Everything I need to know about America I learned from ‘Doonesbury’

I’ve written before about how I miss when newspaper comics were a bit more central in pop culture. And few have been more topical and controversial than Garry Trudeau’s venerable daily Doonesbury, still going strong, if less frequently, after 50-plus years. 

For nerdy kids like me who grew up reading the comics pages and scouring thrift shops for old paperbacks, Doonesbury was our political education. The first Doonesbury book I remember picking up was 1981’s “In Search of Reagan’s Brain,”  a pointed if often mystifying to me satire of the then-new US President’s penchant for vagueness and nostalgia. I barely knew who Reagan was at my tender age, but something about the complicated, arcane world of Doonesbury made me want to get the joke. 

Later, I bought classic treasury collections like “The Doonesbury Chronicles,” which awakened me to strange early ‘70s concepts like communes and Walden Pond, or to Nixon and Ford and the Watergate figures. There were the just plain funny strips, but then there were the ones that made me want to learn more to get the references. 

Pre-internet, the past was a rather mysterious country, and to be honest, my history classes that I recall of primary and high school education always seemed to focus on the really distant past, on Founding Fathers and constitutional principles and occasionally something as fresh as World War II.

Little was taught about injustice, or racism, or the many wrongs and missteps in America’s long, tangled history. Doonesbury had Black, Asian and gay characters long before it was common. Through Doonesbury, I learned that America was always many things at the same time, and the obscure political and cultural figures of 1975 and 1984 it stuck in my head made me want to learn more about it all in my own time. 

But Doonesbury would never have lasted if it was just a blithe satire of the news of the day, and it was the characters who kept me coming back for more – everyman Mike Doonesbury’s journey from idealistic student to ‘80s ad man to ‘00s digital hipster to today’s almost senior citizen, football player turned wounded veteran B.D., eternal hippie Zonker, Hunter Thompson stand-in Duke (who became rather tiresome through overuse), or fiery campus protester Mark’s long journey to coming out.

Doonesbury always felt kind of like the story of a family as it journeyed through five decades of America, and that human touch is what made me want to learn more about the years it spanned. 

Doonesbury is still going 51 years on – longer than Schulz did Peanuts now – although it’s been new strips on Sundays only since 2014 or so which makes it feel like it’s entered a slow final victory lap around the cultural arena. Trudeau’s been viciously funny with the Tr**p years but it’s a lot harder to pay attention in the Age of Outrage. Mike and the gang are still around, and they’ve got children, and their children even have children as Doonesbury turns sweetly generational. 

I guess I know more about how the US and the world works now in my own encroaching middle age, and there’s certainly no shortage of places one can pick up history and knowledge now, but I’ll always kind of long for the days when Trudeau’s characters were my newsprint guides to the follies and foibles of the wider world. 

The enigma of Chester A. Arthur, forgotten President

I’ve always been curious about the underdogs in life, and few presidents were bigger underdogs than Chester A. Arthur, perhaps the most forgotten of American Presidents. 

Arthur served less than a full term after the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881, and died just over a year after leaving office. The most distinctive thing about the 21st President to most casual history buffs is his truly prodigious set of mutton chops, a fulsome flowering of facial hair that bloomed from his sideburns to give him an almost leonine appearance. Presidential facial hair was big in the 1800s, but Arthur, like the dandy he was in life, was perhaps the most stylish of them all. 

Yet Arthur’s legacy is mired in a time when corruption was so endemic in US politics that a President actually died because of it. Garfield was assassinated by a crazed, disgruntled office seeker in an act that disastrously capped off an era of failed attempts to reform the patronage system where jobs and bribes were handed out like candy to political operators. 

I began my fascination with Arthur years ago with a rather bizarrely entertaining weird novel from 1983 called The Chester A. Arthur Conspiracy by William Weigand. The wacky plot of this book is that John Wilkes Booth was not killed after Lincoln’s assassination, but instead taken in by Confederate sympathisers including one Nell Herndon – wife of the New York Customs House official Chester Arthur. Nell and Booth fall in love, and in a series of escalating contrivances, Arthur dies (weak heart) and fugitive Booth, who of course was an actor before all that assassinating business, takes his place. He assumes the career of Arthur right up until his unlikely ascension to the presidency, and beyond. The tragedy of Booth (besides all the obvious stuff) is that he gives up his own identity and true love along the way. 

I know it sounds bizarre, and the preposterous Chester A. Arthur Conspiracy is not really a great book – Weigand makes Booth rather too sympathetic – but it’s a rather bold yarn in its implausible ideas, and there’s something to the idea of Booth, the haunted assassin who actually ends up becoming the president himself. Arthur is enough of a cipher to the public imagination that the idea of an actor actually playing him kind of works. 

There’s not a lot of books on Arthur, compared to Lincoln or JFK, but Scott S. Greenberger’s recent The Unexpected President is a good, breezy look at Arthur’s sudden rise. Chester Arthur was born in Vermont (still the only President from there) to religious fundamentalists, but when he grew up he left for a career as a lawyer in New York City, developing a taste for the finer things in life and falling in with the Republican Party of the time. He became a key player in “boss” Senator Roscoe Conkling’s fiefdom of corruption and control in party politics, and whatever idealism he possessed in his youth seemed to be consumed by the desire for power, instead of principle. 

Nobody would have picked Chet Arthur to rise from running the New York Customs House to the second-highest office in the land, but in a series of behind-the-scenes wrangling at the 1880 Republican convention, he was picked to be “dark horse” James Garfield’s running mate, in an attempt to balance things between reformers and “stalwarts” like Conkling. It was a cozy job for a cozy kind of fellow, the ultimate patronage reward. 

But just a few months into his term, Garfield was shot, and after an agonising few months, he died. The reaction from many was summed up with this popular quote from the time: “‘Chet’ Arthur president of the United States! Good God!’

Arthur was described as shattered by the reality of the presidency falling upon him. “He is sitting alone in his room sobbing like a child,” one of Arthur’s staff reported his reaction upon hearing the news. He’d never been elected to any political office before the vice-presidency, and was one of the least experienced chief executives in history. Arthur actually did quite a lot of weeping about his fate, according to Greenberger’s book, which maybe isn’t the reaction Truman or LBJ had in the same situation, but at the same time, it kind of humanises poor old Chet. 

Arthur burned much of his papers and letters before his death, probably in an attempt to avoid his reputation becoming more scandalous, but the net effect of that is that Arthur now feels like a spectator in his own story, a Zelig or Chauncey Gardner at the heart of democracy. Others who loomed large in Arthur’s life like Roscoe Conkling or James Garfield feel more vivid. It doesn’t help that Arthur died of Bright’s Disease at just 57, not even two years after he was failed nomination for a second term. 

The curious thing about Arthur is, he actually turned into a bit of a reformer when he became President. He balked at Conkling’s attempts to run his presidency and ticked off a lot of his old friends. He wasn’t a revolutionary, but he also wasn’t the pliable puppet many of his old pals expected him to be. Arthur remains opaque, but in Greenberger’s book he comes across as a man trying to make up for his past sins in his brief time as president. 

One pivotal point in The Unexpected President is the correspondence an invalid woman and fan named Julia Sands sent Arthur. The Victorian age equivalent of an internet commenter, Sands sent Arthur at least two dozen letters over the years, most of them praising and berating him at the same time, always encouraging him to do better and rise above his controversial past.

Greenberger and others have picked these letters as a reason for Arthur’s change in heart as President, which might be an exaggeration, but it’s hard to know. A lot of theories about her are mere speculation. None of Arthur’s letters to her – if he sent any – survive, and the two only apparently met once in a rather stiff and awkward encounter where it seems Arthur just came to see who the heck this crazy lady who kept mailing him was. But the image of a random woman acting as the conscience of a president is appealing. 

Despite not being anywhere as weird as the fictional one in Conspiracy, the Arthur at the heart of The Unexpected President is a bit of a void as well. He’s often described as an amiable, glad-handing friend, but his inner life remains mysterious. He mourns the early deaths of his wife and an infant son, but we can never know what he really felt. 

“I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damned business,” he once said. 

And yet there’s something interesting about Arthur to me – almost alone among Vice-Presidents turned Presidents, he apparently never really aspired to the office – he wasn’t a lifelong office-holder like Truman, LBJ or Gerald Ford – as his very human fears and worries over the responsibility are something you can still identify with. 

“Making a man President can change him!” Sands wrote in one of her letters: 

“Your name now is on the annals of history. You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence, shool [sic] boys will recite your name in the list of Presidents & tell of your administration. And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold. For the sake of your country, for your own sake & for the sakes of all who have ever loved you, let it be pure & bright.”

All the Presidents’ books: The best reads about America’s leaders

So I’m a massive Presidential history nerd, a hobby which has felt more than a little shameful the last four years under President Asterisk*, he-who-shall-not-be-named. Fortunately, it feels OK to admit this in public again now.

I love a good presidential history book, and I’m fascinated by the lives and times of most of the men (so far, all men and happily, now one female vice-president) who’ve held the office, even if I loathed their politics at times. February is when the US celebrates Presidents Day – hopefully a little less bleakly this year – and it’s the month during which the birthdays of George Washington (1732) and Abraham Lincoln (1809) fell. It’s a great month to look back at the presidency over nearly 250 years and remember that despite the current troubles, there’s still a lot to learn from history. 

Of the dozens of Presidential books I’ve read over the years, here’s some highlights: 

Most interesting president to read about: Theodore Roosevelt was a cowboy, a policeman, a rancher, a war hero, naturalist, historian and still, at 42, the youngest President in American history. You pretty much have to work to make his life story boring, and there’s many fascinating books about ol’ Teddy’s life and presidency. The king of these is the late Edmund Morris’ three-book trilogy, with the first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, probably the best book about a President’s early life I’ve ever read. Teddy built himself up from an asthmatic child into a swaggering pile of masculine, determined ego, and while he was frequently overbearing, he also was surprisingly progressive in many areas. You can’t go wrong with Morris’ trilogy, or for a great side story, Candice Millard’s The River Of Doubt is a terrific manly travel tale about TR’s near-fatal trip deep into the Amazon after his presidency. And Teddy himself also wrote some great books about his adventures.  Runners-up: Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Thomas Jefferson

Greatest writing about a President: Robert A. Caro’s epic multi-volume look at the life and times of President Lyndon Johnson is held up as the gold standard of biographies, having won the Pulitzer Prize twice. I won’t be contrarian. It’s an absolutely stunning, authoritative piece of work that shows the countless hours of research and shoe-leather reporting Caro has put into his masterpiece over the decades, from evocative portrayals of the dirt-poor Texas hill country where LBJ came from to untangling the ins and outs of the US Senate works without boring the pants off readers. It now sprawls for thousands of pages, but every word of The Years of Lyndon Johnson is essential. The fifth and final volume is in progress now and like many other readers I am hoping Caro, now 85, sees it all through to the end. It’s a blueprint for how to tell the full story of a life and the times they lived in. Runners-up: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; Grant by Ron Chernow; Team of Rivals by Doris Goodwin; Truman by David McCullough; the excellent Nixonland series by Ron Perlstein which I’ve written about before. 

President you wouldn’t think would be interesting: Grover Cleveland is mostly remembered as being the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms, so he’s technically the 22nd and 24th President. But he also had one of the greatest cover-ups in Presidential history, a top-secret cancer surgery held in the middle of the night on a boat at sea. Matthew Algeo’s fast-paced The President is A Sick Man is a great concise history of the somewhat forgotten Cleveland and one of the bigger medical scandals in US history. It reads like a thriller. And Presidents have certainly never stopped being cagey about their health, from Woodrow Wilson’s crippling stroke to Tr**p’s still mysterious COVID hospitalisation. 

Best books not quite about the Presidents: Doug Wead is a conservative activist and Tr*mp booster, which I’m not wild about, but I do rather like the two books he’s written about the children and parents of Presidents, All The Presidents’ Children and The Raising of a President. They dig into what makes a leader and what a leader’s legacy is and are chock-full of interesting trivia about the Presidential families. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of awful tragedy in the families of many Presidents, perhaps it comes with the job. Runner-Up: Alice by Stacy Cordery, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter, who lived a remarkable life in the middle of the Washington scene that spanned from the presidency of Cleveland to Jimmy Carter. 

Goofiest book about Presidents: How To Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country by Daniel O’Brien. If you want offbeat, here’s a book that looks at presidents through the filter of how good they might be at kicking your ass. It’s very silly but amusing stuff, and the only book I own that features the phrase “Ulysses S. Grant is the drunken, angry John McClane of Presidents.” The joke gets a bit old, but it’s still a pretty funny breezy, fisticuff-filled march through history. I’d still put my money on Teddy Roosevelt to smack them all down, though. 

Best overall look at the Presidents: When it comes to overall presidential trivia, nothing compares to William DeGregorio’s massive Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. How tall was Calvin Coolidge? What nasty health ailments did Chester A. Arthur have? Who, for the love of God, was Millard Fillmore’s Postmaster General? It’s a great done-in-one resource for history nerds. Unfortunately, since DeGregorio died a while back, later editions have been notably lacking in detail and accuracy regarding the more recent presidents, which is a shame, but from Washington to Clinton or so, it’s a great guide.  

Most morbid book about Presidents: Dead Presidents by Brady Carlson. What happens to Presidents after they die is sometimes more interesting than their administrations. Take Zachary Taylor, first president to die in office, who was famously exhumed in the 1990s to prove he wasn’t poisoned. Dead Presidents is a great tour of presidential demises, resting places and of their legacies, looking at things like Thomas Jefferson’s children with his slaves or the long strange journey of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse. Runner-up: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.

Best presidential memoirs: People talk about how great the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant are, but I’m afraid I haven’t made it around to them quite yet. Most of the memoirs are famously stiff and reveal little about the men themselves. They tend to start strong and fizzle out, such as Bill Clinton’s My Life, which is nicely evocative about his Arkansas boyhood and difficult family life, but turns into a blur of names and places when he becomes President. Even Barack Obama’s recent A Promised Land, although eloquent and featuring great moments of detailed insight, succumbs somewhat to this problem, although I’d still probably rank it as the best memoir that I’ve read so far in a flawed genre. (But his wife’s is even better.) To me the best presidential books are the ones not written by the subjects themselves, but by talented historians. 

Sorry, but you can’t make these guys interesting: I’ve read a few books about some of the lesser-known presidents and it can be hard going. Some near-forgotten ones are surprisingly captivating to me – I’ve always had a thing for the hapless Franklin Pierce, for James Buchanan, usually considered the worst President until quite recently, or the overwhelmed Warren Harding. However, I don’t want to name-and-shame authors as it’s not always their fault if a subject isn’t Teddy Roosevelt, but let’s just say it’s pretty darned hard to make Calvin Coolidge interesting, and despite James K. Polk presiding at a pretty fascinating time in American history as the nation expanded, as a person, he seems as dull as dishwater to read about. And don’t even get me started about Benjamin Harrison.

These are just a few of the veritable mountain range of presidential literature out there to dig into around Presidents Day. Happy reading!

So far, 2021 is a very repetitive sequel to 2020

..I never thought I’d see the things I saw happen in Washington, D.C. yesterday outside of dystopian science-fiction and overwrought comic stories.

But it did, and hopefully some real soul-searching erupts from this nauseating display.

I wrote a few words about it all that were published over on both Radio New Zealand and Newsroom‘s websites yesterday. Go give a read!

And be kind, people, it’s the only way to be.

The last thing I’ll ever write about Donald Trump

A little less than four years ago today, our family marched in downtown Auckland to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Thousands of us did, including future Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

I took the picture of this woman at the right at the march in 2017. I wondered this morning where she is today, and I hope she’s OK and still around to see things have gotten better. That New Zealand’s Prime Minister who walked right along with us that day was re-elected in a landslide a few weeks back, and that America is about to welcome its first woman Vice-President. 

There were thousands of people that day – woman, men, children, young, old, of all races – all united in having a say over the very grim way the world seemed to be turning after Trump’s election. It felt good, damn good, to be doing something to soothe the impotent anger I felt after what happened in November 2016, even if it didn’t change the world, even if it didn’t really “matter.”

Yet today I look at the people today swarming the streets in America to celebrate the election of Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and I think well, maybe it did matter. 

Living over here since 2006 and looking back at America has been strange. I have felt like an observer in a distant outpost looking back at my home sometimes, trying to read the smoke signals.

I lived in New Zealand through the entire Obama presidency, where I felt like America was making bold steps toward a better world, and now, I’ll have been here through the entire Trump presidency, when everything I thought about the Obama years turned out to be a bit premature. I’ve written about politics in America from my NZ perspective many times, and about Trumpism. I’m still not sure I understand it at all.

I remember marching in Auckland in January 2017 – my son, then 12, was a good foot shorter than he is now. We didn’t make a sign, which I kind of regretted. It felt good to be in a crowd – a feeling that didn’t carry any of the fear and worry it does in 2020 – and to raise our voice a bit. I hoped someone would listen to us.

America listened, or at least, enough of them to make it matter. The result of this election was wayyyyyyyy too close for my liking, and a disturbing reminder that the divide in America is about way more than the current President. I want to feel anger at people who voted for him again, but I also think about Biden’s words that they aren’t the enemy. Maybe the tone really does matter more than the clickbait, the retweets and the ratings. I don’t know how things will go under President Biden, but I do know that not having the so-called leader of the free world giving constant airtime to the worst and pettiest of our feelings will be something better than before. 

At times in life, that’s all we can hope for sometimes, is the better than before.

I feel like we got it today. There’s dark days ahead and trouble to come I’m sure, but today, it’s better than before. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, apparently there’s an election going on somewhere or something. I’ve been keeping busy with a few freelance think pieces this week for my friends over at Radio New Zealand:

First up, what’s it like to vote in not one but two national elections just a few weeks apart? And what can the US learn from New Zealand’s election last month? Here’s my take and what I desperately hope is the last piece I ever write involving a certain 45th President of the United States:

Opinion: The one word that really matters for US Election Day

But wait! There’s more! The big story everybody was talking about a day or two before the latest several big stories was the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. Also for Radio New Zealand, I wrote about what it all means and how it’s a worrying sign of where America’s head is at these days:

Amy Coney Barrett: It’s all about the politics

Enjoy! More pop culture content after Election Day, assuming we’re all still here…

We’re all still living in “Nixonland,” 50 years on

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a little trouble concentrating as 2020 rumbles and trudges its way to the grim season finale. As a dual citizen of the US and New Zealand, I’ve got not one but TWO national elections I’m voting in this year, so everything feels soaked in political arguments and campaign slogans. My brain feels perpetually overstimulated and understaffed.

It’s hard to write about comics and music and movies and such when everything seems swamped by politics. This ain’t a political blog, but like everyone else, I’m sucked in by the tenor of the times. In search of answers for the current craziness, I’ve gone back in time more than 50 years, re-reading Rick Perlstein’s masterpiece “Nixonland,” a deep dive into American politics between 1965 to 1972. The groundwork for Trumpland begins here. 

“Nixonland” is the second of a series of four massive tomes Perlstein has written examining the world of American conservatism from Goldwater to Reagan. Packed with detail, yet in crisp and clear prose, the books form a definitive examination of the duelling forces in American life that continue clashing to this day. Lots of talking heads bang on about how America has never been more polarised than today, but that’s not exactly true. Read about the clashes at the Democratic Convention of ’68, the riots and protests in Watts and Newark, and you see a pattern that just keeps repeating in America. Nothing is all that new, it turns out – it’s just the stage dressing that changes. 

There was more than a fair bit of turbulence in the America of the late 1960s, between Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, the rise of feminism and generation gaps. You can’t point for point compare then to now – instead of a war everyone’s arguing over, we’ve got a virus that’s turned bizarrely political – but the fundamentals of a nation that’s always been torn between liberty and conformity, “freedom” and authoritarianism, are there. For most of the last 60 years, America has been a conservative nation with brief spasms of progressiveness. How it winds up in 2020, nobody knows. 

“It was coming to this – insurgents and patriots paying good money to watch the other side silenced and humiliated,” reads a passage in “Nixonland.” Sound like social media, anybody? The biggest difference between 1970 and 2020 is that an entire industry of compliant, biased media and social media silos have created a perpetually self-congratulatory echo chamber that ensures you can pick your own reality. Previously a President could have his approval rating drop down into the 20s, but these days, the echo chamber ensures that even the worst of Presidents won’t drop below a certain level of approval.

What “Nixonland” shows us so inexorably is how America keeps wrestling with the same demons over and over again. This is nothing new – as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Great Gatsby” nearly a century ago, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

Life is objectively better for many people than it was 100 years ago in America, of course. America inches forward – and a little too often, also stumbles backward in the same motion.

America is still living in Nixonland, 25 years after his death. Hopefully one day it can fully break free of it. It’s gonna take a lot more than one election to do that, though. 

I voted for Elizabeth Warren. I’m not mad.

I voted for Elizabeth Warren on Super Tuesday, absentee from California as I’ve done for most elections the past 14 years or so. 

I don’t feel like I wasted my vote, really, although Warren finished fourth in the state and her campaign seems to be coming for a close. While I think she was the best of the Democratic candidates, the voters didn’t really agree, and she hasn’t won a state yet or finished particularly well in any of them. I’m annoyed that a candidate as good on paper as she is didn’t do better, but when it comes down to it, the voters make the call, and the endless parade of talking heads who’ve filled up mountains of space in the past year don’t always know what’s going to happen.

Who knows the heart of the American voter? I’ve lived abroad long enough that it’s harder and harder sometimes to figure what’s going on back home, but then again, I’m the guy that was dead sure Trump would never become President. I think it was a mix of sexism/Clinton hangover, an overcrowded field, and just some fundamental failure to connect on Warren’s part. It’s a bummer. 

But I’m used to lost causes. The first Presidential campaign I was really engaged in was 1988, where Michael Dukakis was thoroughly stomped by George H.W. Bush. I liked Dukakis, but it didn’t matter. I’ve picked some winners, and some losers, in the past 30 years or so of voting in American elections. I’ve been really depressed by some of them, and pleasantly surprised by some. But I never stopped voting.

I think both Biden and Sanders have good points, and frankly, I would vote for anybody with a reliable pulse and a fairly sane agenda to get the current occupant as far out of the White House as possible. Everyone gets really heated up when it comes to primaries and caucuses, and sometimes people lose sight of the bigger goal than just “I WANT MY TEAM TO WIN” mentality. 

One of the great curiosities of US politics for me the last few years is how easily one side of the political divide seems to have bent and compromised principles left and right just to back the winning team, accepting flaws and obvious corruption they never would’ve a few years back, while the other side is often consumed by the search for mythical perfection, for the glittering flawless candidate that doesn’t exist. 

I’ll vote in November, and even if my guy (sadly, this year, it’s apparently gonna be a guy) isn’t perfect, I’m still gonna show up. I’m not going to throw a sulk and sit it out, and I’m gonna hope this year is one of those where I’ve backed a winner. The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been.