Schulz is honorary chairman.
Kids from each state made posters, competing for state winners, and Jenny Chesser of Georgia, Lorna Garrison of this very capital and Brian Owens of Tennessee, all of them 10 years old, represented the whole crew of state winners. The president, with a huge poster showing all the state posters in color, admired them at some length, as visitors peered about the dead-white office with the great seal done in plaster in the ceiling and the Greuze portrait of Franklin on the wall and Abraham Lincoln's bust on a pedestal as you enter.
Schulz was asked why he hated to name "Peanuts". He said they never would let him copyright "Charlie Brown," which he thought was unfair. After all, there is the comic strip "Nancy."
But life is unfair -- "I grew up in St. Paul, Minn.," he said, "where my father had a barber shop for 40 years."
"At an early age did you worship say Daumier and Goya?" he was asked, to get him started.
"Music," he said. "And then words, more than pictures. But I used to draw Popeye all over my school notebooks and the other kids wanted me to draw Popeye all over theirs. But mostly it was words that pleased me," he said. He is fond of a lot of current novelists and, especially mystery writers, through he never cared for Agatha Christie.
"I knew of a fellow called William B. Beebe," he said, "who had this kind of pond or canal where you rented a boat and took your girl for a ride, but at last he died and it was inherited by his daughter. A big new sign went up: a
"Phoebe B. Beebe's New Canoe Canal."
And ever since, needless to say, Schultz, 56, has stood in awe of the English tongue.
He has his strips for months ahead. He is not one to wait till an hour after the last moment to get started, but is very methodical and drives 15 minutes to the studio every day and works.
"At Santa Rosa, Calif.," he said. "I never work at night or on weekends."
"Do you feel anxieties?" he inquired after a bit, deciding to speak a bit on great matters instead of the inside poop on Snoopy.
"No," I said, hoping I would not have a nicotine fit (Schultz was representing the Lung Association, after all).
"Do you?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "All the time."
Sometimes, it was suggested, a really first-rate psychiatrist (and good luck finding one) can easily make floating anxieties sink forever, without in the least diminishing the tension that many people need to do their work.
Sparky (Schultz is known as Sparky after Barney Google's horse, Sparkplug, and Barney Google was -- but what the hell, a brief article can hardly fill in the whole cultural history of the world) said cartoon strips are sort of looked down on.
"Come on," I said, "nobody looks down on the good ones. Take 'Moon Mullins.' 'Snuffy Smith.' 'Dupont Circle,' that dandy new one, and the other really good ones. They are big works."
"But people don't take them that way," said Schulz. "You take The New Yorker, if they want to knock down something, they say it has comic-strip characters or plot."
"What do they know," he was reassured.
He spoke of Snoopy, the dog, a sort of beagle. Loosely. He said he thinks of dogs, so happy racing around, not knowing how short their life must be.
"It would be a luxury wouldn't it, not to know about death," I agreed, "but then would we really want life at all without the brooding and interior mumbling we all do."
"Death is taboo in a cartoon strip," Schulz said.
"You have so little space each day," I agreed, "you can't develop big themes like death in three balloons."
"And yet it would be a service to people if we did," he went on. "Sometimes I think of the most terrible and unexplainable things. I've known people who died slowly of cancer. That would be awful. But then a sudden death, just BANG, would be, too. You take a lovely little girl, on her way to school, killed by a bus. Just in one minute. You can't understand things like that."
"Sometimes it takes years even to begin to get over it," I conceded. "Did any awful thing like that ever happen to you?"
"No," he said.
But it happens and it's our world and we deal with it, one way or another.
He seemed quiet. First you notice his eyes, a light blue color framed in glasses that have enough gold structural parts to support the Bay Bridge. Then you notice he is wearing a very expensive shirt, maybe silk, of pale orange, and a jacket of soft grey suede. He has taken pains with his clothes. o
"Don't you think," he was asked, "that as a strip goes on, over the years, a lot is communicated that the cartoonist does not specifically intend? You spoke of things a cartoon can't do, but don't people somehow gradually understand the cartoonist even on subjects he hasn't directly dealt with? Don't we pick up things by hints and analogies and good guesses?" d
He said he thought so.
Schulz, for example, is much the way you expected he would be.
"I guess maybe I do have an anxiety or two," I confessed. "I identify with Lucy and with the dog."
Ha. He saw he got me.
"But on to great things," it was suggested to him, "since you're in the mood: do that Phoebe Beebe thing for me again, would you?"
"Sure", he said. "Want me to write it down? Phoebe B. Beebe's new Canoe Canal,"
"It's very beautiful," I said, and he nodded. CAPTION: Illustration, Charlie Brown, Copyright (c) 1979 United Features Syndicate Inc.; Picture, cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of "peanuts," by Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post; Illustration 2, Snoopy, Copyright (c) 1979 United Features Syndicate Inc.