Doonesbury At 40

Uncle Duke Is My Hero

Walter Isaacson pays tribute to his favorite Doonesbury character, Uncle Duke.

Slate and have compiled a list of Doonesbury’s 200 greatest moments. Read David Plotz’s interview with Garry Trudeau. See Slate’s complete coverage of Doonesbury’s 40th anniversary.

Uncle Duke is my hero. He was able to make the move from journalism to diplomacy while maintaining continuity in his personal habits. I became an acolyte back when I was still a student. Uncle Duke was then serving as governor of American Samoa, and he got tapped by Ford and Kissinger to be ambassador to China. He uttered the classic line: “Those Chinese are an especially tricky people.” With Honey as his translator, he navigates the shoals of geopolitics, Chairman Mao, and various manifestations of great disorder under heaven. (See the China strip here.)

It was astonishing to me that both the nuances and the absurdities of one of the major shifts of our time—America’s new openness to China—could be captured so brilliantly in a comic strip. When I later learned that Garry had traveled with the press corps on President Ford’s trip to China in 1975, it dawned on me that he had created a new genre: the reported comic strip. That is one of the ingredients in his secret sauce: With no fanfare, Garry actually goes out and reports like a journalist when he prepares his strips. He’s Roland Hedley’s good twin. Whether he’s dealing with soldiers from Iraq or Uncle Duke going into competition with Halliburton, Garry reports the topic subtly and surely. Plus, he has a heart. So the foundation of his work, hidden gently in plain view, is a mix of truth and goodness. Uncle Duke wouldn’t approve of that, but he would admire its ingenuity as a successful formula for 40 years.

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