Jules Feiffer discusses his book "Feiffer on Nixon"
BROADCAST: Nov. 10, 1974 | DURATION: 00:54:55
Content Warning: This conversation has the presence of outdated, biased, offensive language. Rather than remove this content, we present it in the context of twentieth-century social history to acknowledge and learn from its impact and to inspire awareness and discussion. In his book, "Feiffer on Nixon: The Cartoon Presidency," Jules Feiffer tries to give his readers his take on politics and the government. In addition, through his descriptions of the cartoon panels, Feiffer offers his explanations of who President Nixon was.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel It always takes, seems to me, in history, it's always either a clown or an artist or someone who tells the truth. Jules Feiffer for a number of years now, a great number of years, always seems to have pre- presaged or presaged what's happened earlier through his cartoons. And though Nixon is no longer president, in a sense he is. "Feiffer on Nixon" has been issued - Random House - it's a paperback. It's "The Cartoon Presidency." And even though Nixon's no longer president, it's about us, our society, through cartoons. Jules, I was thinking about your own approach to political cartoons, even though we'll open with an early--
Studs Terkel Well first of all, first of all--
Jules Feiffer First of all Studs, you said something that I'm not sure is true.
Jules Feiffer I don't want to attack you on your own program for speaking with a forked tongue, but there's very little evidence that Nixon is not president. And, the fact is that, whether in the hospital with phlebitis, dying or not dying, testifying or not testifying, he is more in the news than the acting president whatever his name is. He seems to be a very live part of our lives months, many months after he left, he he he left the office. And whether or not he's officially president, he seems to be the president of our minds and our psyches and our consciences. And it's extraordinary, the whole, you know it it it strikes me the contrast, is is rather interesting: that from the moment Lyndon Johnson announced he wasn't going to run again, he almost ceased to be the president, although he was still the president. And right after that election, which, in which Nixon defeated Humphrey, Johnson, while he was still president for a number of months, disappeared from the scene, nobody heard much about him, nobody talked much about him. His insidious influence wasn't discussed. His war criminal-ship wasn't discussed. He he just - a hole opened up and he vanished. One had every right to expect the same thing happening of Nixon. It hasn't at all. The hold this man has on us for whatever the reason, and he's certainly got less of a personality than Johnson ever had, and less of a of a, of certain characteristics. And yet Nixon seems to have more to do with the kind of America that represents us than Johnson, who is who is some kind of bizarre aberration on on on our society. Nixon seems to be us.
Studs Terkel And that, so - this may, by the way, this is a very good way of of explaining the book, and and the contemporaneity of the book. Because some might say, oh what's this got to do? Nixon's gone. You're saying he's here psychically, through Ford or through whoever the successor of Ford might be. Isn't that what- in a sense is what you're saying?
Jules Feiffer Ye- I think he's become part of our character--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer And maybe was part of our character all along. The very reason we couldn't get upset by My Lai and identify with Calley who's just gotten off - the the the the incredible callousness of the American people toward the various escalations of the war in Vietnam, the various attacks on the peace movement at home, people blanking out what they knew. I mean, it wasn't as as if there was any lack of information about the crimes that we were committing over there. It's that people weren't able to respond in the same way the president and the government didn't respond--
Studs Terkel As you're saying--
Jules Feiffer The [presses?] of denial, over and over again.
Studs Terkel As you're saying this, I thought perhaps we could read, as I'm told Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York in the '30s, used to read comic strips to the young people and old people on Sunday mornings, read from from your book, your paperback "Feiffer on Nixon". The mechanical quality, that's which, that was happening, and you start with the early debates between--
Jules Feiffer Yeah, the first, the first cartoon--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer I've got in the book is one I did back in 1960 during the Kennedy Nixon debates, where after watching them, I was fascinated by his technique in arguing. And I remember the time, also, Meg Greenfield in "The Reporter" magazine wrote an article, which I found very impressive and influenced me, on Nixon's way of debating. And the visual in the cartoon is is is is interesting in terms of what later happened to Nixon in his unwinding, because in the beginning he's a man totally - there probably has never been any political leader, more ill at ease with his own body than that president of the United States. And one always saw in him at news conferences, the determined control of that body, the determined control of the face. If you remember, as I remember, there was always one moment when he does some kind of Freudian slip in in a news conference and you'd suddenly see the eyes go wild for about a fraction of a second, and you could see in those eyes that that the fear of loss of control, and then he'd regained control. It would be okay again, and he'd go on. But the body didn't respond to anything. The body was just this [stiffer?] machine that he was wearing. And he learned how to gesture by watching Kennedy, by watching other politicians. And so there'd be the wave of the left hand, followed by the wave of the right hand. There'd be the crossing of the right hand, followed by the crossing of the left hand. And in the early cartoons, I've got that, that mechanical Nixon man. And in the Kennedy cartoon, where he's debating Kennedy in 1960, he's saying, "I believe Senator Kennedy believes what he believes sincerely, as I believe that I believe what I believe sincerely. What do I mean by sincerely? This is what I mean by sincerely. I mean that both of us are honest in our feelings about our differences in approach to what is best for our nation's future. What do I mean by approach to? This is what I mean by approach to. I mean that in the words of Jefferson, that government is best which governs least. Now what did Jefferson mean by least? This is what I believe Jefferson meant by least. Senator Kennedy may disagree with me in my interpretation. I have no doubt he will be sincere in his disagreement with my interpretation as I am sincere in my agreement with my interpretation. More about that later. What do I mean by later? I mean that while Mr. Khrushchev is in this country, it is not in the best interest of the American people to show our dissension or lack of faith in our system although I feel that Mr. Khrushchev, and I have told him this point blank, is sincere in his lack of faith in our system. What do I mean by sincere, faith, our, and system? This is what I mean by."
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer And it kind of fades out.
Studs Terkel And then he fades out as the hand is stiffly, used a certain way. It's almost the mechanical boy, in a way.
Jules Feiffer And what he did--
Studs Terkel What you're talking about, yeah.
Jules Feiffer in these arguments, is he used to authenticate the opposition's arguments by telling these people who opposed him that they were sincere, and then misstate their arguments.
Studs Terkel And then we come to the unreality he is now President, and this is part of a Dick and Pat--
Jules Feiffer Twelve years later, yeah.
Studs Terkel A Dick and Pat series. You know Garry Wills the columnist said, has a theory that he taped and taped and taped because in hearing a tape back, he would come to believe he actually existed. He wasn't sure he was there. The tape gave him a feelinf maybe he is there in hearing it.
Jules Feiffer I find that a little difficult. There was another theory Wills had which I, which made a lot of sense to me about Nixon's repeated playings of "Patton". Remember that? When when when the story came out that Nixon showed "Patton" in the White House, the George C. Scott movie, over and over and over again to everybody and in general everyone thought, the press wrote about this, that that it had to do with his identification with power. Wills came up with what I felt was a brilliant analysis, that that what Nixon, Nixon had in common with Patton was that both of them were victims of the same man, Eisenhower. That that the villain of the "Patton" movie was Eisenhower who kept taking power away from Patton who could have won the war, who kept putting down Patton as Eisenhower continually put down Nixon. And that is what attrac- this this this macho man as played by George C. Scott--
Jules Feiffer Which Nixon could identify with as as his, as the guy who got back at Eisenhower. Who defeated - Nixon was always somebody who had to work as Wills and others put it, in an adversary relationships--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer He had to have villains.
Studs Terkel Agonistes.
Jules Feiffer Yeah. And, and in a way, you know, what what was clear in those early months in the White House, is that he didn't know who the hell was president, he didn't believe he was pres--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer It was it was some kind of fun and games--
Studs Terkel That's--
Jules Feiffer And in this cartoon--
Studs Terkel [So they're So in?] Dick and Pat.
Jules Feiffer I did a series in the beginning called, "Dick and Pat", you know, almost in the format of an old time radio show, you know, husband and wife. And very domestic and it st- with Dick is getting dressed in the morning, putting on his shirt and his tie and getting and sitting down for breakfast. And Pat's talking to him offstage throughout and she's saying, "Wake up, Dick, time to rise and shine." And he's saying, "I'm up and ready and raring to go, Pat." And she's saying, "Good morning, Dick, and how are you this morning?" And he's saying, "Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and how are you, Pat?" And he's sitting down to his breakfast, hot cereal and orange juice, and she's saying, "Just fine, Dick, your fruit juice and hot cereal are on the breakfast table," and he saying, "They sure do hit the spot, Pat. Nothing like a good breakfast to set a fellow up for the rest of the day." And she's saying, "What are your plans for today, Dick?" And he says, "Oh I don't know, Pat. Read the papers, make a few phone calls, start on a new speech, put up a couple of bookshelves." She says, "But Dick, we already have plenty of bookshelves in the White House." He looks puzzled. "The White House?" He drops a spoon. "Oh my God. I'm President."
Studs Terkel Yeah. This is the--
Studs Terkel Yeah, this is the unreality of it again, isn't it? The fact that, the fact that we'd speak of mechanical people, and how difficult - by the way, [unintelligible] go another Dick and Pat. Let me take a crack at reading this--
Jules Feiffer Yeah.
Studs Terkel But I got to ask you this, Jules. The fact, a fact is a mechanical quality, [has had to? is either?] become part of our society in a way, a mechanical or zombie unquestioning quality, that maybe he was the proper guy to represent us at the certain [times?] that is, ironically, but. The fact there was this unreal, surreal, catch-22 quality about it.
Jules Feiffer Well you know, somewhere along the line, it was after Truman, and maybe the first beginnings of it were were the Eisens- Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign, the talk of image came. And remember Stevenson had the wrong image because he was too witty and Eisenhower the right image, and then Kennedy played the image game to the hilt. Kennedy, who had a brilliant sense of humor, was cautious never to show it, until he was elected president, or not elected president, but [laughter] it was that old Cook County vote.
Studs Terkel Yeah, [well, you know about that?].
Jules Feiffer But until Kennedy got in the White House, nobody ever got any sense that this was a president with wit. And in fact he had much more wit than Stevenson had, which and he displayed it to marvelous effect once he was in office, at various news conferences. But it was against his image to do that. The sense of role playing, and here we are talking about presidents of the United States, the most important people in the land and they're role playing. Lyndon Johnson, to his dying day, couldn't figure out an image for himself as president and tried everything other than Lyndon Johnson. And the press used to say over and over again, if he'd only did Lyndon Johnson as we knew him, as that majority leader who was the wheeler dealer, he would have had much more effectiveness with the American people than playing Big Daddy, or playing the saint, playing Rabbi Lyndon, playing playing the various parts [you know?] the great civil rights leader, playing whatever he played.
Studs Terkel And so as a result we have a guy named Nixon who succeeds him. Who almost follows through, on almost in caricature. Here's another Dick and Pat of Jules Feiffer. And the voice is Pat. "Dick. Better get a move on. Company's come for dinner." He's tying his tie. He says, "Be there in two shakes of a lamb's tail, Pat. Who's coming?" And she says, "The Chairman of the Board of General Dynamics, the President of Chase Manhattan, the Chairman of the Board of Lockheed." He says, "Gee, Pat." And she says - you don't see her, by the way. May I ask you this, before I pick up on the thing, you - we don't see her at all, we just see him, we sim- we simply see a line.
Jules Feiffer Yeah. There were 2 reasons for that. One is the limited amount of space, and with all that dialogue there's just simply not room for 2 figures. The second is I never worked out a drawing of Pat.
Studs Terkel Oh, you couldn't do that. So she picks up, the disembodied voice picks up, and he asks, "Gee, Pat." And she says, "The Chairman of the Board [continued?] of the other guests, of General Motors, Chairman of the Board of U.S. Steel, President of IBM. A colored man." "Very good, Pat." She says, "And David and and Julie." He says, "David's coming. Well, I'll be darned Pat." And she says, "Dick, when we have company, I wish you'd stop calling David sir." "But Pat, he's the President's grandson." "Dick, you're the President." "I know Pat. But I mean, the real President." "Dick, I wish you'd get it into your head that this isn't a movie." He's, "I wish you wouldn't talk that way Pat." And then he says, "If this isn't a movie, this country is in a lot more trouble than you think." Here we come again, don't we? The idea of role playing, the the farcical aspect of it.
Jules Feiffer Yeah.
Studs Terkel And he's there, and yet we know he himself, he himself doesn't believe it. This is the other aspect you were talking earlier, isn't it?
Jules Feiffer Yeah. The the, the manipulation by Nixon, and by his vice president, and by his cabinet, by his press offices, of themselves in regards to the media, in regard to the American people, was so constant and so continual that it fed back on itself. There's a cartoon that I did in the beginning of the 70s when everybody was talking about the heritage of the 60s. You remember that. What these 10 years mean, what the 60s signify and there were all sorts of summations. And I did my own summation and I wrote, "Once upon a time there were the 1960s during which he got shot." And there's a drawing of President John F. Kennedy. "And then he got shot." And there's a drawing of Malcolm X. "And then he got shot." And there's a drawing of Martin Luther King. "And then he got shot." And there's a drawing of Robert Kennedy. "And then he got shot." And there's a drawing of an American G.I. "And then he got shot." And there's a drawing of a Vietnamese G.I. "And then he got elected." And there's a drawing of Lyndon Johnson. "And then he and he got elected." And there's a drawing of Richard Nixon, and the cartoon concludes with a direct quote: "The disease of our time is an artificial and masochistic sophistication, the vague uneasiness that our values are false." And it's from Spiro T. Agnew.
Studs Terkel And there of course, you have the crazy, nutty thing, the surreal thing. The horrendous events that happened and then Agnew. You know, again, someone removed from reality at this moment, speaking of values-- [unintelligible].
Jules Feiffer See their reality, you know what what what I found interesting about Nixon and Agnew continually, is that their line of attack wa- seemed almost always to me, a perfect example of what the psychologists call projection. They're talking about these guys trapped in the White House and not knowing what's going on in the country, or accusing Walter Cronkite of being insular. They're talking about the - that part of the government, which is appointed by no one but the president and answers to no one: the Haldemans, the Erlichmans, the Agnews. Talking about the press which is appointed by nobody, elected by nobody, making the rules. It seems that they were always talking about themselves and using metaphors, pretending it's other people. It's like Nixon's farewell address when he left the ea- to to the troops when he left the White House in which he ended saying, "Don't be bitter. I've learned [laughter]--"
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer "That you should." I mea, so he says full of rage, "Don't be bitter because bitterness and anger--"
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer and rage destroy yourself."
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer And he's a man totally destroyed by his own anger--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer His own venom, his own rage, lecturing in this incredible way--
Jules Feiffer Not knowing til the end.
Studs Terkel And this leads of course to to you - another sequence of cartoons and faces dealing with the press, the very point, and Nixon is saying, "The question isn't over free press, it's over a fair press." He continues, "Did the press report the truth during the Truman administration? No. Did the press report the truth during the Eisenhower administration? No. Did the press report the truth during the Kennedy administration? No. So why us? You're not going to kick Nixon around anymore." There's also irony since you did this at the same time, there's this truth in it, too, isn't it?
Jules Feiffer Yeah. I see - I thought what a lot of people overlooked, in the Nixon-Agnew argument on the press, is the justification of the argument from their point of view. We're living in a Cold War society from 1945 on, in which the press did everything in its power, during all those years, not to tell the truth. I remember during the Korean War, over and over again with Syngman Rhee was this, was it, was in the page of the new- "The New York Times" described as this democratic leader, the George Washington of of of South Korea, and only in reading I.F. Stone or various left wing publications--
Studs Terkel Or a marvelous journalist in England named James Cameron.
Jules Feiffer Oh sure, Jim Cameron, sure. Yeah, yeah--
Studs Terkel Who first exposed Syngman Rhee.
Jules Feiffer But but only in reading sources not necessarily available to the majority of American people did one know that Syngman Rhee, this George Washington, this man we who whose democratic government we were we were defending, was just like Thieu later in in Vietnam, was throwing thousands of political prisoners in jail, was torturing, was a monstrous villain. And and no one knew about it, because the press didn't report it. And why didn't they report it? Because it was against the national interest of the United States. It's common knowledge now that the "New York Times" had the story on the Bay of Pigs and could have blown it, and and and stopped the Bay of Pigs by blowing it and didn't. Why? Because it was against national interest. And only with the Pentagon Papers did the press begin to act with some kind of conscience in terms, not just of, you know, of of politics about war and peace and all of that, which may or may not be what they were out out to do, but began to act in conscience in terms of a free press, in terms of the First Amendment. But the only thing that made them do that, I suspect, is that by that time, by the time of the Pentagon Papers, the press itself had politically turned against the war. And what made them turn against the war is the simple fact of Chicago in '68, they got beat up on the streets. If they hadn't got beat up on the streets and got to know what the cops were like, what the government was like, what was, you know, what was happening to those kids which made them identify with those kids for the first time, all of this might not have happened.
Studs Terkel Funny how this this this the accretion of different events, yeah. But the basis you know, even though Agnew and Nixon are wrong, because we know the press has always been on their side, the fact is it was remiss when it came to the others and that's their point. And so, here you have Dick and Pat, and you continue with the idea of of--
Jules Feiffer Well--
Studs Terkel Of law and order now.
Jules Feiffer Yeah. This is a cartoon done in 1971, and it's Dick sitting at the table and he's planning ahead for the '72 campaign. And he says, "Pat, the first general reduced Lieutenant Calley's sentence to 20 years in the summer of '71. The second general will will reduce Captain Calley's sentence to 10 years in fall of '71. The third general will reduce Colonel Calley's sentence to 6 months in the spring of '72, so that this administration's withdrawal program of General Calley from prison will be completed before November '72. Thereby defusing Chairman of the Joint Chief's Calley as a campaign issue so we can hit hard on [the? all?] issues of busing and law and order."
Studs Terkel You know as you're saying this now suddenly realized wh- I realized that what you said earlier is so much truth: even though Nixon is gone, the idea of the heritage, you know of the psyche of the guy is with us. But even to say it now Calley was just released on bail--
Studs Terkel The day before this very conversation--
Jules Feiffer Calley--
Studs Terkel You and I are having.
Jules Feiffer Calley gets out on on on virtually the same day that the Kent State National Guardsmen are freed by the judge in the case, and which is 2 days after, or 3 days after, the governor, Governor Rhodes of Ohio, who was the governor who presided over the Kent State Massacres, you know, in very much the same sort of way that Rockefeller presided over Attica, is re-elected by the people of Ohio. And it's hard not to believe, who was it said years ago that, about the Supreme Court, that it follows--
Studs Terkel Follows the elections. Dooley--
Jules Feiffer Yeah. Follows the returns.
Studs Terkel Finley Peter Dunne. Mr. Dooley, the Chicago columnist. And as you say that, there's another cartoon that makes you so very contemporaneous, contemporary to the - you did this some time ago. Nixon's gone and yet the idea, just as you spoke of the re-election of Rhodes. And it's very simple. A small boy is watching a TV set and we see the face of President Kennedy saying, "The South Vietnamese have made great progress. They're now bear- bearing the brunt of the battle and we can now see the day." And now it's Johnson's face on the TV and the same small boy--
Jules Feiffer No he's a little--
Studs Terkel He's not as little - bigger now. That's part of it. A bit bigger now. He says, and Johnson's picking up where Kennedy left off, "There will be no more Americans be involved there at all. And this is why I say to you tonight." And now the boy is wearing a uniform. He's got the little cap on, and he's watching and he's eager and the face now is that of Nixon: "Let us end the war but let us end in such a way that the younger brothers and sons and brave men who have fought." And the last piece, the last sequence, is an empty, no face on the TV set saying, "We'll not have to fight again, in some other Vietnam in some other time in the future." But there is no young guy watching it. There is instead a casket with an American flag covering it. Wow.
Jules Feiffer And that entire speech is taken from one of Nixon's, is a direct quote from, you know, a statement Nixon made. I split it up into--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer Because it was virtually what Kennedy had said, Johnson had said.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer They were all getting us deeper into the war in order to get us out of the war.
Studs Terkel This is a conversation that Jules Feiffer and I are having, oh about 3 o'clock in the morning [through? this?] is WFMT. And I just came across, Jules and I had met today earlier, and [let's do the take? tape?] he just had the paperback, this book and it's it's powerful. "Feiffer on Nixon: The Cartoon Presidency." Random House publishing it. We'll take a slight pause and we'll return more more readings in the manner of Fiorello La Guardia on a Sunday morning in New York some 40 years ago. I'll ask you what you mean for the cartoon presidency after this message. [pause in recording] Resuming the conversation with Jules Feiffer who, as you know, one the most perceptive political cartoonists. Well, how would I describe you? Not - you're a social cartoonist too, it's more than that, isn't it? Jules, when you, when you attack a subject, do you try to capture something? It's more than politics. This is politics, and yet it's more than that, isn't it?
Jules Feiffer Well, when I organized this book, I tried to put it together, not as a collection of political cartoons, one independent from the other, but really as a case history, and almost a novel in pictures. A character study of a man, of Richard Nixon, and and of the emptiness or the the the awareness of emptiness that the reader hopefully gets as he reads the book. And so that, well, in terms of events the cartoons are all in sequence, you know in terms of historical events. I've changed the sequences around in terms of how they actually ran in newspapers.
Jules Feiffer In order to build that character study. I found over the years that I couldn't actually do these Presidents, whether it's Nixon or Johnson or Kennedy or Eisenhower, until I got some kind of psychological and even literary take on who and what they were, and only then did I get a caricature that worked. Once I got some sense of what I took to be their viscera, when my gut connected to their gut--
Jules Feiffer Yeah.
Jules Feiffer Could I start doing them.
Studs Terkel In Nixon's case, by the way, dealing with cartoons and caricatures of certain people - [And actually? In Nixon?], you had the hooded, the hooded, with hooded eyes, isn't it? It's as though hidden.
Jules Feiffer It's all disguise--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer It's all role playing, and there's no man there. There's, it it it's all, you know, it's very revealing. The - Nixon, after his resignation, several days later being photographed walking on the beach of San Clemente, and by some kids who were walking there, and you remember those photographs. And he's surrounded by a girl in a bikini and a guy in shorts and bare feet. And Nixon is wearing his tie and his shirt and his jacket and his pants and his shoes, his oxfords. And I'm sure his black socks. And there's no image of Nixon ever walking barefoot in the sand or anywhere. One gets the feeling that he went to bed in a full dress suit.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer That that if he took off his clothes, he took off his body. That there was nobody there.
Studs Terkel But as you say in this, also in your cartoons you show it wasn't, even though it was Nixon's presidency, you're talking about something else, too. Moments - because you show how Johnson, and before him Kennedy, in a sense, led to Nixon, too--
Jules Feiffer Well--
Studs Terkel There was a jump, as a a qualitative jump or retrogression, whatever you want to call it, but nonetheless [unintelligible].
Jules Feiffer Well, I don't think Nixon was any more of an accident--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer Than Vietnam was an aberration, you know that that the Vietnam was called by liberals for years, an aberration. And I always felt, as many others that I knew felt, that it was a logical culmination of the politics that that, of the Cold War that brought us to that point. I think Nixon's presidency was also a logical culmination of of of the Cold War politics and attitudes. That, had we not had those attitudes, Nixon never could have been conceivably been president.
Studs Terkel So it leads naturally to the question of the Constitution, the presidency, the fears people have, justifiable of course, and you have a marvelous sequence right here [doing the?] very theme.
Jules Feiffer Well, it's if if one remembers earlier, Nixon's debating Kennedy in 1960, and the use of the same technique of argument that either-or thing, the [setting? sending?] up a straw man thing. And this is in 1973. And here he's saying, "I acknowledge that the Constitution has a right to its defenders. I respect that right, although I disagree with those defendants. I only ask that they grant the respect that I grant them to my rights as president. Last week in San Clemente, I saw a little girl hold up a sign: 'Mr. President do what is right.' Now, I could do the politically popular thing and ignore that child. Or I could do what is right and ignore the Constitution. So, the bombing of Cambodia will go on until I say so. This president will not bug out to the Constitution."
Studs Terkel And here of course you've done someth- you've carried something out ad absurdum. Is this also the mark of a cartoonist, to reduce something absurd, though it's - you know, though it's the, it's the law of the land, not the law but the power there, and make it ridiculous?
Jules Feiffer Well, over and over what I try to do, at times, in the cartoons is take the government's argument, whether it's Nixon or whether it's Ford on wind buttons and inflation or whatever it is, and turn the argument on its head. But using basically the administration's own logic to destroy their argument, if I can do it, I mean if I can get that right.
Studs Terkel As you say, as I turned to another one, a series of cartoons in Jules Feiffer's book. And not too long ago during football games, the breaks during the half on television, national television, always it was something political. In general the POWs. Any football game, college or pro, free POWs. And, so here's a case of Pentagon appearing, [always? all these?] football games. And so you have an officer, a general, perhaps a colonel, speaking to young men and he says, "I want." The young voices answer, "I want." The officer, "I want to thank." The voices, 4 of them, 5 of them [unintellgible]. "I want to thank." The officer, "I want to thank the president and the Commander in Chief." The voices, "I want to thank President Commander in Chief." General, officer, "I want to thank the President Commander in Chief and his policy of peace." The 4 voices, "I want to thank the President Commander in Chief and his policy of peace." General, "With honor." And they say, "With honor." And the general says to the 4 young men, "Thank you, gentlemen. That concludes this morning's POW briefing, debriefing."
Jules Feiffer You remember how, as the POWs got off the planes, in Manila, I guess it was, wasn't it? And how they all talked about how they wanted to thank the president of the United States and they all said peace with honor. And and it became so clear after a while that they were making a set speech, that people began to ask, you know, was, were they briefed? And there was a lot of denials that they were briefed and there was never no, there was never any information that came out that was able to verify any real briefings. But it's hard not to believe that a lot of, the fix wasn't in. And so I just did a cartoon on what I thought really happened. [laughter]
Studs Terkel And also what you do is something irreverent, obviously, but at a certain moment when a great, many, through no fault of their own - conditioning, television, tiredness - don't question this and accept it. Isn't this the idea of a certain kind of cartoonist? You, a certain guy as Daumier was, a century and a half before you in Paris, you know, doing this very thing, being very irreverent, you know.
Jules Feiffer Studs, I was hoping you wouldn't bring up Daumier in this con--
Jules Feiffer Well, one of the, one of the crosses cartoonists like me have to bear is being the next Daumier. I mean for years whoever is currently in, is called the next Daumier. [laughter] But the last guy was Al Capp.
Jules Feiffer Now, I don't want to have to deal with that.
Studs Terkel Oh God. [laughter] Was he called Daumier?
Jules Feiffer Yeah he was called Daumier. I don't want [unintelligible]--
Studs Terkel There's no reason why he should have been, though.
Jules Feiffer Calling me the next Daumier ends up be- calling me the next Al Capp. Now, I can sue for that.
Studs Terkel [laughter] Okay, I'll retract that. It's Feiffer. And you know what? There's something here that, well okay. This is Brecht, and you can't deny that. That too - well as a story connected with this involves a a recent piece in "Rolling Stone" with 2 actual burglars. But now you have something here. 2 guys are talking. Why don't you set the scene for this?
Jules Feiffer Well, the background to this begins with Watergate but then peripherally extends to my childhood in loving comic strips. And and I did a compendium of old comic strip characters, you know, tough guys, hoods in checkered suits, guys with beards, characters really right out of Dick Tracy. And and all of them, one after another, marching up to Nixon, who is wearing dark glasses, the very dark glasses that he wore invariably when he was shot and photographed with Bebe Rebozo and Robert Abplanalp on their [yachts?]. And Nixon is wearing these dark glasses, and he's wearing a striped shirt and a vest and rolled up sleeves and he's hand- handl- handing out the boodle, handing out money, payoffs to these various thugs who are trooping up to him. And he's giving them instructions. And to the guy in a checkered suit he says, "Leftie, you burgle Ellber- Ellsberg's shrink." And to the guy with a cauliflower ear and a black vest he says, "Mugsy, you bug the Watergate." And to the guy in the beret and the turned up collar and a black beard he says, "Louie, you burn the evidence." And to the guy in a very sharp suit with no face he says, "No-Nose, you shred the memos." And to the pilot wearing a black mask he says, "Butch, you bomb Cambodia." And then one of the hoods is putting his jacket, the jacket on Nixon, you know holding it like a flunky. And Nixon says, "Any questions?" And No-Nose asks, "What if we get caught?" And Nixon says as he leaves, "I don't know ya. I never heard of ya. I don't know nothing [laughter]." There's one other I'd like to get into, because you know although we hadn't discussed this earlier, I think it illustrates what I try hardest to do in the cartoon, which is explain not just my logic in dealing with what goes on in the country but also tries to get under the skin of the administration's logic when I'm dealing with the administration. And I thought and I and I use as my, as a subject for my text in this cartoon, a quote from Ronald Reagan, although I gave it to Nixon because I thought they basically represent the same train of thought. Ronald Reagan said in one of the statements on Watergate, that while Watergate was illegal, it wasn't criminal. And you may remember this.
Jules Feiffer He said it wasn't criminal because nobody gained any personal profit from it. You know, they were doing it because they were doing it of the highest ideals and trying to help the government.
Studs Terkel National security, yeah.
Jules Feiffer And so I give that argument to Nixon and I follow it through. And I follow through in order to try to explain to the reader how I thought the government saw Watergate and what made Watergate possible. And here's Nixon saying, "I do not say Watergate was not illegal. It was. But I say it as a body blow to the whole American system to say it was criminal. First of all, the perpetrators held respected jobs and sensitive jobs in the highest branches of government. Now I know some people will call that criminal. I don't. Next they are white, come from good homes and held impressive track records in private enterprise. Now I know some people would call that criminal. I don't. Next their acts were not directed at personal gain or mob violence. Not at all. Their acts, overzealous perhaps, were directed at perpetuating 4 more years of peace with honor and law with order. Now I know some people will call that criminal. I don't. No, Watergate was not criminal. Daniel Ellsberg, Dr. Spock, Chicago in '68 were criminal. Watergate was self-defense."
Studs Terkel Yeah. Of course, right there you see as you say this, this incredible rationalization that occurs, you know. And also, how people accept this, this is also part of it, isn't it, you know. Watergate was self-defense even though Watergate is difficult right now. You know, the great many people seem to have caught on. But you think they've learned? They've caught on that Nixon is no good, but they've caught on as to what caused Watergate? Earlier you were saying oh, Kennedy, Johnson, the Cold War, national security. And you - and this is a recurring theme, of course, in all your cartoons, isn't - even though it's Nixon, Nixon's presidency, you're talking about more than that. You're talking about Ford, of now, and you're talking about Kennedy and Johnson of yesterday too.
Jules Feiffer Well, they may be catching on to some extent although it's difficult, you know, th- that that there's every reason to believe that without Watergate, Nelson Rockefeller's approval by the Senate would have flown through and he would have been vice president by now. Because of Watergate, while the Rules Committee collapsed completely, there were a number of leaks to the press, by whom I don't know but thank God for them, that raised questions that that the Senate now has to deal with in terms of Rockefeller. No I don't, you know, in terms of a man with money and kind of power he wields. Now, it's impossible to believe that this could have happened without Watergate, because it certainly didn't happen during the 4 times Rockefeller ran for governor of New York State.
Studs Terkel And so in a way, so you're - because by the way Rockefeller is part of this book, too. Even, again we come back to Jules Feiffer's book "Feiffer on Nixon: the Cartoon Presidency." You're talking about more than Nixon is the point.
Jules Feiffer Well, we're talking about money--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer And this next cartoon has some--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer You know, we're talking about how the government is run. You know, Studs, I, like everyone else, watched in the summer 2 years ago the Ervin hearings. And the thing that struck me was here I'd been doing politics and cartoons and thinking to my- and and and reading up on politics and thinking myself a smart guy about how America is run, and felt after a week of watching the hearings like an absolute innocent, an absolute, an absolute ass. Not because John Dean or Jeb Magruder or Herbert Porter or the others exposed new horrors in regard to Watergate, but in terms of the simple workings of the government on a level, on on a dealership level, like like car dealers - trade-offs. The simple day to day things that weren't crooked, that weren't indictable offenses, that weren't criminal offenses, that simply had to do with creating a government above and beyond the government that the American people voted for or had any knowledge of. But it was the government that in fact has been running it, running us for lo these many years, I mean long before Nixon, long before Johnson, you know, dating back for as far as any any - but it probably dates back forever. But as the country gets richer and more nationalized, [you know, with?] power from the top has has more control over our lives, it becomes more of a horrific problem.
Studs Terkel As you say this, you know, one of the, I guess the dean of revisionist historians, William Appleman Williams, put out a book called "From Wilson to Nixon." And this deals with the next cartoon of Jules Feiffer and these these guys really are managers of of a corporation. [They called president?]. And here it is, it's this one. "I," and the guy is obviously a big shot, this guy you have, his hand is raised, "I pledge a million to the Indicted States of America, and to the corporation for which it stands, one nation under--"
Jules Feiffer Nixon.
Studs Terkel "One Nixon under guard [laughter] under guard, invincible. With liberty and operative for all." And we see the button on his lapel - "law and order." And [this says? in a sense?], this is Bill Williams, this revisionist historian's booklet, it's quite marvelous. But also it's your cartoon right here in 6 different boxes. What do you call this? Not a box.
Jules Feiffer Panels.
Studs Terkel Panels, 6 different panels. And we have also, as he says that, you have a guy who turns out to be Nixon, but could be Kennedy or Johnson or Ford, as a corporate president. He's sitting and there are various empty chairs, could be a cabinet meeting could be a certain security council meeting--
Jules Feiffer With dozens of phones, yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer And he's saying, it's it's a camera shot in a way, you [get this?] long shot of the president sitting at this long table, and the camera moves in on him so that the last panel is a close up but it takes time for for it to get there. And he's saying throughout, and, by the way, everything here except the last line is a direct quote from Nixon: "Whatever may appear to have been the case before, whatever improper activities may be discovered in this whole sordid affair, I want you to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that during my term of office justice will be pursued fairly, fully, and impartially, no matter who is involved. Impeachment with honor."
Studs Terkel Yeah. Again we have the crazy kind of - well, the word honor, you use that a great deal, by the way.
Jules Feiffer Well.
Studs Terkel In your cartoons, too, ironically.
Jules Feiffer Prophetic self-destruction. [laughter]
Studs Terkel And so we have another one, 6 panels. And it's Nixon's face, "I give you peace with honor. I gave you peace with honor. I gave you Mitchell. I gave you practically my entire staff. I threw in Agnew. As a bonus I threw in my tapes. I've gone that extra mile. Are you satisfied? No, not you, never." And I'll ask you about how the faces changed very subtly. And the fifth, the fifth panel: "I never thought I'd be forced to say this to my silent majority." Last panel: "You're mean." And now of course we get, so, I got the question, this is now a question asking of an artist, of a cartoonist. They're subtle changes, your - except when you [deliberately?] mean it, the panels seemingly are the same, the same face. And yet little, little changes occur, in this case. You mind explaining that? You know, try to visually even though this is radio, you know.
Jules Feiffer Well, it gets back to the idea of writing rather than drawing the cartoons, that the dialogue is written first, and then I cast an actor whose name is Nixon and then he has to act it out. And then I direct him in acting it out. And in the direction, some kind of psychological understanding and some literary understanding of what transpires goes on. And so you're dealing with the anger in the character and the self-pity in the character and the seductiveness in the character trying to win over his audience. "I've gone the extra mile," he says with his crocodile smile, trying to get across, but, as a sympathetic person, but it not working because he's full of rage and full of self pity and it just falls apart. So, you try to get across as some kind of multiplicity of emotions, and hopefully some of them work, hopefully all of them work, you know. And you build to the climax.
Studs Terkel Yeah--
Studs Terkel And I like how you also, a line or 2, just whatever you change you you change it subtly, the guy.
Jules Feiffer Yeah, it's - I think there's one, there's one other here.
Studs Terkel Okay yeah, which one are you thinking about?
Jules Feiffer The one about the - there was, see, I thought one of the interesting aspects in Nixon's character, the business about not paying his taxes. The business about the the backdating of the deeds. Things that were absolutely unnecessary, that even when he made these deals, they weren't going to gain him that much. And and they were going to bring a lot more trouble than they're worth even if he got away with them, and the likelihood of getting away with them were not enormous. So all you co- all you co- all one could see after a while about Nixon is that we had in the pre- in the president of the United States, in the man liv- that, then living in the White House, a guy with the personality and sensibility of a second story man, of a of a rather petty character. So, I show the Washington cop with Nixon in the stance of some hood who who might be in Harlem, and he's saying, "Up against the wall, President." And Nixon has got his hands outstretched and leaning against the wall and his legs spread, you know he's off balance, and the cop starts going through his pocket, and starts discovering things. And the cop is saying, "Let's see what we got here. A hundred thousand dollars in small bills and change, Carte Blanche Card made out to the name of Bebe Rebozo, a telephone credit card made out to the name of Robert Abplanalp, a blue worsted suit jacket with the name tag Howard Hughes." He's taken off his jacket by this time. And he goes into the pocket of the jacket. "Unmade out income tax forms for 1970 and '71." And then Nixon's shirt - wh- you know, Nixon is standing in a shirt and the shirt collapses, and out of his shirt falls a mess of silverware and a cop is writing down, "And 23 knives, forks and spoons from the White House dining room." And he says, "What do you have to say for yourself, fella?" [laughter] And Nixon says, "Agnew did it." [laughter] This is right after the resignation of Agnew, which they were hoping--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer Would take the curse off.
Studs Terkel The butler did it.
Jules Feiffer Yeah, the butler did it.
Studs Terkel But al- something else here and that's the funny part, this not, well, not sad for us because it broke, but the pettiness of it all. The banality of it all. That's part of it too, isn't it?
Jules Feiffer Yeah, he was, [laughter] he he was our Eichmann.
Studs Terkel I want to save, I want to save that one. There's one coming up, about a young kid watching. Another cartoon of of Feiffer's. The book is, you know, "Feiffer on Nixon." And here is a guy. He has a black armband, he has a cane, and he has one leg. And he's talking: "I didn't want to be drafted but three - three presidents told me it was my duty. I didn't want to fight in Vietnam. But 3 presidents told me I was defending freedom. I didn't want to lose an arm and a leg. But -" We see and, so there is, an arm is missing too. "But 3 presidents told me if we cut and run we'd lose all Southeast Asia. Then they shipped me home and I learned everything 3 presidents told me was a lie, and no one would give me a job because I'm a reminder and an embarrassment. That's why I take the hard line on amnesty. I can never forgive those who did not have the guts to do their duty and serve their country - John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon." Wow. Yeah. Of course, here we come, don't we, to the ironic and biting and bitter one, don't we? Oh, this may be the most incisive and biting and bitter, isn't it? Because here we come now to the question of the legless or the one-legged and the one-armed vet talking.
Jules Feiffer Well, the awful lie of Vietnam has to be traced to somebody, and I don't know how you can trace it to anybody but Kennedy in the beginning, and of course under Johnson, and then, you know, and and these people lied us into that war, and lied us into the escalation of it, and lied us into the mass killing of ourselves and beyond ourselves, many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese - both north and south. And they did it. And the reason they did it is that none of them wanted to take the responsibility for getting us out of an unpopular war because it was bad politics, because they would not be the first president to preside over the losing of a war, and because it was not macho.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Well, it's not macho, you know, which of course leads to, we've arbitrarily chosen about 15 different strips with panels of Jules Feiffer's book "Feiffer on Nixon" and the last is a kid. And this is probably what it's all about really because isn't this true - I suppose, what is it, what is the job of, if there were one job, political cartoonist, is to get at truth, isn't it? Ironically and bitingly, funny, absurdly, and also horrifyingly. At the same time we laugh, sometimes. This last of course evokes no laugh at all, the one you're about to read.
Jules Feiffer Well let me give you the background--
Jules Feiffer Of it, before before I read it to you.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer I watched with - I I don't quite [unintelligible] with growing horror and and mortification that news conference Nixon held at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. And it was before a newspaper convention of editors and, I think, publishers, but in any case it was a holi- you know, was one of those junkets, and they brought their kids. So here you have an audience watching the President of the United States, in which it's almost as if he's on speed, or, you know, he's manic. That tight use of his body, where which we talked about earlier, where the body is is manic and it moves as instructed, has completely gone by the boards and it's as if you've got a machine with the lynch pins taken out and there's no coordination anymore to the body, and he's jumping and hopping all over the place and there's no control to his facial features, there's no control to hi- to to his body. And this is the news conference in which he says, "I am not a crook." And then you see in the audience, kids, close-ups of kids watching. They're watching the President of the United States announcing to them that he's not a crook. He's talking about himself as a lawyer and nearly flunking, and I mean he's going through all sorts of nonsense, mad nonsense. He's talking about the Milk Deal and he's taking out extra airtime when when they were supposed to go off the air. And Archie Bunker is supposed to come on. He says, "Well they can wait a few minutes. Nobody's asked me about the Milk Deal, I'll tell you about the Milk Deal." And he goes on and on and on, out of control and it's madness. And what it did to me was remind me of my childhood and what the presidency was supposed to be when I was a kid, when all of us were, and about the American dream, and about everybody growing up to be president. You know that, what's - this is a wonderful country and any kid can do that. And the next thing is who would want to? I mean that the kids that are growing up today--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Jules Feiffer Would be growing up with no illusions about that office, no illusions about this country, no illusions about the American dream. In other words, the heritage that you and I grew up with, the heritage that took people through the Great Depression and leaves the memories of the Great Depression that are positive, because it deals not with poverty, but with the will to defeat poverty, with the will to recognize themselves against this greatest adversary of all, which is unemployment and starvation and to overcome that. That kind of self-stature, that kind of sense of self is gone now, because there's nothing to measure it against. There's no pride, there's no conviction, there's no country. So I have a kid, and this is Christmas of a year ago, writing his annual letter to Santa Claus and he saying, "Dear Santa. My father said that in olden times any boy, if he worked hard and was a good and honest person, could be anything he wanted to be, even president. And my father said that if you are president, it was like an honor, and it didn't mean you were a crook and had to be ashamed, and that you could do good things and people even believed in you because people didn't think presidents were liars in olden times. Because my father said people in olden times believed in the future for this country and for themselves. And they call it the American dream. Santa don't give me presents this year. Give me that dream."
Studs Terkel Yeah. And this in a sense is what the the book's about, too. All of the cartoons that lead up to that one. "Give me that dream." And the surreal aspect, the grotesque aspect, [of where we are?] today, and that's what political cartoonist in the very best sense, Jules Feiffer is. We know of him also as a playwright, "Little Murders" and "Carnal Knowledge," and a variety of "The White House" - "The White House--"
Studs Terkel "Murder Case," and a new one coming up but, we think of him primarily, he has many dimensions as a creative artist, but, as for the moment, as this cartoonist, "Feiffer on Nixon." And I suppose the subtitle tells a lot. It's a double entendre, "The Cartoon Presidency." It's a cartoon. At the same time if you didn't put your pen to paper, a cartoon. So it's about to, Random House, the publishers. It's very exciting and it's great for reading out loud and also looking at, too, and reflecting on. And thank you very much.