As soon as I tell Doug Marlette I’m writing a book about the Baby Boom, he starts in on Bill and Hillary Clinton; he’s known them almost 20 years, both as a fellow southerner and as a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist. “Reptilian,” he says. “Calculating. Cold-blooded. Astonishing.”
Like Garry Trudeau, the Yale graduate who introduced “Doonesbury” in 1970, Marlette brought liberal Baby Boom politics into the funny pages, first as an editorial cartoonist, and then as the creator of “Kudzu,” a comic strip. But unlike Trudeau, whose work is steeped in his status as a native New Yorker and a full-fledged member of the media elite, Marlette was born a southern Baptist and raised a cultural racist, began his career in the deep south in 1971, and stayed there after attaining professional prominence, commuting between North Carolina, where grew up and now lives with his family in an 1833 farmhouse, and New York, where he’s a syndicated editorial cartoonist for Newsday.
Grounded in southern soil, Marlette, at age 49, is surprised by his own ambivalence about his generation and its first American President. “I’m appalled at a lot of my childishness, embarrassed by my younger self,” he says the first time we talk. “I’m appalled by the glib, facile narcissism of Bill and Hillary Clinton. I’ve known, liked and identified with him. But what his narcissism has done to this country is deeply depressing. It’s like watching the shadow side of our generation play out. He doesn’t feel anyone’s pain. He doesn’t even feel his own.”
Marlette was born in December, 1949, in Greensboro, North Carolina, a descendent of Southern Baptists and Yellow Dog Democrats (“if a yellow dog ran as a Democrat, you voted for him”). His grandparents worked in local cotton mills. “Lint was in the air,” Marlette says. “So my people were called ‘lintheads.’ It’s like nigger. My father escaped the mill cycle by the grace of Adolf Hitler.” A hospital corpsman in the Marines, Marlette’s dad was among the first onshore during the allied invasions of Anzio and Salerno, carrying morphine instead of a rifle, ending up with shrapnel in his forehead. Though he couldn’t sleep for years afterwards, he chose to stay in the Marines. “A lot of people figured that the Service was a better living than working in the mills,” Marlette says. “So I was a military brat.”
It wasn’t until he was in his thirties that Marlette learned his family’s hidden history. In 1934, his grandmother — who he remembered as an overpowering eccentric who chewed tobacco and carried a .38 pistol in her purse — was bayoneted by a National Guardsman during a mill strike known as the Uprising of 1934. Their hopes raised by an early New Deal law which gave workers the right to unionize, half a million millworkers from Massachusetts to Alabama struck for three weeks before they were defeated; many went to prison, others were blacklisted. Though it led to the 1935 Wagner Act, which strengthened the right to organize, the uprising was a huge defeat for labor. “All across the South there was a mass amnesia about it,” Marlette says. “None of my family knew anything.”
When Marlette was a child in Durham, he’d go to church every Sunday and then drive to Hillsborough, where he now lives, to visit his grandmother, Mama Gracie, and her husband, who lived in a back house and never spoke to his wife, mother of his 11 children. “This sounds like Tennessee Williams stuff, but it was my experience,” Marlette says, laughing.
Marlette’s world was saturated with media. On the hour-long drive home from dinner at Mama Gracie’s, the family listened to the radio, Marlette’s first window on the world. “That had a huge impact, listening to Jack Benny and the Theater of the Mind,” he remembers. He first saw television in 1953, at a neighbor’s. He was captivated by Oswald Rabbit and the Milton Berle Show. “Oh yes,” he says. “I remember Lucy and Edward R. Murrow smoking on TV.”
Once, at a Marine party, his mother, who disapproved of beer, made him stay inside and watch television. “I must have been five,” Marlette says, “and something came on about the effects of nuclear war — everyone dying. I was horrified! It was so depressing. I couldn’t shake this thing for days because it was the first time I had the feeling that things could spin out of control and the world could end and my parents couldn’t do anything about it. It was the end of kind of an innocence. I carried this for days. But I was a sensitive lad.”
He saw Mary Martin play Peter Pan on TV in the First Grade. “The next morning, I was getting up to go to school, and there was a ritual, you had to warm your clothes over the heater, and I remember sitting there, putting my clothes on and weeping, weeping. My parents couldn’t understand it. And I was too embarrassed to tell them why I was crying. Wendy had grown up and I was devastated.”
Television also told him of his place in the world. “I remember, in ‘57, the University of North Carolina played Kansas in the national championship, Wilt Chamberlain played for Kansas, but North Carolina had this great team and they won in triple overtime. It was the beginning of the North Carolina legacy of great basketball. I remember watching it with the family, and the sense of pride and identity was beyond. I remember the beginning of Andy Griffith’s career. A North Carolina thing, too. Andy Griffith did talking monologues. It was the first time you ever heard someone who talked like us on national television.”
Marlette’s family’s politics were peculiar to their time and place. When his grandfather was in his eighties, Marlette interviewed him on tape, “because I wanted someday to have his voice for my family,” he says. They talked about his birth in 1890, about his first vote — for Woodrow Wilson — and about his favorite president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. “He’s the only President we ever had who cared anything about the poor,” the old man told him. “I said, ‘Well, that’s amazing,’ all dewy-eyed with populist sentimentality, and he said, ‘Yeah, the only mistake he ever made, he should’ve let Hitler kill them Jews.’
“That’s the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Southern Populist, and it was alive in my grandfather, the narcissistic need to feel that we may be bad off, but at least we’re better off than somebody,” Marlette says. “What was so interesting about that is that my grandfather was very kind to black people, to Jewish people. But they had these abstract notions that were obscene and had nothing to do with reality, whereas in the North, people have all the correct ideals, but behave horribly to other people.”
Marlette’s parents had the same inheritance; cultural segregationists, they were hostile towards the civil rights movement, which was active in largely-black Durham under the leadership of Floyd McKissick, who would later head the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). When the news broke about the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which mandated school de-segregation, Marlette’s family wasn’t happy. “These were troublemakers,” the 5-year-old was told. And while the Marlettes voted for John Kennedy in fall, 1960, they weren’t happy about it. “They’d say ‘Catholic,’” Marlette recalls “And for Dad, Catholics were like Jews. Other. Different. Foreign.”
The Marlettes were devout Baptists. “Fire and brimstone, tub-thumping Jesus,” he says. “You go to church more than anybody on the face of the planet. You go to Sunday school, morning worship, Baptist Training Union in the evening on Sunday, then evening worship, then Monday night was RA’s, Royal Ambassadors, which is like Scouts for Christ, and Tuesday night there’s visitation union — going out and evangelizing — then there’s Wednesday night prayer meeting, and Thursday night there’s volleyball. It’s a very common experience. Bill Clinton is Baptist. Al Gore is Baptist.”
What was uncommon was Marlette’s artistic talent. As soon as he could hold a pencil, he started copying cartoon characters from ads in the newspaper for The Mickey Mouse Club television show. Once he traced a character, he found he could do it again and again; his visual memory was superb. So by the time he started school, he could astonish friends by drawing Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. “They would be stunned, and they would give me desserts and marbles to reward me,” Marlette recalls.
A teacher suggested his parents encourage him, and they enrolled him in a painting program that summer. “But I wasn’t serious,” he continues. “They said ‘Paint what you see out the window,’ and I would paint Popeye.” Every day, he’d read the Peanuts and Steve Canyon comic strips in the newspaper. Every week, he’d spend his 25 cent allowance on Archie and Jughead, Batman, Superman and Caspar the Friendly Ghost comics. “I could get two comic books and a nickel’s worth of gum, or a Cherry Coke and a comic book,” he says. “I had my 25 cents figured out every week.”
In 1962, the Marlettes moved to Laurel, Mississippi, and Doug Marlette entered eighth grade. “I’d been doing well in school, I’d gone to my first dance, and danced the twist with a girl, was selected President of my class and then we moved,” he sighs. That fall, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Doug’s uncle called from Florida to say he and his family were coming to visit until the situation was resolved. They were terrified by the prospect of nuclear war.
Mississippi may have been more dangerous; a month later, James Meredith, the grandson of a slave, sparked a riot when he broke the color barrier and became the first Negro student at Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, in November 1962 (with a little help from the Kennedy administration and the National Guard). A year after that, when Kennedy was killed two states away in Texas. Marlette walked home from school, listening to the reaction of his fellow Southerners. “I remember vividly, kids cheering,” he says. “The Kennedy brothers were anti-Christs. It was much more interesting and complicated than the national media portrayed it. It’s the civil war, states rights, and it’s tainted with racism. Bobby Kennedy, even more than Jack, represented the Federal Government coming down here, telling us what to do.”
Marlette headed to the field where he and his friends always met. “It was a cold November day, gray and overcast, and I had that same feeling I had when I saw the nuclear war thing on television, ‘the adults are not in charge, no one is in charge.’”
Six months after that, one of his classmate’s fathers was arrested following the murders of the Freedom Riders Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, fifty miles south of Laurel, just as the school year was ending. Laurel was home to Sam Bowers, Grand Dragon of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. “That was the meanest area, and we just happened to move there,” says Marlette. A neighbor set up wire-taps on civil rights workers.
Marlette fit in. He went to segregated schools and a George Wallace rally, drank from ‘Whites Only’ fountains and sat in the front of buses where black people were forced to the back. “This is embarrassing,” he says. “My very first cartoon was anti-Martin Luther King.” It questioned how King could win the Nobel Peace Prize when so much violence came in his wake. “I wish I could say that I’d had more compassion,” he concludes, “but I sensed that was the party line. I was a ‘good boy,’ a parent-pleaser.”
Marlette’s mother was crippled; she’d contracted polio before the Salk vaccine and walked with a stiff leg. “So I felt a great responsibility,” he says. “And part of my deal with my mother was to be her agent in the world — emotionally. I had not broken the umbilical, in that sense. I was still in the thrall of my raising. I was expressing their views. I was on the wrong side. But when I went with my Dad downtown one day when there was going to be a demonstration, I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach again, like civilization was falling apart.”
There were inklings that a new one was coming. From age 9, Marlette had been reading and collecting Mad magazine. Founded in 1952 by William M. Gaines (b. 1922), a diet-pill gobbling grown-up child who’d inherited a company that published comic books based on the Bible, and begun churning out horror and war comics, Mad was a profound influence on boomers. Parodying everything from movies and films to its own staff (“the usual gang of idiots”), it fostered an attitude of irreverence toward authority — any authority. In 1955, when Mad introduced its gap-toothed mascot, Alfred E. (“What, me worry?”) Neuman, and switched from comic book to magazine format in order to skirt the Comics Code, a law instituted to protect boomers from corrupting cartoon influences, its corrupting influence only increased. By the time Marlette bought his first issue in 1958, Mad’s satire was a well-ensconced thorn in the side of mainstream culture.
Marlette perfected his drawing by copying caricatures and cartoons from Mad’s pages. “It was a huge influence on me. I still have issues from ‘58 and ‘59.” And in 1964, aged 15, he wrote a letter to one of the magazine’s cartoonists, including a satire he’d drawn of television’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. A form rejection letter promptly came back to Laurel. “My mother was furious,” Marlette recalls. “She wrote them a three-page letter.”
That same February, Marlette, along with millions of others, watched The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Huge impact on me,” he says. “And I was embarrassed by how much I liked it. I was not a hip kid. I was emotionally immature, because I’d started school early. All my friends were 14 and 15, and I’d just turned 14. I was behind my friends in going through puberty. They were dating and I was terrified. The next morning, in Algebra, I’m drawing John Lennon, I’m drawing Paul McCartney, and giving them to these cow-eyed adolescent girls who would pay me to draw one of the Beatles. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized it was the first time we were all seeing the same things and listening to the same music.” Late at night he and his older brother would sit in the car and tune in 50,000 watt rock stations from Little Rock and Chicago. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was number-one. “She Loves You” was number two. “Please, Please Me” was number three. The Beatles — and the boomers — had taken over the world.
A mere year later, a song called “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan played in a hamburger joint. Marlette was stunned by Dylan’s verbal fireworks powered with rock — and the song was five some-odd minutes long to boot! Marlette worked his way backwards through Dylan’s progressive oeuvre. Despite the way he’d been reared, he says, “Bob Dylan got under my skin.” Dylan had been in Greenwood, Mississippi, not long before, singing for civil rights workers. “That had a huge impact on me, because they were on the other side.”
It was 1966. The Marlette family had just moved to a Navy air base in central Florida, where Doug spent his last year in high school as his father prepared to ship out to Vietnam on the USS Enterprise. He had no idea there was a peace movement. “I was really retarded,” he jokes. “I was really slow about stuff.” He believed what he was told; we were winning and the undeclared war would be over soon.
His social life was stunted again thanks to the sudden move to Florida. He played basketball so no one wondered about him, but back in Laurel, he would have started on the team. He didn’t date; he drew for the high school paper. He was taken with a hippie teacher he had that year, who read his personal essays to the class and talked about Bob Dylan and theology in the same sentence. Marlette went back to Mississippi to visit friends and found “I was leaving them behind,” he says. “It made them uneasy. I was asking questions about things nobody had ever thought about.” Back at home, he started asking his father the same questions, just to get under his skin. He’d talk about a black person he’d met. “I smelled him, but I didn’t smell anything,” he’d say.
Marlette’s mother had long suffered from depression and had an emotional breakdown in Florida after her husband shipped out. Doug’s brother was in college in Mississippi and his father was gone so he became the man of the house at age 16. In Mississippi he’d drawn decorations for a party planner, and thought that if he were lucky he might one day become a sign-painter. Now, he got a job at the local paper, the Sanford Herald, drawing cartoons of local sports figures for a couple bucks a pop. In short order, he graduated to the art department of the Orlando Sentinel, and decided to stick around after graduating high school. He enrolled at the local Seminole Community College. While he still sometimes fantasized about working for Mad, or becoming a political cartoonist like Pat Oliphant, an Australian who’d just begun making cartoon waves, Marlette had no role models, and so his ambitions stayed small. He met a girl at his new Baptist Church — the daughter of a local attorney whose family had the stability his suddenly so lacked — and she became his first girlfriend.
Marlette was trying to play by the script, but cartoons kept pulling him elsewhere. He’d loved Jules Feiffer cartoons from the age of 14. “That Upper West Side, Jewish, intellectual, urban sensibility spoke to a 15-year-old towheaded Mississippi Baptist,” he jokes. In 1968, he discovered Zap Comix, wildly outrageous, sometimes scabrous, sex-and-dope filled underground comic books. “I was riveted, and I felt woozy, like I’d been in someone else’s dream, but also greatly appreciative,” he says. People would try to get him to draw like that and he refused. “This is my Baptist background. I considered it preaching to the converted. Hippies already knew.” The seeds of his evangelical zeal were planted; he wanted to subvert the mainstream. He just didn’t know how.
In spring, 1969, he spotted a book called LBJ Lampooned with a cover illustration by the New York Review of Books’ artist David Levine (lampooning Johnson’s famous display of a surgical scar, the scar replaced by a map of Vietnam), and an introduction about cartooning by Feiffer. Political cartoons were enjoying a renaissance. “Lyndon Johnson’s lying legitimized questioning and challenging,” Marlette says. “Establishment newspapers were starting to do cartoons that were really subversive and outrageous. Jules, in that essay, gave me an intellectual framework. I suddenly could see what my job was. I just salivated.”
That fall, having earned an Associates Degree at community college, Marlette joined the junior class at Florida State University in Tallahassee (“the Berkeley of the south”), declared a philosophy major, and presented himself at the offices of the campus daily where he promptly won a job drawing cartoons three days a week. Immediately, a war began for the 19-year-old’s soul, pitting the good boy, who looked like a southern Rotarian and was so overpowered by what was expected of him that he now married his girlfriend, against another Doug who drew like a northern intellectual, and couldn’t help but note the disconnect between the way he’d been raised and what was happening in his world. “I was trying to salvage the values that I’d been taught in civics classes and in Sunday school,” he says. “But the things I’d been taught did not square with killing people and denying people rights.”
Two months after enrolling at Florida State, Marlette joined a group of students he hardly knew in a Volkswagen bus painted camouflage green for the overnight trip to the Moratorium march in Washington, D.C. Outside Atlanta, a gas station attendant told them they should go home and study. Instead, they turned up the music and offered Marlette his first puff of marijuana. He didn’t like it. “I had a natural ability to enter that state,” he realized. “I do it in my work. I saw that, so dope didn’t hold much allure for me. I never took acid and I’m glad that I didn’t, because I think I might have identified with that primitive state and not wanted to come back. I don’t think I had a developed enough ego to handle that, where some people could. There was something in me that knew.” In homage to his natural state of beatitude, his friends took to calling him “Drug” Marlette.
Though he grew his hair long, and kept pumping out anti-war cartoons for the newspaper, Marlette didn’t much like the radicals he met on that trip — or later. “It was the most activist school in the region,” he says, “but I didn’t feel like one of them. I marched on the draft board, I demonstrated, but I was never a joiner. I’m not quite there, but my cartoons are. When I think back, I had a sophisticated vision for someone that young. I saw through the bullshit, recognized the Stalinist stuff. I was drawing cartoons that were questioning the War, but also the Nazi tactics of SDS, the anti-free-speech stuff. I did not identify with groups; still don’t. I do not link up with causes. SDS sounded like Baptists to me. It seemed like the same thing that I had grown up with — fundamentalist preachers — those crazy dogmatists who would send you off to a gulag.”
That summer, the draft lottery was held and Marlette drew #10 — an almost certain ticket to Vietnam. Though he held a student deferment, it would only last another year. “I was already thinking about being a Conscientious Objector, so I did,” he says. It wasn’t an easy choice by any means. “I took it seriously. I was reading Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, conscientious objectors from the past. But there are other ways of looking at it. My father was a military man. It was a way of going against my father, of going against the grain of the authority.”
Marlette rejects the notion that rejecting the war was an act of cowardice. “It was too painful to me to feel that I was getting out of something,” he explains. “I thought I was compromising by being a C.O. To do the C.O. thing was going along with the system and with the draft. Canada was not an option. I believed that the ‘correct’ thing for me would have been to go to jail. I thought I was being a wuss, , by being a C.O. So it was torture. My mother was ill, and my dad’s coming home from Vietnam, and we’re arguing about it. He felt he was being rejected. It was not a good time in my family.” But finally, when Marlette submitted his conscientious objector application, his father wrote a letter supporting it, offering to go back to Vietnam in his son’s place.
Marlette left school in June, 1971. He hadn’t graduated; he’d failed to fulfill his 6-hour foreign language requirement. But that didn’t matter; he’d been accepted as a conscientious objector and to fulfill the requirements, had to do two years of public service. He took a post with the non-profit College Press Service. As the job didn’t pay much, and he had a wife to support, he also took a night job as a paste-up man in the art department of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times and almost immediately got a promotion to a day job, replacing an artist who’d been busted for drug dealing. But six weeks later, he was fired as over-qualified.
Through a friend back home in North Carolina he heard there were openings for editorial cartoonists at both The Raleigh TK and The Charlotte Observer. Though he’d never been on a plane, he flew immediately north and applied. In the interim, the Supreme Court had declared that anyone who’d been drafted when Marlette was — a brief period when the Selective Service Act had expired and its future was being debated in Congress — had to be released. Though Marlette suspected that would mean the end of his national service, the editor who interviewed him in Raleigh was put off and told him to come back in two years. “So I took the job in Charlotte,” Marlette says. “And the career begins.”
Controversy came early in Doug Marlette’s career. He arrived at the Charlotte Observer in January, 1972. His first cartoon lampooned Richard Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. His first big local issue was school busing; he sided with the moderates who were for it, against “the concerned parents, who were really Segs” — or segregationists — he says. Their allies were doing things like burning crosses on the lawn of the Federal judge presiding over the case. Arch-conservative Jesse Helms began serving as North Carolina’s senator that year. “Within a few weeks I had petitions being sent in, complaining and demanding I be fired,” Marlette says. After a year of Marlette, the publisher of the Observer — a member of the Knight family that owned the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, and “a racist and a reactionary of the extreme kind,” according to Marlette — complained, somewhat comically, that their new pacifist cartoonist had come to town “both guns blazing” and joined the chorus of detractors. Marlette’s superiors backed him up — they knew he was attracting national attention to their local paper. But they moved his cartoons from the editorial page to the Op-Ed page just opposite, putting some distance between them and the paper’s masthead.
“The nation was polarized,” Marlette says. “I got to learn my craft with these larger-than-life figures. I was drawing cartoons in favor of amnesty for draft dodgers, pro-busing, anti-war, anti-Nixon, and anti-Helms in a place that was in favor of all those things. And doing it in a way that got under people’s skin.”
It was what he’d always wanted; the relatives of Mad were many and funny, and Marlette came out of their tradition. It combined the Jewish humor of Lenny Bruce and Bob Newhart; the black sass of Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor; the ensemble energies of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe and The Committee of San Francisco, which gave the world Hugh Romney, a/k/a Woodstock’s Wavy Gravy; The Smothers Brothers, those formerly All-American folkies, whose prime-time comedy and music show was cancelled by CBS in the early days of the Nixon administration over its overt anti-war attitude; the surrealistic Firesign Theater, and the scabrous George Carlin, who was arrested in 1972 for his routine about “seven words you can’t say on television.”
But in the early 1970s, the Mad boomer tradition was most truly alive at The National Lampoon. The Lampoon was a descendent of the Harvard Lampoon, which had been a preppy, upper-class product until the early 1960s, when it was taken over by a gang of subversives, who began producing biting parodies of national magazines. After a 1966 parody of Playboy, and a 1968 take on Life, the Lampoon’s editors caught the attention of the publisher of Cheetah, an unsuccessful mass-market psychedelic magazine, much like the Hearst Corporation’s Eye. The founders, Henry Beard (b. TK), Doug Kenney (b. TK) and Rob Hoffman (b. TK), were aided by another Harvard alum, Christopher Cerf, who was Abbie Hoffman’s editor at Random House. He discovered Michael O’Donoghue, an anarchistic comedic talent. The team that gathered around them put together a comedy record, National Lampoon’s Radio Hour, and a 1973 stage show, Lemmings, which parodied Woodstock as a symbol of “a generation hurling itself off the cliff, by every available means,” as Tony Hendra, its director and a chronicler of boomer humor, put it. The show opened that January at The Village Gate, where Jim Fouratt had chaired the community meeting that preceded Woodstock a mere four years before. Now, the audience was focused on the Lemmings stars, John Belushi and Chevy Chase. A year later, they became the heart and soul of the ultimate expression of generational self-satire, NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
Marlette got a copy of Radio Hour in Charlotte, listened to it once a week and considered Hendra’s impression of John Lennon one of the great comic moments of the decade. “I still remember the first Saturday Night Live, when Michael O’Donoghue stuck long needles in the eyes of Tony Orlando and Dawn,” he chortles. In the depths of the Me Decade, Marlette felt this handful of comedians was keeping their generation’s maverick spirit alive through laughter. “I feel a great affinity with and gratitude for what was going there,” he says. “I think of satire and comedy as a form of aggression. They were like a commune, being paid huge sums of money and getting famous by being subversive.”
Though radicalism was on the wane, America was still polarized in the mid-70s. From his post on the Op-Ed page of the Charlotte Observer, Marlette covered end-game events like the trial of the Harrisburg Seven, a group of Catholic militants led by Father Philip Berrigan, who’d been found guilty of destroying the records of a Maryland draft board with napalm in 1968, and briefly gone underground just after the 1970 West 11th Street Weather townhouse explosion. Berrigan was arrested as he prepared to make a speech at an anti-war rally. While he was in jail, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover announced that he and others had plotted to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up underground steam and electrical tunnels in Washington. That case was dropped but other anti-draft charges were soon filed, and thousands of protesters poured into the Pennsylvania capitol early in 1972. “I feel grateful that those big issues played out so vividly and the great moral issues of our time were on the table, and that you had to decide what you thought,” Marlette says. “Bad times for the Republic are great times for satirists.”
It wasn’t the best time for Marlette. In 1974, he and his wife separated and divorced; he’d simply married too young. But that summer, Gerald Ford’s ascension to the Presidency marked the end of an ugly American era. “It had been nasty, and that’s one of the reasons why my cartoons were so upsetting to people,” Marlette says. “There was a certain gratitude for some kind of civility coming back. It got duller, though, professionally.”
That didn’t slow his momentum. He’d been drawing professionally for three years and in 1975, got his first syndication deal, which sent his cartoons all over the country and increased his earnings substantially. “I didn’t really know what to do with it,” he says. “I suddenly had more money than I ever expected to make.” At the urging of a woman he was dating, he bought a blue Porsche 914.
Marlette disdained the quasi-religious movements that mushroomed in the mid-70s. “It’s like those old truths of Sunday School,” he says. “When you drive one demon out of the gathering, 10,000 come in to replace it. If God Is dead we find some other way in which we can feel special and elite and chosen. None of which are as time-tested or true as, say, Judaism or the Catholic faith. I’ve always had radar for phony, flaky stuff.”
Marlette had other obsessions. At age 27, he threw himself full-time into learning to play the banjo, and within a year, was playing in a band in clubs. The next year, disco hit Charlotte. He was one of the few single men in the paper’s newsroom, and women started asking him to join them in clubs. He didn’t know how to dance. “So I took lessons. I learned how to dance and I spent a couple of years going out every night, dancing. I never knew how much women love to dance. You meet a lot of women. But unfortunately, I became a snob about dancing. It didn’t matter how great-looking a woman was if she couldn’t dance.” Nonetheless, years later, his friend Pat Conroy, the novelist, would kid him about that time; whenever Conroy went on a book tour, he’d meet women who were disco “friends” of Marlette’s.
“My twenties were an extended adolescence,” he allows.
With Saturday Night Live on television, Steven Speilberg and George Lucas beginning to make waves in Hollywood, and cartoonists like Doug Marlette and Garry Trudeau doing the same in the nation’s newspapers, the former fringe had begun its move to the American center; comic book culture and Mad magazine kids were taking over the world. And just then, a presidential candidate who quoted Bob Dylan came roaring out of the South. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, whose earliest financial supporters included Phil Walden (b. TK), owner of Capricorn Records, and recording acts like The Allman Brothers Band and The Marshall Tucker Band, restored the region’s place on the national political scene with a southern populism rid of the lingering taint of racism.
Carter’s rise allowed Southerners to indulge in identity politics and group pride — to find the good in their redneck version of Roots. For Marlette, who’d pulled himself out of mill cycle and avoided the linthead life by “rejecting the racism, the benighted provincialism,” as he puts it, and looking North for education and enlightenment, the late ‘70s were a time of rediscovery. “The narcissism of the Me Decade wasn’t only manifested in a shallow Jogging-Disco-whatever-that-thing-is, but also a healthy delving into tradition, into the history and into the self,” he says.
Marlette began studying the Civil War as the source of his own rebel streak, reading William Faulkner, and traveling to the deep south, to Nashville’s Grand Old Opry, and to the music clubs of Austin, Texas, where he immersed himself in the outlaw music of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, “finding the resonances and beginning to appreciate the authenticity,” he says. Again, he saw himself reflected in the music of Bob Dylan, who declared himself a born-again Christian in 1978, and recorded an album of religious songs. “That did not bother me a whit,” Marlette says. “What was interesting was his instinct for the truth of the Jewish tradition. It’s radical, rooted. That’s what we’re talking about. That was the beginning of this generation rediscovering what we had rejected.”
It was also the moment when Marlette was “discovered.” He was singled out in an article in Time magazine on Jimmy Carter’s New South. “It was kind of hip to be a Southerner,” he says. “Carter legitimized that.” But unfortunately, the new president also had what Marlette calls the Southern Disease. “It’s a kind of pious ‘I know what’s best,’ a Sunday School thing,” Marlette says. “You just think you can snap your fingers and have things be the way you want them. The Clintons have some of that, too. Hillary thinks she knows better. There’s a kind of self-righteousness that Hillary has, that Carter had. But it’s not enough to be right. You’ve got to be able to work with other human beings. That takes another kind of a genius.”
Carter’s years in office did offer ripe targets for a political cartoonist: the energy crisis (Marlette’s cartoon showed Carter giving a speech about sacrifice in one panel, being sacrificed in the next), nuclear power (he drew a plant shaped like a pair of dice), the Equal Rights Amendment (as pigs are led to a slaughterhouse, sows demand equal rights), abortion (a Supreme Court justice in the door of a clinic telling a poor woman, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford one”), the gas crisis (a driver trading his first-born for a fill-up), Jim Jones and the Jonestown mass suicide by Kool-Aid (a line of sheep discuss Jones, jogging, meditation, scientology, est, and astrology as they march headlong over a cliff), and the rise of fundamentalism in Iran (Carter slamming his head against a stone wall shaped like the Ayatollah Khomeini) — and in America (Marlette drew Christ, crucified on a TV antennae).
Doug Marlette went into therapy in 1978. He’d spent years being guilty about being a cartoonist, guilty about his talent, his facility and the self-involvement it entailed. “If I thought of something quickly and easily, it could not be good,” he explains. “I had to torment myself for hours before I would allow myself to do it. It took years to work through that and to get spontaneous and direct and just do it. Therapy saved my life. I would have just blown apart, otherwise. All the self-destructive forces within me would have just had its way with me.”
The next year, on the edge of the ‘80s, he won a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, the first cartoonist ever to take part in the prestigious program that allows journalists to take a year off and study. “I sat at B.B. King’s feet and listened to him play the Blues. I held the light for Robert Penn Warren as he read his poetry. I heard John Updike, John Irving, William F. Buckley, Art Buchwald. I gave up my syndication, gave up all this stuff, and then I started over, which was a risky thing to do, but it was worth it. I was ready for a change.” He turned 30 and married again, as well. “It was a personal transition time for me,” he says. “It represented raising the bar for me. I think that was the beginning of learning about commitment and hard work and all that stuff. It’s like when you’re an A-student, but you only make C’s because you can study the night before. All those cartoons were done without my really being there. It was an emotional thing that I felt a great deal. It was the beginning of growing up.”
As he left Harvard, the presidential campaign pitting Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan was heating up. Marlette returned to Charlotte a full-fledged Yuppie with a Cutlass Ciera and a mortgage. “The zeitgeist just flows through me,” he crows. “I don’t see anything wrong with being young or upwardly mobile or professional. I’m all of it.” He started getting up at 5AM and wearing a suit and tie even though nobody at the Observer cared. “I started looking like a banker and a Republican, and learning the values that those people pay lip service to,” he says.
He gave up drinking; there were enough alcoholics in his family to worry him. And he stopped being, as he’d later put it, “the designated id” in his social set. “And my friends hated me!” he says. “They wanted a party animal. They wanted Drug.” He would go in early, before anyone was there, do his daily cartoon, and then work on a new project, a comic strip he’d conceived. He knew that with double deadlines, he’d never have time to torment himself again. “As Freud says, maturity is the ability to love and to work,” Marlette says. “I was learning both those things. I needed to learn discipline. And it made me more creative than I was.”
Creating a comic strip wasn’t easy. Marlette was daunted by the knowledge that if what he did was successful, it might own him for the rest of his life. Eventually, he gave birth to Bypass, North Carolina, a sleepy southern town (so named because the big state highway goes by without an exit), and its residents, Kudzu Dubose, a dreamy, awkward adolescent much like Marlette, who wants to go to the big city and be a writer; Maurice, his black best friend, a pre-gangsta wannabe; Kudzu’s Uncle Dub at the filling station; his pet parakeet Doris, and the preacher Will B. Dunn. The immediate success of the syndicated ‘Kudzu’ comic strip gave Marlette an instant six-figure income, but also taught him a lesson. “One of the things you look forward to as a child is seeing your comic strip on the Sunday pages; that’s a big moment,” he says. “The Sunday morning comes when my comic strip debuts and it’s not in the Charlotte Observer. They forgot.” His conclusion? “Not only was I taken for granted, but also punished for succeeding.”
His experience at Harvard invested his cartoons with new, mature shades of gray. “I understand the urge towards discipline and accountability and responsibility, and the dangers of indulgence, and the hostility, really, the arrogance of the liberal condescension to people of color,” he says. His reactions were no longer knee-jerk. When John Belushi died, Marlette drew a coke-snorting Blues Brother with a death’s head and his friends accused him of drawing a right-wing cartoon. “I think it’s more important to feel than to feel good,” he replied. “We live in a culture where the thing to do is to gloss over symptoms, or take it to Jesus or blame whoever. From Prozac to cocaine, it’s all the same, and I began seeing that as the deadening of the human spirit, an anesthetization. I am in favor of feeling depression, feeling those things, and trying to learn from the symptoms.”
Marlette was no Moral Majoritarian. “That requires rigidity and a lack of empathy,” he says. “And I was never an ideologue. I’m too anti-authoritarian. Believe it or not, wearing a coat and tie was how I began understanding my role as an artist. The great novelists see the whole picture. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, they empathize with the thief and with the saint. They feel the whole thing and they show the whole thing. Ideologues don’t.” Even though he had a new appreciation of authority, he attacked Reagan relentlessly because he saw no subtlety or empathy whatever in his conservative Republicanism. ” Have you ever been to a Republican Convention?” Marlette hoots. “You can feel the assholes slamming shut! The answer is not in imposing your thing on other people.” Having grown up with fundamentalism, Marlette was especially pre-disposed against it. “I know its wickedness,” he says. “I know its arrogance. How it compromises and belies its own claims.”
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the cheesy prom king and queen of televangelism, were a local phenomenon in Charlotte long before they became a national embarrassment after Bakker was caught committing adultery with a church secretary, Jessica Hahn, and sent to jail for defrauding thousands of contributors to his ministry. Marlette had been drawing Bakker since his beginnings in 1974. But shortly after he came home from Harvard, allegations of financial indiscretions in the PTL ministry began to be heard. The Bakkers lived in Palm Springs in a church-owned house with gold fixtures, drove luxury cars and preached a righteous materialism. “I recognized that what they were up to had to do less with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob than with the Cult of Narcissus. They had huge amounts of money — free, untaxed, about $17 million a month — pouring in from all over the world because they had a state-of-the-art TV satellite. ABC and CBS would come down to study their computer operation!”
Marlette portrayed the PTL television ministry as an infomercial wrapped in religion, the Bakkers’ religious theme park, Heritage, U.S.A., as a sort of Six Flags Over Jesus, a liquor-free trailer trash playground, and their ostentatious lifestyle as a perverted playing-out of the frustrated desires of the troubled souls in their flock. Bakker had built the five acre water park for $8 million, calling it “pretty fancy bait” for a fisher of men. “When I heard about their water park, I naturally thought of the River Jordan and the baptism of Jesus,” Marlette recalls. “So I drew Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist with Jim Bakker coming down a huge water slide in a big rubber ducky.” Bakker held the cartoon up on his TV show and called Marlette a tool of Satan. He started getting complaints and crank calls from all over the country. “I understand those people,” the cartoonist says. “I understand what they’re doing. Turn over your autonomy to something else. But I can’t do it.”
Doug Marlette and his wife had a son in 1986. The very next day, Bill Kovach called. The former Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times, he’d just been made the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1986. Atlanta was the great city of the South, and Kovach said he wanted to make a great, national newspaper. When he asked Marlette to join him there, the cartoonist jumped at the chance. Not only was it an honor to be approached by Kovach, Atlanta was the home of the civil rights movement, of Martin Luther King, and the source of much of the great southern journalism of the ‘60s. “The night I came back from Atlanta from the interview, I told my wife I was going to take the job, and I was going to win the Pulitzer Prize there,” he says. In March, 1988, the Journal-Constitution (“a journalists’ Camelot,” says Marlette) won five Pulitzer nominations, and Marlette got his award.
When Colorado Senator Gary Hart (b. 1936), a veteran of the ‘60s anti-war movement, began running for President in 1987, pitching his campaign at Baby Boomers, by promising new ideas, but then stumbling in a sex scandal involving Donna Rice, a former girlfriend of a rock star, and a rented boat called the Monkey Business, Marlette skewered him relentlessly. One cartoon, bannered “Front Runner” showed Hart with his pants around his ankles. Marlette was outraged by Hart’s taunting the press. “Taunting and proud of it and saying, ‘Come get me,’ the cartoonist recalls. “It was rich and it was good material in terms of the issues of restriction and restraint and indulgence and entitlement. That sense of entitlement was one of the terrible things with our generation. We were so self-righteous, so pious. And then we get caught in our contradictions, and we’re stuffed. We can’t believe it. We thought we were invisible! And we wanted to tell everybody else how to live!” Hart was forced out of the race and George Bush became president.
The Bush administration wasn’t as sexy and fun as the election that led to it. “You’re kind of held hostage to the headlines,” Marlette says. As a newspaper employee, he was also held hostage to other forces larger than himself; Bill Kovach resigned in November, 1988, following an argument with his bosses about the paper’s new, take-no-prisoners reporting style. Kovach had angered business leaders by challenging Atlanta’s reputation as the city too busy to hate with a Pulitzer-winning series about local banks refusing to make loans to blacks.
Marlette was vocal in his disapproval of Kovach’s ouster. “There’s a mythic dimension to this story,” he told the Boston Globe. “I’m talking about redeeming the soul of the South. I’m talking about whether the South is able and willing to take a look at itself and do it aggressively and hold up the mirror to itself. It’s about us telling our own story in a first-rate way.” His support of Kovach — he spoke out a rally protesting the editor’s departure — made Marlette’s situation untenable, so he followed Kovach out of Atlanta in February, 1989. Newsday, long a local newspaper on Long Island, was opening an edition in New York City and needed a cartoonist.
The move to liberal New York didn’t keep Marlette out of trouble in the south. He’d been picking on Jesse Helms for years. Wall-eyed behind his horn-rims, the rabid conservative was a cartoonist’s dream. At first, Helms had demoralized Marlette by requesting copies whenever the cartoonist drew him, but eventually, he began complaining. When Helms attacked the idea of Martin Luther King Day, Marlette drew a cartoon suggesting that April Fool’s Day be renamed in Helms’ honor. Then, in 1984, when Helms won a vicious reelection campaign, Marlette drew him with his pants around his ankles, sticking his rear end out a window towards the U.S. Capitol over the caption “Carolina Moon Keeps Shining… ” The next day, Helms’ office had stopped returning the Charlotte Observer’s phone calls.
“I understood Jesse,” Marlette says. “I can be self-righteous like that. I am Jesse Helms. That’s why I get under his skin, and why he gets under my skin.” So six years later, with Helms running for reelection again, Marlette wrote him into “Kudzu.” In response to Helms’ attacks on the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, he drew a cartoon Helms, suffering from Cold War Separation Anxiety, on the attack against an evil International Artistic Conspiracy. Those strips earned “Kudzu” an election-cycle exile to the op-ed pages of some North Carolina papers, and a total banishment from the Raleigh News & Observer. Only after hundreds of complaints, did the paper agree to reinstate Kudzu and run the Helms strips — the day after the election.
Doug Marlette first met Bill Clinton at Renaissance Weekend, an event founded in 1981 by Philip Lader (b. 1946), then a young college president (and later, a developer, a Clinton White House deputy chief of staff, and most recently, U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James). Lader and his wife wanted to bring accomplished baby boomers — with a bias towards Southern liberals — together with leaders of other generations for a touchy-feely invitation-only family get-together on exclusive Hilton Head island, off South Carolina, over New Year’s weekend.
Renaissance quickly became an annual Jerry Rubin networking salon on steroids, with a dash of New Age navel-gazing. Each year, personalities ranging from Supreme Court Justices to comedians and folksingers would play golf, ride bicycles and discuss issues large and small, ranging from international policy to professional traumas and private investment strategies in seminars running the gamut from “Renaissance World Report: Commentaries on War Crimes, Human Rights and Refugees” to “Renaissance Quest: Stirring Waters of Belief” to “Renaissance Whispers: What My Spouse is Wrong About.”
Bill and Hillary Clinton and Marlette all attended their first Renaissance Weekend in 1984, when the invitation list was tiny. By 1992, the year it first got national attention (thanks to the new President-elect’s presence), it had grown ten-fold. On arrival in 1984, Marlette was getting out of his car when a van with Arkansas plates pulled into the next parking space and out popped the Governor of Arkansas, his lawyer wife and their young daughter, Chelsea. They were all in the same gang, then. And the Renaissance Weekend brought together any number of strains of baby boomerism in an atmosphere at once democratic and elitist: the progressive politics of the ‘60s, the non-denominational, almost secular, spirituality of the ‘70s, and the amoral ambition of the ‘80s joined in a synergy that would define the ‘90s. “It was very casual,” Marlette recalls. “Everybody wore name tags.” At one panel, Marlette’s wife, Melinda, noted the disdain being heaped on Yuppies, and asked what was wrong with being young and ambitious. Afterwards, Clinton approached her to say he agreed.
Another night, Clinton and Lader gave speeches, “trying to outdo each other with who would give the most moving and the most powerful speech,” Marlette recalls. “I got interested in this. They were doing this Yuppie Revivalism thing, these very successful people getting up, talking, and bringing people to tears. Clinton talked about his brother being in prison. I’d been there before with the testimonies in Baptist Church. This wasn’t religious; it’s about ambition, except it felt religious. It’s in the service of political ambition, but it’s the same thing as Youth For Christ.”
Driving home afterwards, Marlette pondered Clinton’s brilliance and idealism and said, “I would vote for him for President; I’ve never heard a politician that smart.”
“Yeah,” his wife replied. “But he’s a womanizer.”
Marlette, who says his cartoonist’s instincts often run ahead of his consciousness, wasn’t so sure. “He was doing his thing. He does it with me. He does it with everybody.” But over the years, the seduction continued. “We started getting mail and we would exchange letters.” Clinton would compliment “Kudzu” strips. “I thought he was very likeable. I had an immediate identification and an affinity with him. I saw myself. His family was Trailer Trash, just like my family. So I got him from the get-go and thought he would do wonderful things.” Something nagged, though. “Something facile and glib,” Marlette says. “It’s all there in your first encounters with people. He’s doing that gaze and he’s listening, he’s holding my eyes, and talking, talking, talking, until there would come a moment at the end, when he saw that he had me, the seduction had been successful, and the shades would go down, and he checked me off the list and moved on to the next. You felt like the nation feels now — used like a Kleenex and tossed aside.”
Marlette felt that, but it didn’t register; the enchantment of Clinton’s intelligence and attention was overwhelming and Marlette became one of the famous Friends of Bill. “I’d tell friends, ‘You’ve got to hear this guy Bill Clinton. This guy is the best speaker.’” So when Clinton gave his famous, endless, awful speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta, introducing that year’s candidate, his fellow Governor Michael Dukakis, “I had phone calls asking, ‘What are you talking about?! Are you crazy?’”
Marlette moved to New York to work for Newsday in 1988 and stayed two years before moving home to Hillsborough, where his father had been born. While in New York, he was sought out by other journalists, who asked him about Clinton, who’d begun developing a national profile. And he told them how profoundly he identified with the guy and how he was sure Clinton would do good things, especially on the issue of race, which continued to plague a nation that refused to address it responsibly. A few years later, Marlette didn’t mind when Clinton claimed he’d never inhaled marijuana. “I thought it was silly, but I understood what he was trying to do; he was trying to win the election.” But it was different when Clinton began changing his story of how, when he got out of college, he’d managed to avoid being drafted. At first, Clinton lied, as he had since he first ran for Governor of Arkansas in 1978, claiming he’d only been draft-eligible for a brief period in 1969, after leaving Georgetown University, and had, luckily, escaped the notice of the Selective Service. But after the Wall Street Journal discovered that Clinton had in fact, promised to attend law school in Arkansas and join ROTC (after a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford in England) — and then reneged on the promise — it emerged that Clinton had actually received an induction notice at Oxford, only then wangled himself the ROTC appointment, and reneged when he pulled a high number in the draft lottery and realized he no longer had to worry about the draft. “I decided to accept the draft despite my political beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system,” Clinton wrote in a letter to the head of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas. Then the 23-year-old headed to law school at Yale, instead.
Marlette was incensed. “When I think of anyone at that age writing and talking about his political viability, that is so lizardly to me, so painful to me,” Marlette says. “I can’t imagine that calculation crossing my mind. It was a matter of how one lived and what one did.” He smiles and adds, “I’m glad he was against the war.”
After Clinton’s election, Marlette put together a book of cartoons called Faux Bubba: Bill and Hillary go to Washington. It hung on the notion that faux Bubbas like Clinton or Al Gore or Doug Marlette were not real Good Old Boys, but gentrified, urbanized, gutted versions thereof, who don flannel shirts to hide their privileges. The cartoons worked because Marlette was criticizing his own foibles as well as the politicians’, and soon enough, he was summoned to the White House to present Clinton with a copy. Still hopeful about Clinton, he accepted, and watched proudly as the President leafed through it, laughing so loudly that Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and Clinton’s secretary Betty Currie all rushed in to see what the ruckus was about. Clinton was looking at a section on “the defining faux moments” of his life, in particular a cartoon of himself crafting a crude Rolodex in wood shop. “Boy, that’s really close to the bone,” he muttered, his Faux Bubba congeniality slipping just for a moment.
At first, Marlette was gentle with President Clinton, But by 1993, his cartoons grew skeptical. “It’s a recognition of what’s wrong with us, our generation,” Marlette says. He wrote a cover story for Esquire that summer called “Never Trust a Weeping Man,” that described Clinton as the “First Facilitator at our national panel discussion, First Therapist in our national encounter-group session. Clinton’s political genius was in recognizing that a talk-show nation needed a host.” The Clintons, Marlette continued, were the “First Bacilli of the disease of our age… where narcissism meets obsessive compulsion.” He compared Clinton to “the anchorman, the televangelist, the actor, the carnival sideshow snake-oil salesman,” and said he appealed to Baby Boomers because they’d lost the ability to feel. What he didn’t know at the time, he says, was that the Clintons were faking it, too.
Shortly after writing that piece, Marlette became Esquire’s Good Behavior columnist, writing on topics like corporate back-stabbing, commuter marriage, flirting at work (he decided it was okay for equals, not for bosses), and staying friends with a former spouse. The columns reveal Marlette as one of the new Young Fogies, trying to reconcile their flaming youth with middle-age experience. In a column on obscenity, Marlette wrote, “our mass culture is inundated with [it]. We hoist our toilet tongues like ghetto blasters or AK-47’s, ratcheting up the rhetoric in a desperate attempt to have an impact — to be heard. But like the boy who cried wolf, the boy who cries fuck is ignored.”
In another column, he took on the national impulse to share. “Why can’t we all take our pain and suffering and our gotta-be-me-ness back into the closet? Closets are where we store valuable things.” And most revealing of all, he wrote of his torment over what he would tell his son when he asked, inevitably, if his father ever took drugs. “For a generation so long defined by the media as ‘the kids,’ becoming parents, however long postponed, finally makes us put lives where our mouths were, raising all the questions we had successfully ignored, rubbing our noses in the shallowness of our cherished ideals and assumptions. We are responsible. We are accountable. And they are mirrors.”
Marlette’s new mood showed in his cartoons of the Clintons. Now, Clinton paddled in a canoe called Whitewater towards “deliverance” at the hands of the Republicans, Bill’s policy advisors stuck Playboy centerfolds in his briefing books to keep his attention, chameleons in the trees outside the Oval Oval envied Clinton’s ability to change his policies to fit his surroundings, and Hillary and Bill were perfecting their Nixon impressions. “We are not a crook,” read that caption.
At first, like Jesse Helms, the Clintons were good sports. They hung a Marlette cartoon in the Oval Office bathroom — of Hillary fending off Bill’s amorous advances during her moment as his health care reformer, saying “Not tonight, dear, I have a hearing.” And in 1996, Marlette not only traveled on Air Force One while covering Clinton’s re-election campaign, he even got to travel with the Clintons on one leg of a bus-stop tour of Washington state.
On the bus, Marlette offered to teach Clinton how to caricature his opponent, Bob Dole. Clinton offered to draw the press instead, and came up with four panels. The first was a stick figure with an axe-shaped head, holding a microphone, the second a woman holding a dagger in one hand and a heart in the other, captioned “love or war,” the third, half-devil, half-angel, captioned “Depends on the day, the issue.” The fourth showed Justice holding balanced scales in one hand, while crossed the fingers on the other.
While Clinton sketched, Marlette sketched him and then handed the drawing to the President, “and there’s this little moment,” he recalls. “He looks at what I’ve been drawing, and there’s a little hostility.” But Marlette isn’t sure if it was really aimed at him, because of what happened next. “We’re driving along, people are holding signs — hostile signs, positive signs. You see their reactions. At one stop, kids sang a song for them. We’re on the bus, Hillary’s making sandwiches, and we’re saying, ‘God, wasn’t that sweet?’ Clinton says, ‘Yeah, and we were lucky they didn’t sing another verse.’ As if, he sees my mischief, and he twins with it. Some people sense what people want and then give it to them. He’s more sophisticated and slick with it. He lets me know he’s like me, we’re in tune.” But they weren’t in tune any longer.
After Clinton’s election, the Renaissance weekends had changed. Like some mogul’s gathering in Bohemian Grove or Sun Valley, they were now studied and parsed and relentlessly publicized. One year, there were “huge crowds, huge panels, over-organized, a gazillion people, and all of a sudden, the program had gotten so big, every speaker’s time was limited, and there was a lot of talk of people not being invited back,” Marlette recalls. “The final night, Bill and Hillary talked off the record to the group. And I noticed — this is my lizard eye — when Hillary introduced the President, she was sort of chilly. And then she gave a canned speech.” The next morning, Marlette spoke at one of the last events of the weekend and made a crack about Hillary’s boring speech and how someone should have limited her time. The audience roared, and when Marlette looked out, he noticed that the person laughing loudest was the President. Later on, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, ID TK, asked him, “Did you realize they’d been fighting?”
By December, 1997, hostilities were out in the open when Hillary Clinton walked into a panel where Marlette was describing his cartoon vision of the panel’s subject — Clinton’s Legacy — as national monument portraying a giant zipper. A few days later, the New York Post’s feisty Page Six gossip column carried Hillary’s spin on the event. The paper said that though Clinton had chilled the room with her scowl, she’d actually been upset because the panel was “politically incorrect,” with a male/female ratio of 16 to 1. “She said to a number of people that it was no wonder this panel didn’t get it,” said “a source close to the event.”
As Marlette remembers, the scene was more a comedy routine than a shoot-out at Hilton Head corral. He told the crowd that he always applies a favorite Beatle test before judging anyone. “And it’s been documented that the President’s favorite Beatle was Paul McCartney, and we all wish that it was John Lennon.” He paused for the laugh. “Hillary’s favorite Beatle was Yoko Ono.” The laughter wavered a bit. Only then did he show the cartoon. “On the entire panel no one had mentioned anything about his problems in that area.” Afterwards, a producer who was about to mount a musical based on “Kudzu” in Washington, D.C., told him Hillary had been there and asked how he could have said what he did.
“It’s my job,” Marlette said.
The next day, before leaving, Marlette thanked Clinton for some kind words he’d offered to Marlette’s son. “He’s usually very warm,” Marlette says. “He’s usually hugging. He turned and looked at me and a hummingbird would freeze in his light. It was like an Arctic blast. I could just feel that Hillary had talked to him. There’s not been any contact since then.”
Less than a month later, Clinton had bigger problems than Marlette. They were named Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr, the intern and the independent counsel. And they gave Marlette the best gift you can give to a cartoonist: a million opportunities for political incorrectness. “Hail to the Creep,” said one Marlette cartoon. Another showed the white house as a trailer, decorated with a satellite dish, a lawn flamingo and the legend, White Trash Legacy. In the mailbox out in front are the 1998 congressional election results. “Yeeehiiii, Hillary, we been vindicated!” read the caption. Standards had changed. When Marlette drew Saddam Hussein mooning Clinton while an aide observes, “It’s another stalker in a beret who wants to show you his thong,” nobody tried to censor it.
Marlette still has enemies, however, and increasingly, he finds them in the very arena where Hillary Clinton now seeks to reinvent herself, post-Lewinsky, the precincts of liberal politics in New York. Marlette’s Newday cartoons proudly epitomize political incorrectness. In recent years, he’s had more cartoons killed than in the quarter century before them. “Irreverence is not appreciated in an atmosphere of public piety,” he wrote in Media Studies Journal. “Over the years I have had more cartoons killed by liberal secular humanists than by Bible-thumpers. When it comes to free speech, I have found liberals more cowardly and more easily intimidated by pressure groups — perhaps because they are more guilt-drive and easily guilt-tripped by sanctimonious special interests. If it’s no longer open season for satire, if some groups are deemed exempt, if we’re not all lampoonable regardless of race, creed, color, gender, whatever, then there is no free speech.”
Watching his generation’s post-scandal support of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Marlette came to believe his age cohort is in deep, mass denial. “There’s something that’s going on that we don’t want to think about and that’s why we focus on Ken Starr,” he says. “I was feeling this before the speech and the confession. You cannot have the President behave as an infant. It turns everything upside-down. And Hillary is practically his procurer. She looks great when he is screwing up. We cannot look too closely at Bill and Hillary, because they’re us.
“The President of the United States, the Chief Executive Officer, is teaching my son — and a generation — that if he is caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he should say, ‘Define hand,’ ‘define cookies.’ This is where I will take it to the hoop with Bill and Hillary. I know they read Orwell’s essay on language. Nixon and Kissinger talked about ‘pacification’ when they were destroying villages, and about ‘incursions’ instead of invasions. Bill and Hillary, for the sake of his survival, have engaged in the same debasement and devaluation and weasel-wording.” It all reminds him of another Southern leader. “Robert E. Lee took responsibility for Gettysburg,” Marlette says. “He did not spin. He was accountable. But we live in a time of Clinton, a time of spin, a time of polls and focus groups.”
Finally, Marlette believes, the Baby Boom will inevitably find itself desperate for authenticity. “It has been polled and market-researched to near-death,” he says. “All of it is the same — Clinton, the Disneyfication of America — it is pushing things down people’s throats, and there is a gag reflex. I embody the gag reflex.”
He laughs heartily. “I am always throwing up.”
©2000 by Michael Gross, from My Generation: Fifty Years of Sex, Drugs, Rock, Revolution, Glamour, Greed, Valor, Faith and Silicon Chips.