Jack Ohman

‘Doonesbury,’ Trudeau, free-speech absolutists?

In a recent speech, cartoonist Garry Trudeau was critical of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper.
In a recent speech, cartoonist Garry Trudeau was critical of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper. AP file, 2014

I doubt there are many readers of this newspaper who don’t have a fully-formed opinion about Garry Trudeau, the creator of the comic strip “Doonesbury.” After all, Trudeau was a major cultural voice of the 1970s, and was, at the time, doing groundbreaking work.

At first, newspaper editors puzzled over what to think about “Doonesbury.” Here was a cartoon that most decidedly wasn’t on the same wavelength as “Beetle Bailey” or “Blondie,” although it did (mostly) share a comics page with them. Sometimes “Doonesbury” ran on the editorial page.

You might say that Trudeau, through “Doonesbury,” defined precisely where the edges of free speech were in American newspapers back then. Trudeau fought against the Nixon administration, and they were certainly flexible in their interpretation of the free-speech rights of daily newspapers and television networks.

Trudeau once ran a comic strip featuring his radical character Mark Slackmeyer as a DJ on his campus radio station, screaming “Guilty, guilty, guilty!” about the late Attorney General John Mitchell, when, in fact, Mitchell’s case was still under adjudication. Mitchell was indeed guilty, guilty, guilty, but you could see where his lawyers might take exception to that statement.

No matter. The First Amendment protected Trudeau, Slackmeyer, Mitchell and every other U.S. citizen. And many newspapers, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times, killed the strip.

Trudeau told the The New York Times then, “My highest priority is entertainment.”

So when I heard Trudeau on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, talking about “free-speech absolutists,” I was somewhat taken aback. Trudeau was being interviewed about his rather controversial speech a few weeks ago when he was presented the George Polk Award.

Trudeau talked about the cold-blooded slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper that frequently lampooned the Prophet Mohammad and every other shibboleth in French society. Trudeau did not speak in solidarity. He was critical of these wayward cartoonists, saying you should punch up and not punch down at those in power, and that the drawings of the Mohammad were tasteless and crossed a “red line.”

Of course, Trudeau didn’t think the cartoonists should have died, and he did what I thought was a pretty nice tribute cartoon after the murders.

He should have left it at that.

Having made this self-evident observation (I can’t think of a single political cartoonist in the United States who thought that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were clever, interesting or anything they would do – not one), Trudeau found himself in very unfamiliar territory: being criticized by other cartoonists and writers, liberal and conservative.

Guilty, guilty, guilty, if you will.

Sensing disaster, Trudeau gave a very tenderly executed interview by Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press.” Todd all but asked Trudeau what kind of tree he would be. I have never seen a cartoonist on “Meet the Press,” but I can think of a few who would have been better at asking questions than Todd. Trudeau curiously chose to use the phrase “First Amendment purists” – in other words, people who support the First Amendment.

In the interview, Trudeau didn’t clear up what he meant precisely, but he still seemed to be missing the point: No one should be killed for their artistic or political ideas, no matter how stupid, racist or ignorant. Period.

That’s an absolutism that we all should agree with.

I don’t think he should think of this as a criticism, really. It’s more of an observation, one that Trudeau himself made in 1974. In discussing the Watergate tapes, he drew Nixon saying to his lawyer, Leonard Garment, “As you can see, there are many frank and candid remarks which, if taken out of context, might create a false impression.”

Garment says, “Yes sir. I can see one here on page two.”

Nixon: “Which one’s that?”

Garment: “Well, John, how’s the cover-up going?”

Trudeau isn’t covering up, per se. He just needs to think about things like a cartoonist again.

Like a free-speech absolutist.