THE DAY I won the Pulitzer prize for editorial cartooning, my 85-year-old grandmother told my home town paper that while she was "perfectly thrilled and delighted" about the honor, she had always kept her fingers crossed for fear I would "end up in jail."
It had always been my grandmother's conviction that nothing good could possibly come from cartooning. Every summer when I was growing up, she would plead with my parents to send me to Outward Bound, because she had read in Life magazine that the counselors were very good at reaching troubled teens.
Of course, my grandmother inhabited a very narrow and orderly universe, one that had only once been thrown into disarray -- the day she learned she was descended from a Norwegian who had changed his name. When I asked where she thought her ancestors had come from, she gazed at me dolefully and replied, "Philadelphia, of course."
For weeks afterwards, this elderly Anglo-Saxon wannabe was inconsolable. As far as my grandmother was concerned, two centuries of conscientious inbreeding had all been for naught. With Norwegians splashing around unbidden in the family gene pool, there was no telling what sort of mutant progeny might ultimately emerge. Thus it was with a kind of slow-motion horror that she watched her eldest grandson come of age. After 19 years of schooling, a cartoonist stood where a doctor was supposed to be.
The good news was that my grandmother never lived to see me incarcerated (at least for acts of cartooning), but she was quite right to worry about appearances. There is no denying that satire is an ungentlemanly art. It has none of the normal rules if engagement. Satire picks a one-sided fight, and the more its intended target reacts, the more its practitioner gains the advantage. And as if that weren't enough, this savage, unregulated sport is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Unfair? You bet. But that's what makes editorial cartooning such an effective form of social control. "Them damn pictures" is what Boss Tweed called the Thomas Nast cartoons that were his undoing. One hundred and twenty-five years later, President Bush told reporters he wanted to "go up and kick the hell out of Trudeau." Apparently encouraged by his father's display of chest-thumping, Jeb Bush later drew me aside at the Republican Convention and said he had only two words for me: "Walk softly."
Now telling a cartoonist to walk softly is a little like asking a professional wrestler to show a little class. It's just not a productive suggestion. At that point, even I began to wonder why the Bushes were being so prickly. I may have only a layman's understanding of public relations, but it seems to me that a comic strip is not one of those things you want to seem too terribly concerned about.
At the risk of disclosing the obvious, there is another approach, one described adroitly by former Tip O'Neill aide, Christopher Matthews. In his book "Hardball," Matthews calls the strategy "hanging a lantern on your problem", by which he means preemptively establishing the terms under which you would be judged.
Sen. Al Gore deployed such a stratagem in response to a series of "Doonesbury" strips in which I had depicted him as the callow, privileged Prince of the Tennessee Valley. I happened to be doing a book-signing in Nashville the week the strips appeared, when I was suddenly -- and masterfully -- ambushed by a team of Gore campaign aides. Before I could compose myself, they had presented me with a basket of bumper stickers, Goo-goo Clusters and champagne. Pictures were taken, and the next day the wire services carried the story.
What did it tell the public about Gore? That he was secure enough to laugh at himself, and that he had nothing to fear from detractors.
Actually, the reverse was probably true, which is why he moved so quickly, but he was shrewd enough to understand the value of hoisting up a lantern. In Matthew's phrase, Gore knew how to "showcase his liabilities so magnificently that they backlit his assets."
Self-effacement is simply an effective way to disarm a critic. It not only shows strength, it makes practical good sense. When the Editorial Cartoonists Society met in Washington a few years ago, President Reagan invited the full membership to a reception in their honor. Following the president's remarks, a White House press corps reporter tried to ask Reagan a question, but was cut off by a cartoonist who thought the reporter discourteous.
That night, Pat Oliphant, the uncompromising gruppenfuhrer of editorial cartoonists, stood up at the farewell banquet and said that, judging from his colleague's intervention, he had clearly missed the whole point of his profession and that he would be better off selling shoes.
Naturally, I applauded the sentiment, but from afar, having been invited to neither event. There were some who inferred from my exclusion that I might be on some sort of White House enemies list, but from years of watching Ronald Reagan, I can't believe he had one. Reagan never took anything personally, and that included the best shots of his critics.
In this respect, he was quite unlike his successor, who also has few enemies, but primarily because he can't bear the thought of someone not liking him. After New Right organizer Paul Weyrich gave critical Senate testimony about John Tower, testimony that eventually led to his rejection as defense secretary, President Bush dashed off one of his famous handwritten notes to Weyrich, saying all was forgiven. If ever an individual deserved the president's enmity, it was Weyrich. And yet when the New York Times published its unofficial White House enemies list that year, Weyrich's name was nowhere to be found. Instead, readers were informed that the president had only two enemies in the world -- George Will and me.
So my grandmother had been right after all. The black spirit of my Norwegian forbearer had risen to rain disgrace on the final version of the family name. "Why doesn't he fit in?" I can still hear her ask my parents. "Haven't you heard about Outward Bound?"
It wouldn't have done any good. Outward Bound used to be filled with the soft sons of people like George Bush, who in the absence of war couldn't think of any other way to build character in their progeny. So they sent them off for three weeks of kayaking and rope climbing and subsisting on roots and earthworms, and let's face it, I would have perished. And yet, somehow I have managed to grow up to be the enemy of the most powerful man on the planet.
It's hard to shake a feeling of fraudulence here. I don't really feel like I'm built to be anyone's enemy. Besides, being one presents a real philosophical conundrum. If Will and I are Bush's only enemies, and if one can judge a man by his enemies, how can we, who judge him for a living, judge him harshly without implying our own magnificence? It's a clear conflict of interest. Moreover, there's the additional complication of forced kinship with George Will. It's one thing to judge a president by his enemies if you're one of them, but what if the other is George Will? Could the onus of our being named together be part of a wily divide-and-conquer strategy to force us to abandon a shared position?
As you can see, paranoia can be a lot of fun if you channel it creatively. If you doubt this, check out the administration's response to the last months' "Doonesbury" strips on Dan Quayle. The White House press office, the vice president's press office, and the Quayles themselves, have been pouring so much invective on me that even I can't keep up with it all -- so some of it might be true. The only part I know for sure they got wrong was the characterization of the strips as a "personal vendetta."
That's the one thing it's not. With me, it's never personal. At the risk of sounding like Sonny Corleone, it's my job. I've been doing the same thing for over 20 years. I was whacking public figures back when Dan Quayle was still whacking golf balls through law school. The main difference today is the chilling effect that potential lawsuits are having in newsrooms around the country. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court ruling on the Hustler case (reaffirming the First Amendment protection of satire), the mere threat of costly litigation often causes editors to question the traditional consensus of what satire is meant to be -- and to hold it to the same standards of fairness that front page reporting must meet.
That is what happened to the Quayle strips, but with a twist. In this case, the subject of the satire, the vice president, actually highlighted what he considered to be the most damaging information, condemning it a full week in advance when the public might otherwise have ignored it. The administration chose the "hanging a lantern" strategy of damage control -- only in this case it was a klieg light. Thus an astonished public was treated to the spectacle of the Drug Enforcement Administration openly confirming that Quayle had been cleared of drug allegations the public never knew had been made.
The public, while relieved and grateful, understandably grew curious. To satisfy that curiosity, a local assistant U.S. attorney made his investigative file on Quayle available to the Indianapolis Star, which is published by Quayle's uncle. The file -- surprise! -- completely exonerated the vice president. But for some reason, no other news organization was allowed to see it.
The soup also thickened a bit when the Justice Department then announced it had launched an investigation of the disclosure of the file. Under federal law, it is a crime to disclose the contents of such a file. To make matters worse, since the file also contained the names of other suspects, its release put the Quayle camp in the uncomfortable position of doing exactly what they were accusing me of -- revealing unproven allegations.
Does any of this have anything to do with the strips that ran? Why, yes. It underscores the whole point of them -- which was that in the final days of the 1988 campaign, the Quayle campaign had real reason to fear public knowledge of such a file, even one stuffed with false accusations, and that the campaign had ample motive to prevent its disclosure.
Therein lies a tale, most of which was overlooked in the intital outcry. In the fall of 1988, a federal prisoner named Brett Kimberlin was contacted by a reporter who had heard that Kimberlin used to sell marijuana to Dan Quayle when he was in law school. At first, Kimberlin resisted commenting on the story. He was in the middle of a parole proceeding and this was trouble he didn't need. But the story of his accusations soon spread, and eventually he decided to talk to the press. By the Friday before the election, the prison had received so many requests for interviews that the warden scheduled a press conference -- an unusual solution, to be sure, but one that was within a prisoner's rights.
The thought of a press conference apparently triggered alarm bells in Washington, and that afternoon there was a steady flow of telephone traffic between the Justice Department, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the Quayle campaign. That night, at the last moment, the press conference was canceled and Kimberlin was handcuffed, strip-searched and thrown into solitary confinement on the direct orders of Michael Quinlan, the director of the BOP. It was the first time in history that a BOP director had personally ordered an inmate into isolation.
Kimberlin was released the next day, but the following Sunday when he attempted to hold a telephone press conference, he was again thrown into detention, this time for a week. When he emerged on Nov. 14, he was greeted by the astonishing news that the National Parole Commission had just added five years to his sentence. When he later tried to go to the press on a third occasion, he was once again thrown into solitary.
Kimberlin eventually sued the government for violation of his First Amendment rights. His case is now pending, and if it makes it through the appellate process, it should come to trial next spring.
Much of this I explained in a series of strips last summer. When they appeared, no one took much note, or so I thought. But when a reporter called the vice president's office for comment, a spokesman replied, "Are you crazy? We don't want to draw attention to this subject. Thank God the strips were published during the last week of August when everyone was on vacation."
It was a puzzling response. Even though the events took place on the eve of an election, one had to wonder what the Quayle campaign had been so concerned about. After all, Kimberlin had been convicted on marijuana and bombing charges, and his allegations were 16 years old. Who would believe him, even if the mainstream media did broadcast his charges, which it didn't?
Perhaps Kimberlin was thinking the same thing, because, as I subsequently learned, he had intended to reveal other information which he thought would bolster his credibility. As he confided to a reporter before the press conference, he was planning to reveal the existence of Dan Quayle's DEA file, a far more damaging claim.
How did prison authorities know that that's what Kimberlin was up to? He was being wiretapped -- his lawsuit claims illegally -- and the tape cassettes were being immediately forwarded to Washington.
All of which raises a host of interesting questions, some of which are currently being answered in deposition. Since we now know the Quayle campaign had direct communication with the BOP, improper by itself, did Quayle staffers in any way participate in Director Quinlan's decision to isolate Kimberlin? Was anyone in the Bush-Quayle campaign informed of Kimberlin's intentions to reveal the existence of the DEA file? If so, did anyone inform Quayle? -- a critical question, because when the story broke the vice president said for the record he had no knowledge of his file.
And then there's the question of Kimberlin's sentence. His parole lawyer, who used to work for the parole board, says that in 20 years, he's never seen a prisoner with more commendations for good behavior. In the federal parole guidelines, the normal range of sentences for someone in his category is 64 to 92 months. To date, Kimberlin has served 152 months, or five years beyond the outer limit. The Parole Commission tried to raise it to 228 months, but a conservative judge in Memphis struck down the ruling.
I have always been one of those people whose eyes roll skyward at the mention of the words "political prisoner" (at least in regards to this country), but Kimberlin's continued confinement is a serious matter. As a New York Times editorial put it last month, "Mr. Quayle, like any other target of a political cartoonist's pen, is entitled to indignation over the rehashing of dubious charges. At the same time, if Mr. Kimberlin was subjected to extraordinary punishment because of what he wanted to say, he is entitled to the chance to prove it."
Unfortunately, several other newspapers took a narrower view and embraced the administration's straw man -- the assertion that the file contains no allegations of substance. Of course, we'll never know -- its content have been discovered selectively -- but over 25 newspapers were sufficiently disturbed to withhold the series.
While I wasn't exactly delighted by this development, I'm not sure it was cause for concern, either. After all, editors do have both the right and responsibility to delete materials they deem inappropriate for their readership, no matter what the reason. That process is called editing, and those who call it censorship are either careless or ignorant of what real censorship is.
Still, readers do tend to have this uncanny ability to sort things out, and it's a good thing for me that most editors seem to concede this. Political cartoons are a kind of reality cocktail -- part fact, part fiction, part serious and part frivolous -- and they don't always go down smoothly. Literalists will choke on the stuff, and they're the ones who usually write to complain. Sample: "The president is not a bubble."
It's hard to explain to such a person that you're dealing in minimalist icons, that the bubble and the feather are a kind of visual haiku, that you're saying more by showing less. This sort of explanation collapses under its own ponderousness, as does most analysis of humor.
The truth is I don't really know what makes a good cartoon work. But I do know that if "them damn pictures" were lethal to Boss Tweed because he lived in a pre-literate society, they're even more so in a post-literate society. When people tell me they keep up with the news through "Doonesbury," it scares me to death, but the fact is -- everyone has time for the comics. They get under people's skin and stay there. How else to explain the reader who writes to inform me that I've been wrong every day for the last 15 years?
That's a long time to chew sandpaper, but a lot of people do it.
Garry Trudeau is the creator of the comic strip Doonesbury.