It was an hour before George W. Bush was to make his forensics debut at a New Hampshire television station. At a nearby Holiday Inn, two well-known columnists and a visiting cartoonist were sharing pre-debate gossip over a meal of barbecue chicken. As they were finishing up, the conversation turned unexpectedly reflective. "You know," said the first scribe, "I wrote scores of columns condemning the Vietnam War, and it didn't make the slightest bit of difference. With one small exception, nothing I have ever written has remotely affected an outcome." The other columnist nodded solemnly. He too had no sense of ever having had any meaningful effect on the course of events. Sighing deeply, the cartoonist reached for his slice of the same humble pie. He had made a lot of noise in his life, he admitted, but he had no pretensions about leaving the world a better place than he had found it. In fact, he knew of only two people in his profession who could make such a claim--Bill Mauldin and Charles Schulz.
Schulz, of course, would have narrowed that list down to one--Mauldin. Such was Mauldin's stature in his eyes that Schulz paid him the extraordinary compliment of regularly referencing him in "Peanuts" (although as a grown-up, Mauldin could only appear off-frame). Schulz included him in full knowledge that most of his readers would have to ask their elders who Bill Mauldin was, but that was the point: If they didn't know, they should.
Mauldin had chronicled the grubby, dangerous lives of World War II soldiers, and millions of ordinary grunts like Pvt. "Sparky" Schulz had loved him for providing the balm of laughter when they needed it most. Mauldin, Schulz knew first-hand, had made a difference.
So has Schulz, profoundly, but you wouldn't know it by him. It's not that Schulz has been unmoved by the remarkable adulation that has come his way--he just never seemed to trust it much. For his colleagues, this has been perplexing, for they were among the first to appreciate how truly transformative his stripped-down little creation was. "Peanuts" was the first (and still the best) postmodern comic strip. Everything about it was different. The drawing was graphically austere but beautifully nuanced. It was populated with complicated, neurotic characters speaking smart, haiku-perfect dialogue. The stories were interwoven with allusions from religion, classical music, psychiatry and philosophy. And such was Schulz's quiet faith in the power of observational truth, he often passed up punch lines in favor of aphorisms and little throwaway codas--literary devices rarely seen in a gag-oriented medium.
On the surface, Schulz's message was filled with a uniquely American sense of optimism--"Li'l Folks" with big dreams, never giving up, always trudging out to the mound one more time. But the pain of sustaining that hope showed everywhere. Schulz subjected his clueless antihero, Charlie Brown, to the full range of childhood cruelties (it's worth noting that the very first "Peanuts" punch line was, "I hate Charlie Brown"). His strip vibrated with '50s alienation, making it, I always thought, the first Beat strip. Although Schulz would say the very notion is preposterous and grandiose, he completely revolutionized the art form, deepening it, filling it with possibility, giving permission to all who followed to write from the heart and intellect.
I sometimes tease Sparky that my career is all his fault, but I'm far from alone. Study "B. C." or "Feiffer" or "Calvin and Hobbes" or "Bloom County" carefully, and you'll see his influence everywhere--stylistically, narratively, rhythmically. While the public at large regards "Peanuts" as a cherished part of our shared popular culture, cartoonists also see it as an irreplaceable source of purpose and pride, our gold standard for work that is both illuminating and aesthetically sublime. We can hardly imagine its absence.
For many years, Charles Schulz has celebrated Veterans Day by sending Snoopy over to Bill Mauldin's to "quaff a few root beers." Next Veterans Day, Snoopy will stay home, but his beloved master should know that he will be in the thoughts of the many colleagues to whom his work was as good as it gets.
Garry Trudeau is the creator of "Doonesbury."