Doonesbury in the Carter Years. Prelude: A Nation in Crisis

(Recently, I’ve been looking at the history of underground comix in preparation for an eventual exploration of Doonesbury’s roots. I’m still working on the next instalment in that series: in the meanwhile, I want to get back into writing more directly about the strip itself, so here’s the first in what I expect to be a lengthy series of posts about Doonesbury’s portrayal of Jimmy Carter’s years in the White House.)

In February 2023, Jimmy Carter’s family announced that the former president was in hospice care. As Carter prepares for death, commentators, pundits and people on social media express admiration for a man whose dignity and commitment to public service stands in sharp contrast to the crassness and selfishness that permeates contemporary American politics. Over the next few months, I’ll be looking at how Doonesbury covered the Carter presidency, a time defined in large part by two political/cultural dynamics: a national reckoning with the tumultuous decade-and-a-half that preceded Carter’s 1976 election, and the emergence of crises that further undermined America’s self-confidence and its political commitment to the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, feeding the rise of a revolutionary brand of conservatism that continues to shape American politics, society and culture. 

Carter once said that he was a better ex-president than he was a president. His decades of work with Housing for Humanity may well figure larger in the popular memory than any political achievement, policy failure or scandal that occurred under his watch. That said, even as I recognize Carter as an incredibly decent man, much of the material I’ll be covering here is not going to be particularly complementary to him, nor should it have been. Garry Trudeau is a satirist, and, generally speaking, he did not pull his punches when writing about Carter any more than he did with any other politician: this series is not a tribute to Carter, it’s a look at how his presidency unfolded in a strip dedicated to using humor to speak truth to power. While we will be looking at how some of the man’s more endearing qualities were gently teased by Trudeau’s pen – something also present in his some of writing about Richard Nixon – readers looking for a loving eulogy for a guy who hung out with Willie Nelson and built houses for poor people won’t find that here. 

In this post, I’m going to set the stage for Carter’s arrival on the political scene and in the comics pages. 

The 1976 presidential election unfolded as the United States was deep in the fallout of two unprecedented crises – a president resigning in disgrace and defeat in a foreign war – that had come to a head during the previous eighteen months. Those particular crises had emerged in the wake of roughly twenty years of political unrest marked by assassinations, bombings, mass uprisings, and sustained attacks by young people on foundational American political, intellectual, cultural and social norms and practices that had brought generational, racial, gendered and sexual hierarchies into question and helped move forward the never-ending task of undoing them. 

America’s reckoning with that difficult past unfolded as the nation was preparing to celebrate its longer history in the lead-up to its bicentennial. But while celebration may have been the order of the day, America was entering its third century burdened with problems that undermined much of the optimism that accompanied the bicentennial vibe. Many of these questions featured prominently in Doonesbury: the relevant strips reveal how GBT captured the deep cynicism and disillusionment many Americans were feeling as the campaign unfolded.

Scenes from a nation falling apart in Doonesbury.

By 1976, Americans who had come of age in a time of virtually uninterrupted post-war economic growth had already been through a couple of years of financial hardship as an oil embargo compounded with the bills coming due for the war in Vietnam plunged the country into a prolonged economic slowdown marked by the disastrous phenomenon of “stagflation,” recession combined with inflation.  A May 1973 strip showed B.D.’s father bringing his bank manager to the butcher’s in order to get terms on a loan to buy a roast. In January 1974, following a series of direct-action protests by truckers facing escalating fuel costs, GBT sent a contingent of drivers to DC to see the “Energy Czar” to beg for the fuel they needed. The character of the Energy Czar was based on William E. Simon, the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury who, as head of Nixon’s new Federal Energy Administration, a precursor to the Department of Energy, was tasked with addressing the ongoing energy crisis. Simon was eventually promoted to Treasury Secretary ; in the funny pages, as the “Money Czar,” he contemplated rationing cash as a way to control runaway inflation. In 1975, Congress took new powers to shape the national budget: that year saw Doonesbury strips featuring Representatives contemplating laying off the President in order to help balance the books. As persistent unemployment forced the government to provide more aid to jobless workers, GBT unveiled the “Moviegoers Assistance Plan,” which provided unemployed workers with free tickets to matinees, including popcorn benefits for those unemployed for eighteen months or longer. 

Times were so hard that New York City, the beating heart of American capital, ended up, essentially, in financial receivership. New York’s financial woes however, weren’t simply the result of economic trends; they reflected a larger phenomenon of mismanagement at every level of the state that further eroded American faith in government and provided ammunition to a growing libertarian/conservative backlash against New Deal/Great Society liberalism. Moreover, the dishonesty and greed encapsulated in Johnson’s lies about Vietnam, Agnew’s corruption, and Nixon’s fundamental crookedness had again raised its head in scandals ranging from “Koreagate,” a bribery scandal involving ten Democrat Congresscritters, to the case of Wayne Hays, a Democratic congressional representative who hired his lover for a secretarial position she was completely unqualified for. 

As was the case with the nation’s economic crises, these scandals were featured in Doonesbury arcs in the months leading up to the election. An August 1975 episode about New York City’s fiscal collapse featured the city’s comptroller proudly telling Geraldo Rivera how he’d employed administrative sleight-of-hand to cook the books. Trudeau only addressed Koreagate in 1977, focusing on Joanie Caucus’s first gig out of law school, working for Lacey Davenport and the Congressional investigation that followed the scandal. Shortly before the election, however, Rick Redfern got a tip that a Senator was meeting his secretary at a DC motel for illicit encounters; when the resulting scandal came to light, we learned that the woman in question could barely recite the alphabet

(I would love to know how hard Garry had to push his editor on running a strip that strongly implied that a United States Senator was meeting an aide in a motel so that he could pleasure himself while she read obscure bits of treaty law to him. Doonesbury, 23 July 1976.)

Whether one was reading the front page or the funny pages, the 1976 election saw Americans looking for new leadership in the wake of trying times and with deep misgivings about the system that was supposed to provide it. Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, a Christian with a deeply conservative set of moral values and strong progressive political impulses, a peanut farmer from the Old South who as a nuclear nuclear engineer embodied the aspirations of the New South, a man who quoted theologians and rock stars in the same paragraph, presented himself as a candidate with the political vision and moral integrity that would help set a troubled nation right. Next time out in this series, we’ll look at how Carter tried to resolve some of the contradictions that defined him to an electorate that was alternately enthused and skeptical of the man, and how Garry Trudeau introduced him to Doonesbury readers.

Stay tuned. 

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