Perceptions So Frank and Candid They Were Practically Classified: Garry Trudeau in China (The Gonzo Chronicles, Part IX)

Nineteen-seventy-five was a good year for Garry Trudeau. Doonesbury was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, and GBT became the first comic-strip creator to win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. Growing appreciation for Trudeau’s work landed him a spot on the cover of Time in February 1976. 

Winning the Pulitzer wasn’t Trudeau’s only “first” for a comic-strip artist that year: that fall, he became the first comic-strip creator accredited to the White House press corps, accompanying President Gerald Ford on a state visit to China. Elements of that trip were woven into the story of Duke’s time in Beijing, but Duke’s misadventures weren’t the only work inspired by the trip. In December 1975, Trudeau published a reflection on his time in Ford’s press pool, complete with several (…otherwise unpublished/uncollected, to the best of my knowledge) single-panel editorial cartoons. This post looks at that article, along with recollections of the trip courtesy of Ford’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, and his Press Secretary, Ron Nessen, to get a bit more context on the Duke-in-China episodes. 

(Thanks to Twitter friend @mhfoto_ for getting two versions of the article for me: “Of Disorder Under Heaven…,” Ithaca Journal, 24 December 1975, and “Disorder Under Heaven: On the Road with Ford,” Corpus Christi Caller, 28 December 1975. The text in both is identical, but each version contains cartoons that the other omits.)

Coverage of Trudeau’s presence in Ford’s press entourage is limited, but one moment has been mentioned in a couple of accounts: our faithful correspondent was one of the first people to play Frisbee on the Great Wall. There is a slight inconsistency in reporting about the incident: Ford’s daughter Susan Ford Bales recalled “being the first person to throw a Frisbee on the Great Wall of China with cartoonist Garry Trudeau,” while Time reported that Trudeau tossed the disc with NBC News correspondent Tom Brokaw, only to have the First Daughter suggest that such behavior was insufficiently dignified. Whatever the nature of Susan Ford Bales’s involvement in the incident, Trudeau remembered that “the wall was too narrow to go for distance, and the wind currents were bad.

(… Susan Ford may or may not have tried to shut down the Frisbee session on the Great Wall, but Trudeau has nothing but kind words for her and her mother Betty, whom he calls a “class act” after describing how the “First Lady slipped out of her shoes and joined in a joyful pas de deux” while visiting a Beijing dance school. Trudeau reported that an “impish Susan Ford … scampered around the ramparts of the Great wall capturing imaginary Huns on high-speed Ektachrome.” )

Trudeau’s essay is fun: his prose reminds me of P.J. O’Rourke’s travel writing/foreign-affairs journalism, even though, in 1975, O’Rourke was still at National Lampoon and had yet to start publishing in that vein. This paragraph would fit nicely in any of the numerous pieces in which O’Rourke comically explained “foreign” attitudes and behavior to American readers:

The Chinese like their classlessness, and self-expression is discouraged in every area of human endeavor, with the sole exception of horn-honking. There they excel – relentlessly. The Chinese will honk at anything that moves, and most of what doesn’t. One old China hand explained to us that honking horns was a characteristic of all developing countries, and that it was likely to taper off with the growth of [China’s] GNP.

Trudeau includes a few other vignettes and some gentle digs at his fellow members of the press corps (He notes that “ABC’s Ted Koppel was detained by police behind the Peking Duck Restaurant and ‘held without food and water for five minutes.’”), but his main purpose is to reveal something of the sausage-factory nature of the relationship between politicians and the press, giving readers a glimpse of the unsavory process by which news is produced, especially in the virtual absence of meaningful developments, a situation that defined the Ford trip thanks to a number of interlocking political factors.

In previous posts, I’ve outlined some of the dynamics driving Chinese politics in the mid-70s. Domestically, Mao was in decline, and reactionary elements, notably the Gang of Four, were maneuvering against reformers such as Deng Xiaoping in anticipation of the Chairman leaving the scene. In terms of international relations, China, three years after Richard Nixon’s historic visit, was still facing the same situation that had driven rapprochement: fears of Soviet hegemony. However, because of the uncertainty surrounding the upper echelons of Chinese politics, according to Kissinger, in 1975 China’s “foreign policy lacked the clear sense of direction which usually distinguishes it.”

Meanwhile, America was mired in overlapping political crises. Ford’s highly-controversial post-Watergate pardon of Nixon and Congressional investigations revealing decades of abuses committed by the CIA against the American people further undermined the already-weakened faith of a country in its government. America was also dealing with multiple issues on the international stage, as the disgrace of a final defeat in Vietnam was compounded by stalemated arms talks and a collapsed trade agreement with the Soviets. These dynamics, Kissinger writes, weakened America’s credibility and made the United States a potentially less-valuable partner in China’s eyes. 

It was thus highly unlikely that a major diplomatic coup would emerge from the Ford visit. Kissinger knew that the trip was not going to produce any significant developments when, on his preparatory visit to Beijing, he and his Chinese interlocutors failed to reach agreement on a communique before Ford’s visit: 

It signified, at a minimum, that the top leaders either did not expect significant new developments in American-Chinese relations or believed that any attempt to go beyond the Shanghai Communique would raise insuperable obstacles in either Washington or Beijing.

Mao confirmed the absence of any real incentive for China to work towards any sort of major agreement with the U.S., telling Ford: “It seems to me at present there is nothing between our two countries.”

Moreover, Nessen was frustrated by the Chinese approach to media relations, as he was only allowed to reveal mundane details to the press, such as what was on the menu at various events, or the sights that Ford’s party had seen and the size of the crowds that had greeted them. The only way that Chinese officials would allow Nessen to describe official meetings was with anodyne adjectives like “constructive,” “wide-ranging,” and “significant.”

The resulting frustration among the press corps was a central focus of GBT’s memoir. He notes that “in the absence of hard news,” the junket became “a perfect television story,” in that it had “ no substance.” By the end of the trip, he notes, “most journalists were unhappily left with identical, colorless stories of a uniformly polite reticent citizenry.” Nessen mentioned one of Trudeau’s cartoons spoofing the  paucity of meaningful information made available to the press in his recollections. In it, Kissinger addresses reporters: “Good evening. The talks were significant. Have a nice flight back.” (Nessen referred to Trudeau as the “Doomsday cartoonist,” which I can only assume was a brain fart re: the title of the strip and not a characterization of GBT’s work…)

Kissinger, by Garry Trudeau, 1975

Trudeau’s essay sits squarely in the Gonzo journalism tradition – not in terms of the all-too-popular, simplistic understanding of the genre in which phrases like “drug-fueled craziness” obscure the intent of the approach, but in terms of how Gonzo writers blur the lines between objective fact and subjective experience in order to reveal deeper truth. GBT advises the reader that “both literal and figurative nuances [should] be accorded more weight than is normally granted conventional reportage.” Beyond signaling a departure from standard reporting practice, this intervention reflects a move the historian of Gonzo journalism, William McKeen, identifies as a key element of Hunter Thompson’s journalistic approach, the use of “fake editor’s notes” that “provided anonymity,” allowing a writer to “work an attitude … that he couldn’t with his regular byline.” 

The attitude Trudeau worked was, I imagine, facilitated by his having something of an insider/outsider status within the press pool. Presumably, he would have enjoyed  a level of official access roughly equivalent to that of any other reporter on the trip, but he would not have been beholden to the usual professional standards that accompany that access, nor would he have faced the professional consequences that typically result from breaking them. 

And the standards I’m talking about aren’t about whether or not it’s proper for a professional journalist to throw a Frisbee on the Great Wall: one of the cardinal rules of reporting is, of course, that journalists aren’t supposed to reveal anonymous sources. While there’s a lot to be said about the necessity of that sort of thing in a free and democratic society, there are bread-and-butter concerns for reporters who violate that rule: in a journalistic environment where access to officialdom is valued perhaps above all else, a reporter who burns a source will be looking for other work pretty quickly. 

In Thompsonian fashion, there’s a note telling the reader that the middle third of Trudeau’s report is “filed without byline.” What follows, Trudeau writes, is the product of a conversation with one of a group of reporters who sat down with Kissinger on the flight from Beijing to Jakarta. Trudeau then describes another pas-de-deux, this one between a press corps desperate for something to file and an administration dancing around the fact that it had nothing of substance to say.

The episode GBT recounts reveals how powerful figures dangle bits of information in front of reporters, giving them the illusion they are privy to exclusive insights when what they are getting is nothing more than the latest variation on the established line. Moreover, even when the ruse is laid bare, journalists keep being pawns in a process which works to the benefit of the powerful people they cover, because it’s the only game in town.

***

The scene is Air Force One:

Kissinger, after exchanging pleasantries with the press pool, “abruptly changed modalities,” and “with a twinkling of an eye,” transformed from Henry Kissinger, a namable source, to “a senior American official,” ostensibly allowing him to give reporters nuggets of information he couldn’t while speaking on the record. The reporters had seen the act countless times, but they “never ceased to be fascinated by the Secretary’s dematerialization.” Now, with the proceedings being conducted  “on background,” reporters were “privy to the wisdom and logic of the most powerful senior American official on Earth.”

It quickly became clear, however, that the senior American official had as little to say as his on-the-record incarnation: his vague pronouncements on issues like Taiwan, the political value of the summit, and triangular diplomacy between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow failed to impress reporters who had heard it all before. And so the senior American official decided to “drop back into the deep background mode.” Coming from “deep background,” whatever Kissinger said was not for attribution, and could only “be used on the reporter’s own authority, as the United States position was understood to be.” (When you read a report saying “The Post has learned that…,” with no other attribution, that’s likely information that came on deep background)  GBT describes how “the position” “smiled proudly” as he outlined what was meant to be “la creme de la creme” of American foreign policy thinking for reporters who 

 …felt like smiling and laughing with joy and punching each other on the arm. Deep background was what made it all worthwhile – it was composed of perceptions so frank and candid that they were practically classified. … The reporters leaned forward in their seats, so eager were they to catch every word of the United States position.

The reporters may have been excited at being led into the inner sanctum of deep background, but they soon were “nonplussed” as the position repeated banalities about China and the collapse in Vietnam. This wasn’t the promised gold, it was “information [that] was available at a discount.” The position, sensing that the reporters were not satisfied with his pronouncements, finally drags out “what the President would call ‘very, very good, great deep background,’” delivered in “terse, declarative sentences”:

Those who know the Chinese would agree that they can be bloody-minded sons-of-bitches, but they are serious. They pride themselves on the phrase ‘our word counts.

In the parlance of our times, another “nothingburger” from the position. And yet, while the “well-paid but undernourished correspondent from the New York Times” may have “snapped his notebook closed in disgust” at Kissinger’s charade, when the briefing ends, the Secretary of State reminds the reporter of his place in the pecking order: 

“Jim,” said Henry, “I want to see a copy of that transcript.”

“Of course, Mr. Secretary.”

***

Between Trudeau’s report and Kissinger and Nessen’s respective reminiscences, there are a number of references to moments from the China trip that later figured in Doonesbury strips. 

*While GBT was the first person to throw a frisbee on the Great Wall, Duke, on his way out the door, claimed to have been “the first Gringo to get stoned on the Great Wall.

*Something that inspired me to go on a deep-dive into the China episode was learning that the “millet plus rifles” strip was taken verbatim from Deng’s toast welcoming Ford to Beijing. According to Trudeau, Deng’s remark about “the country which most zealously preaches peace” being “the most dangerous source of war,” set off alarm bells among the press corps, who wondered if Deng’s “diatribe” would define the tenor of the summit. Both at the time, and, recalling the moment decades later, Nessen underplayed the harshness of Deng’s words; in his memoir, Kissinger dismissed the confrontational stance as little more than “a by-now almost obligatory dig at detente.”

*The Presidential party attended a performance of the ballet “Song of the Yeming Mountains”; Nessen’s retelling of the plot echoes Duke’s summary of “Song of the Tiger,” the opera he attended, in which “a despot landlord captures a PLA platoon leader by tricking his comrades… in the end, they destroy the despot landlord, and cheers ring across the skies in praise of Chairman Mao.”

The parallels between Ford’s and Duke’s experience with Chinese performing arts run deeper than plot similarities: as was the case at the performance Duke saw, many in Ford’s entourage fell asleep during the show. More memorably, as it did in “Song of the Tiger,” live gunfire figured prominently in the ballet that the Americans attended. “As it is often the case in real life,” automatic weapons fire was, indeed, the overture.

*As was the case in Duke’s saga, the timing of Ford’s meeting with Mao was shrouded in mystery. Nessen reveals that when word finally came that Mao would receive Ford, the Americans had only thirty minutes to prepare: Kissinger’s wife had to be extricated from a shopping trip so that she could attend. For Duke, notice that Mao would grant him an audience came in the dead of night, with Honey appearing in Duke’s quarters at 3:30 in the morning, bearing a lantern and urging him to get ready as there was “no time to waste.”

*Both Nessen and Kissinger describe how badly Mao had deteriorated by 1975, something that defined Trudeau’s portrayal of the Great Helmsman. While the real-life Chairman had to resort to writing notes to his translators because he could no longer speak clearly, in the funny pages, Honey filled in the blanks herself and hoped for the best. (One difference between the actual Mao and his comic-strip counterpart is that while GBT portrayed him as senile, Kissinger maintains that while Mao was in poor physical health, “his mind and sardonic analytical ability were intact.”

*One outstanding question that further research has left unanswered is the story behind the strip in which Duke is tormented by a Chinese marching-band rendition of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” As I noted in my last post, while the music of Duke’s neighbor/nemesis took on significant cultural significance in China, that only happened a few years after Duke’s tour: so how did GBT end up sneaking a Denver gag into the China arc? Was it just an excuse to sneak in a running joke, or was he recounting something he witnessed as a member of Ford’s press team? 

Unfortunately, both Trudeau and Nessen are silent on the question, but Kissinger recalls that during a visit he took to Beijing before Ford’s trip, “a military band interspersed Chinese songs with popular American tunes, much as it had during Nixon’s visit.” It’s only reasonable the band’s repertoire didn’t change much in the interim, and that Denver’s music was sufficiently anodyne to be repeated for Ford. 

*Trudeau’s recounting of how “the position” noted that the Chinese were “bloody-minded sons-of-bitches” who “pride themselves on the phrase ‘our word counts” was later reflected in a strip in which Honey pointed out that while the Chinese may have been, in Duke’s words, “vicious, capricious and EXTREMELY cunning,”  they were “polite,” and they “[liked] to think that still counts for something.” 

***

I’ve barely discussed the cartoons that GBT included in his essay about the China trip: in a future post I’ll talk about them alongside some other material that Trudeau published in the mid-70s that also appeared elsewhere than on the funny pages. Like the China material, those efforts will underline the extent to which Garry Trudeau’s work is best understood as a particular iteration of the Gonzo tradition.

Stay tuned. 

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