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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 February, 2004, 12:48 GMT
Cartoon steps into the real world
By Giles Wilson
BBC News Online Magazine

Can a mere cartoon strip change the world? Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau is putting his money where his characters' mouths are and may well find out.

Image copyright GBTrudeau
The offer

Garry Trudeau has been one of the most influential and persistent voices of liberal America since he started drawing his Doonesbury cartoon strip in 1970. And yet, before the last US presidential election, he was backing George Bush.

The reason was simple. Like all satirists, he said, he was hoping for a Bush victory because "Gore's a moving target; Bush is a stable, hard target, like Quayle".

And now he is stepping up from the drawing board to take the challenge more directly to the president. He is offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who will verify Mr Bush's account of his military service in Alabama in the early 70s.

Bush in uniform
Questions have been raised about Mr Bush's military service
The war records of Mr Bush and the likely Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry are expected to be a key issue in November's presidential election.

Senator Kerry won medals for bravery in combat in Vietnam, but returned home to be an anti-war campaigner. Mr Bush was a pilot in the Texas National Guard, a volunteer reserve force which at the time was seen by many as a way of avoiding going to war.

Accusations have been made that Mr Bush used family connections to join the National Guard and that he spent the last two of his five years' service working on the political campaign of one of his father's friends in Alabama instead of military duties. His opponents have demanded evidence that he took part in training in those two years.

The White House has vigorously denied that the president avoided his duty, even going as far as publishing his dental and medical records from the time to demonstrate that nothing out of the ordinary happened.

Military service

But in the Doonesbury strips published this week in thousands of newspapers across the US and many in other countries, Garry Trudeau has made his attempt to flush out anyone who can verify Mr Bush's record.

In Monday's strip Mr Bush was seen asking aides why no evidence can be found of his military service. "This is ridiculous," he says. "800 guardsmen and nobody else saw me? What's it take to find one reliable witness?"

The next frame has the strip's main character, Mike Doonesbury, standing beside a notice board offering: "Become a witness! WIN $10,000!"

I just stand out on a corner with my little pea-shooter, scanning the passing parade
Garry Trudeau
On Trudeau's website, he specifies that the reward is for anyone who "personally witnessed George W Bush reporting for drills at the Dannelly Air National Guard Base between the months of May and November of 1972".

Trudeau told the BBC that he was making the pledge "for the usual reason - to keep busy".

"This sort of thing is actually my job," he says. "I just stand out on a corner with my little pea-shooter, scanning the passing parade."

In offering the reward, however, Trudeau appears to be getting more involved in the story than is usual for a cartoonist. In fact Dr Nick Hiley, of the University of Kent's Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature, says the cartoonist's offer is, as far as he knows, unprecedented.

Independence

"I can't think of a parallel for it. In some ways it's a very strange thing to do, because it suggests that the cartoonist can't do what he wants through his cartooning but has got to do it another way."

It is only possible for a Trudeau to have such editorial independence because of the way US cartoonists syndicate their work to newspapers, Dr Hiley says. Outside the US, cartoonists usually work directly for a newspaper which sets its own agenda.

In any case, though, Trudeau thinks it unlikely that anyone will come forward to claim the prize, which he says would actually be donated to a charity which supports US servicemen and women overseas.

"I would think it highly unlikely that a witness would present himself at this late date - the Bushies have been looking for him for three election cycles, so he probably doesn't exist.

"However, if the prize does jog someone's memory, I'll surrender the money with little regret. Thanks to Bush's tax cuts for people who don't need them, I'm flush and looking for a way to give back."

If the president takes his father's line on Trudeau, he probably won't be too worried. The first President Bush said the cartoonist was "a little elitist who is spoiled, derisive, ugly and nasty".




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