“Even Richard Nixon Has Got Soul”: Comparing Watergate and the Trump Impeachment in Doonesbury

The most popular post I have written for this project – by far – addresses how Garry Trudeau updated his famous Watergate-era “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” strip to comment on the parallels between Richard Nixon’s corruption and that of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Every revelation of Donald Trump’s wrongdoing, from Robert Mueller’s inability to clear him of obstruction of justice through Michael Cohen’s admission to campaign finance crimes through the ongoing impeachment proceedings stemming from a campaign of shadow diplomacy meant to undermine the integrity of the 2020 election spikes that post’s hits as people revel in the uncanny similarities between our political moment and the not-too-long-ago past. Le plus ca change

On 1 December 2019, GBT again referenced an iconic strip from his coverage of Watergate in order to draw parallels between Nixon’s malfeasance and Trump’s: hiding the White House behind a stone wall, symbolizing each administration’s crookedness and steadfast refusals to allow Congress – and by extension the American people – to see what the Executive branch was doing.

The Wall, revisited. Doonesbury, December 1, 2019.

In February 1974 Trudeau introduced a visual gag that became a running joke defining his coverage of Watergate: situating the the White House behind a series of walls and other barriers as he depicted the chaotic goings-on of an administration trying to manage an existential political crisis. The format of these strips, a series of drawings of the White House (sometimes the Capitol) accompanied by dialogue between political figures, which became a mainstay of Trudeau’s visual vocabulary, was introduced a year earlier, on 5 February 1973, in a strip about Congress’s slowness in confirming Cabinet nominees. Alongside commenting on Nixon’s tendentious relationship with a Democratic-controlled Congress, early examples of the form showed Trudeau taking jabs at the Nixon administration’s difficult relationship with the press and Nixon’s focus on foreign affairs at the expense of domestic policy-making.

The introduction of the White House drawings marked a major transition in Trudeau’s approach to writing about politics as he began to blur the lines between comic strips and political cartoons. Political issues such as race, campus protest and the Vietnam war had all featured prominently in Doonesbury since its debut in 1970. However, while GBT occasionally depicted political figures, including former Vice-President and then-Senator Hubert Humphrey and National Security Advisor (later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger, he largely stayed clear of writing directly about developments in DC. The White House device allowed Trudeau to comment on the day-to-day grind of politics without dealing in traditional political caricature: with the exception of Ron Headrest (a virtual mash-up of Ronald Reagan and Max Headroom, an early computer-generated character) and Donald Trump, politicians would rarely, if ever, be depicted in person. Rather, they would appear as disembodied voices or as icons, such as Vice-President Dan Quayle being depicted as a feather or George W. Bush being represented by a battered Roman centurion’s helmet.

Trudeau’s decision to steer Doonesbury in a more explicitly political direction had a couple of effects on how his work was received. It eventually led to some papers (starting with the Lincoln Journal in 1973) running Doonesbury on the editorial/op-ed pages instead of the funny pages. Trudeau’s political work won him the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1975.

Trudeau first mentioned Watergate on 21 May 1973 with a White House strip featuring a dialogue between Nixon and his wife Pat in which the President promises to “regain [the] full trust and respect“ of the people who are “a little disappointed in how I’ve handled this whole affair.” As the Watergate crisis deepened, GBT provided a running commentary that often focused on the imagined words – and then, with the release of the Watergate tapes, the actual words – of key political figures. But it was arguably a visual gag, more than anything Trudeau wrote, that defined how Watergate appeared in the funny pages.

The 10 February 1974 Doonesbury strip begins with an unidentified White House employee building a “national security snow fort” in front of the White House. The snow fort becomes the foreground for a dialogue between Nixon and his confidant Bebe Rebozo about the former’s fears of being impeached. Two weeks later, the snow fort was replaced by sandbags and a machine gun emplacement; the next day, the White House was behind a store parapet equipped with cannons. Subsequent strips featured barbed-wire fences, fence posts reminiscent of an Old West fort, an electrified fence, road construction barriers, a bamboo fence, a pillbox, a tank, soldiers digging trenches, more sandbags and machine guns, a wooden fence, and, ultimately, a stone wall.

While the 22 May 1974 strip featured an imagined transcript of what the White House tapes revealed about the Nixon administration’s inner workings, focusing on the foul language used by the president and his close advisors, Nixon’s actual words were the focal point of the climax of the “wall” series, the strip that GBT revised in light of the current impeachment crisis, which ran on 12 August 1974. As a work crew builds a stone wall that hides the entirety of the White House, we read an actual transcript (with the language somewhat softened for family newspapers) from a tape of a white House meeting held on 22 March 1973, in which Nixon said:

“I don’t give a shit what happens, I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up or anything else, if it’ll save it — save the plan…”

The next time Doonesbury readers saw the White House was on 2 September 1974, shortly after Nixon’s resignation. The wordless strip shows workers dismantling Nixon’s wall, the final panel revealing a White House bathed in sunshine. It was a new day for America.

The original Wall strip. Doonesbury, August 12 1974.

And then, on 1 December 2019, as the House moved closer to impeaching President Trump, a White House construction crew began to reassemble the store wall in front of the Presidential mansion as the words of the occupant, this time from the transcript of his “perfect” telephone conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, float overhead:

“I would like you to do us a favor, though … there’s been a lot of talk about Biden’s son … and a lot of people want to find out about that … so whatever you can do with the Attorney General … would be great.”

In the final panel, we see that the crew has done their work somewhat clumsily: some old “Impeach Nixon” graffiti is misaligned as the stones were not properly reassembled.

The two strips, forty-five years apart, speak to a similar aspect of the two impeachment processes: the administration’s attempts to hide evidence of grossly inappropriate conduct from the people charged with overseeing the Executive branch. In Nixon’s case, the president tried to keep tapes and other evidence from Congress, in an attempt to “stonewall” an investigation, until the Supreme Court ordered the material to be turned over. In Trump’s case, the image of the wall speaks to his decision to prevent aides from testifying to a number of Congressional committees. The joke is arguably somewhat sharpened by the centrality of “building the wall” to Trumpist doctrine: The New Yorker has run two covers that feature wall imagery in its coverage of the Trump presidency.

It is unlikely that the current process will end, as it did in 1974, with a symbolic wall coming down – the Senate majority leader has made it clear that the fix is in. There are other significant differences between Nixon’s era and Trump’s that come through reading the strips that surrounded Trudeau’s Watergate work.

Watergate unfolded in an economic and geopolitical climate that was much different from our time: Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” meant that American involvement in south-east Asia had declined, but the war still took up a lot of political bandwidth. At the same time, spending on the war contributed to America’s first major economic downturn in decades, contributing to the effects of the 1973 OPEC embargo. Trudeau addressed both of these issues as he wrote about Watergate, with arcs focused, among other things, on Phred’s adventures in Laos and Cambodia, refugees fleeing the effects of the American war in south-east Asia, and the crippling effects of the energy crisis.

Taken together, Trudeau’s work during the Watergate era remind us that, at a time of economic crisis and a brutal war, a lack of trust in the Executive and the government more broadly was rooted in more than the crimes of a single man. While many Americans still largely distrust their political leaders, the specific dynamics of sharp divides over an unpopular war and mass frustration with a tanking economy do not really figure into evaluations of Trump’s suitability to hold high office: the so-called “War on Terror” has become permanent, but domestic opposition to American military aggression is virtually invisible. Meanwhile, steady jobs growth and other positive economic data buttress Trump supporters’ claims that his presidency has helped grow the economy, even as those numbers hide the fact that Americans are working harder but falling further behind.

Alongside the broader geopolitical and economic contexts, important differences in how Trudeau portrayed Nixon and Trump reveal the way in which a substantial portion of the American electorate feels a visceral sense of revulsion towards Trump that is arguably stronger than was the case with Nixon.

One of my favourite Neil Young songs, “Campaigner,” was written after Young saw a news clip of Nixon crying after visiting after his wife Pat in the hospital. The song notes that while “hospitals have made him cry … even Richard Nixon has got soul.” As Trudeau attacked Nixon the politician, he also gave readers a more complicated, sympathetic view of Nixon the man. On 8 April 1973, we see Richard and Pat Nixon expressing optimism for after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords a few months earlier: “Hee hee! We’ve come a long way from Whittier, eh little girl,” the President teases the First Lady after she comments on how the agreement bolstered his spirits. (Whittier College was the couple’s alma mater: they met while putting on a student play). On 17 June 1973, after Richard Nixon rails to Pat about how there’s nobody left in the White House that he can trust, he pauses and corrects himself: “Except for maybe you.” “Thank you, dear,” Pat replies. Christmas 1973 found Nixon and his daughter Tricia sharing a heartwarming moment: He tells her that what while he wants most for Christmas is “detente, vindication and a generation of peace,” he is happy to have “a day of peace and the love of [his] family.”

In contrast to these warm vignettes, Trudeau, in thirty years of caricaturing Trump, has never once imbued him with any sort of fundamental human goodness. Trudeau’s portrayal of Trump as a man devoid of any redeeming attributes conforms to reality to a certain degree – from his racism to his misogyny to his mocking of disabled people to his apparent lack of basic human empathy, Trump is, objectively, a repulsive human being, and at a time of unprecedented political and social polarization in post-Civil War America, it is not surprising that satirists are less likely than they were previously to set aside differences and talk about the positive attributes of their targets.

In a 2018 Rolling Stone interview, Garry Trudeau, when asked if he was more concerned about America’s fate now than he was during the Nixon era,took a larger view, framing the current situation as part of a more generalized crisis:

“We’ve had endless scandals, crises. I can’t think of a year when I wasn’t concerned. My hair’s always on fire about some damn thing.”

By revisiting moments like the “stonewall” strip and the “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” strip, Trudeau is showing us how America has failed to learn from its past mistakes, and continues to put corrupt criminals into the highest positions of power; in some ways, there are too many similarities between Trump and his predecessor from 45 years ago for us to think of him as unique. On the other hand, the sharp differences in character and context – Trump is arguably a worse example of humanity than was Nixon, though the dynamics of his moment make his removal from office far less likely – point to a situation that is arguably more fraught than any the US has faced in a very long time.

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