There have been other comic strips that dealt with politics, but they did so sporadically, and as one-trick diversions—Al Capp satirizing the welfare state with his schmoos, Walt Kelly turning Senator Joseph McCarthy into Simple J. Malarkey—but Trudeau has reflected on politics at a depth and with a breadth no one else has achieved. No wonder he won the first Pulitzer Prize given to a comic strip (in 1975). When Nixon bombed Cambodia without telling Congress that he was invading another country, Trudeau sent his terrorist character Phred to the bomb site. When he sees a couple standing American Gothic–style before a leveled museum, he asks if this happened during the secret bombing of Cambodia. The man says it was no secret. “I said ‘Look Martha, here come the bombs.’” Nothing could say more succinctly that many of our national security secrets are not meant to deceive the enemy, but to keep Congress and the American people in the dark about what our government is doing in our name. (I liked this strip so well that I asked Trudeau for the original, and it now hangs on my wall.)
Over and over Trudeau pinpoints governmental absurdities. After Mike and a friend have discussed the casualties of the Iraq war, in a strip that ran in 2005, they wonder if the dead cause any anguish in the President. The last panel shows voices coming from the White House in the night. Laura asks, “What’s wrong, dear?” and Bush answers, “It’s the stem cells. I hear their cries.” Another strip shows a soldier coming home. His wife asks who that is arriving with him. He says it is the terrorist following him home, as Bush had claimed they would.
Trudeau has guided us through many presidencies. He often uses a heraldic emblem as a stand-in for the incumbent president or other prominent politicians—a “point of light” for George W. Bush, a waffle for Clinton, a feather for Quayle, a bomb for Gingrich. He sent a journalist spelunking into Reagan’s brain to find where all those fantastic things were made up. He at first presented George W. Bush as an asterisk, referring to his “election” by the Supreme Court, then (as the President went to war) as a grandiose Roman helmet, one that got battered and dented as time went on.