Last week, the Washington Post finally ran a Doonesbury strip that its editors vetoed in 1973. At the Post’s own Comic Riffs blog, columnist Michael Cavna examined the Watergate-era context of the strip, the paper’s rather weak justification for its decision at the time, and the reactions of readers and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau.
In May 1973, the scope of the Nixon administration’s involvement in the previous year’s break-in to Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel was not yet fully known. Many on the left were calling for the heads of high-ranking officials, including former Attorney General and Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell. Garry Trudeau, then a 24-year-old relative newcomer to the nation’s comic pages, lampooned the bloodlust with the Doonesbury strip above, in which liberal radio commentator Mark Slackmeyer rabidly proclaims Mitchell “guilty, guilty, guilty!!”
More than a dozen of the 300 newspapers that carried Doonesbury at the time opted not to run the strip, concerned that such a statement of Mitchell’s guilt would compromise their journalistic integrity even on the funny pages. Trudeau was already accustomed to a few editors spiking his strips here and there, but never so many at once. He was even more surprised, he said, that the paper which took the lead in reporting on the Watergate scandal shied away from discussing it in the comics — especially since the strip was not actually commenting on Mitchell’s guilt or innocence, but rather on those who were obsessed with seeing him prosecuted. Trudeau told the New York Times that “[m]y highest priority is entertainment. I wasn’t saying John Mitchell was guilty. It was a parody on all the people who are over-reacting.”
In the end, though, both Trudeau and the Mark Slackmeyers of the world were vindicated:
Two years later, Trudeau would win the Pulitzer Prize for his Watergate commentary — including his “stonewalling White House” strips — making “Doonesbury” (its profile raised by each news article about such controversies) the first comic strip ever to win the editorial cartooning prize. And two years after that, Mitchell — found to be guilty — would begin serving a 19-month prison sentence.
But that was far from the last time that the Washington Post would make a rather odd call on the comics page. Last year the paper refrained from printing a strip by its own humor columnist Gene Weingarten which included the phrase “to f up” — no, that’s not a euphemism. At the time, Weingarten commented on his paper’s sensibilities:
Time and again, the Post exercises more delicacy in comics editing decisions than other papers! We’ve had to rewrite or replace strips several times for the Post, but for none of the many other client papers [receiving syndicated comics.] For the record, I have no problem with a newspaper editing the comics…. I do find the Post‘s Victorian standards a little amusing, but it’s also sort of cute.
And just last month, the Post scuttled a Pearls Before Swine strip that included the word “midget.” Once again it was apparently the only paper to do so, and the uncensored strip even ran in its online edition.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.