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Friday, 27 October, 2000, 12:14 GMT 13:14 UK
Doonesbury: Life begins at 30

Stalwarts Zonker and Mike
Doonesbury, one of the world's most influential and acclaimed cartoons, is 30 years old this week. Its creator, Garry Trudeau, tells BBC News Online's Giles Wilson why - despite his famous liberal sympathies - he's hoping for a Bush victory.

To the uninitiated, Doonesbury probably doesn't make much sense.

To the powerful, it's probably a pain in the neck.

But to its millions of fans throughout the world, many of whom have followed it through presidents, scandals, and wars, it is nothing less than a shot of daily genius.

Since 1970, Garry Trudeau has traced the lives of a group of college friends as they have grown up. And through the lives of these friends, Trudeau has mirrored the changing face of life in America.


Trudeau: Mystified that non-Americans are interested
Piggybacked on to these stories is some of the most pointed political satire American politics has seen.

Vietnam, Watergate, Reagan's cluelessness, Desert Storm, Gingrich, Clinton's impeachment... each has felt Trudeau's sharp stiletto at its weakest point.

And that's to say nothing of the capitalists who have had the same treatment - Nike, the tobacco industry, Apple, and most recently, the dot.com world.

Left hook

Bill Clinton and Al Gore could hardly be said to have escaped Trudeau's withering glare. But it's the right which takes the hardest blows. Just this week, the strip has shown George W Bush in his coaching sessions, being told that it's OK for him to make mistakes, because unlike Al Gore, nobody expects Bush to know what he's talking about.


All satirists hope the voters will favour us with Bush

Garry Trudeau
Which perhaps makes it all the more remarkable that Trudeau is hanging out for a Bush victory.

"From a professional standpoint," he told BBC News Online, "all satirists hope the voters will favour us with Bush.

"When you look at the flaws of the two candidates, one suffers from proclivities that are arguably correctable; the other from a condition he can do nothing about. Gore's a moving target, Bush is a stable, hard target, like Quayle.

"In my lifetime, we've never had a major presidential candidate who's outsourced virtually all his thinking. Bush's life story gives fresh meaning to the phrase 'assisted living'. [The] Brits are steeped in centuries of entitlement, but for most Americans, a restoration is a novel experience. The country may be in for a bit of a shock," he said.

Life worth living

The Bush family has been among Trudeau's hardest critics. George Bush senior said he was "a little elitist who is spoiled, derisive, ugly and nasty". George W Bush has not been any more complimentary. But to Trudeau, abuse just adds to the fun.

"This is what I live for," he said. "The Bushes think it's personal, when in fact, for me, it's never personal. At the risk of sounding like Sonny Corleone, whacking people like them is my job."



A strip from 1993, making the most of revisionist thinking about Nixon. (All images are copyright Garry Trudeau)

Doonesbury itself is one of the few old media brands which has made imaginative use of the new media. Version 3 of the Doonesbury Electronic Town Hall (see Internet Links) has just been launched by uclick to mark the 30th anniversary, with an emphasis on entertainment.

Which is not to say that Trudeau has lost the hard edge - his character Duke is currently running for president and has even been interviewed on CNN's Larry King show. His cartoons have led to several laws being changed across the US, and he is currently selling merchandising through Starbucks to help family literacy programmes.


Some days I think it's wonderful; some days I'm not so sure - which means I probably feel the same way about Mr Trudeau that he feels about me

Bill Clinton
But Trudeau knows that a constant diet of politics would be too much for most people. "The crusading thing carries its risks. If not mixed in with a lot of general silliness, it would wear on the readers," he said.

But the question remains why such a culturally specific strip should have followers outside the US. In the UK it appears in the Guardian.

Dr Nick Hiley, of the University of Kent's Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature, wonders if its appeal is that readers can see there is a richness in its world. "You know that if you read it diligently, you will start to understand it...Trudeau is really somebody who takes you into their world, like Charles Schulz did," he said.


Trudeau's relaunched site
Trudeau himself says he is "mystified but grateful" for his international popularity.

"But frankly, I don't get it. We're so provincial in the States, know so little about the rest of the world, that it comes as a bit of a shock that the rest of the world follows our politics and culture with such specificity.

"I keep thinking I'll be exposed, that one day the editor of the Guardian or the Herald Tribune will write and so, 'So sorry. It turns out none of our readers has ever understood a word of your strip.'"

30 more years?

So what does the future hold? Will he still be writing the strip when the phrase "Gore v Bush" seems as antique as "Nixon v Hubert Humphrey".

He says, yes, he still has the same appetite for work.

"The goal now is simple, steady excellence as a storyteller. I just follow my curiosity or indignation and hope that readers will tag along.

"I can't explain my career. Nobody's more surprised than I to find I'm still around. I haven't given any thought to some future decommissioning protocol, but I have faith in my ability to know when it's time."

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