Sly Move or Recklessness? Inbox 'Civil War'; Quote of the Week

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Good morning. It’s Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, the day of the week for parsing an inspirational historical quotation. Today’s comes from Walt Kelly, the prolific virtuoso who penned the “Pogo” comic strip that graced U.S. daily newspapers with sly social and political commentary for a generation after the end of World War II.

In Thursday’s newsletter I wrote about “Peanuts,” Charles M. Schulz iconic comic strip featuring almost exclusively children and their pets. With help from one of my most loyal readers, I got to thinking about Walt Kelly, who used swamp creatures -- animals who lived in an actual swamp, not Washington, D.C. -- to comment on the absurdities of life. He especially liked to poke fun at the pompous. Using the title character, Pogo Possum, and his many friends (including Albert Alligator, Howland Owl, Porky Pine, and a mud turtle named Churchy LaFemme) allowed Kelly more leeway than he might have otherwise enjoyed.

Yet, on May 1, 1953, when Kelly premiered a shotgun-toting wildcat named “Simple J. Malarkey,” it was a pretty obvious caricature of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Even some liberal newspaper editors were uncomfortable with it, but the artist was uncowed. When one such editor threatened to drop “Pogo” if the McCarthy character again showed his face, Kelly subsequently drew a paper bag over Malarkey’s head, one that looked suspiciously like Klansman’s hood.

I’ll have more on Walt Kelly’s politics and art -- along with his most memorable quotation -- in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

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Trump’s Plea to China on Biden: Sly Move or Reckless One? Philip Wegmann reports on fallout from the president’s comments yesterday that further stirred opponents eager to impeach him.

What’s Going On in the Intelligence Community IG Office? GianCarlo Canaparo and Thomas Jipping see contradictions in how the whistleblower complaint was handled.

The “Civil War,” as Viewed From My Inbox. Myra Adams has this follow-up to her “Difficult Time to Be a Republican” commentary last week, which prompted some heated responses.

Authorities Were Allowed to Fix Things in ’08. Not This Time. In RealClearMarkets, Jeffrey Snider writes that the acrimony between the president and the Federal Reserve could have serious consequences.

Insurers Shouldn’t Be Only Voice in Surprise-Billing Debate. In RealClearHealth, Leif M. Murphy argues that patients and their doctors are being left out as insurers push a “Trojan horse” bill through Congress to supposedly create more transparency.

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Born in Philadelphia in 1913 and raised in Bridgeport, Conn., Walter Crawford Kelly Jr. worked as an illustrator and writer for a local newspaper before heading to California in pursuit of a young love who would become his first wife. A gifted animator, he found gainful employment in Walt Disney’s studios in 1935, working on “Dumbo,” “Fantasia,” and other early Disney classics. After Pearl Harbor, poor health prevented him from soldiering, so Kelly spent the war illustrating U.S. Army foreign language manuals.

Pogo was created during this time, first appearing in Dell’s “Animal Comics.” After the war, Kelly took the character with him to the New York Star, a short-lived radical newspaper that folded in early 1949. By now, he had merged his art with commentary, and was hired by the Hall Syndicate, which launched Pogo and Kelly to fame and fortune, respectively.

Although he came to be viewed as a man of the left, the author’s politics were subtle and not easily classified. He once provided a brief description of his own political philosophy as being opposed to “the extreme right, the extreme left, and the extreme middle.”

This was a pretty good working definition of a mainstream American in the 1950s, but it was insufficient. Although he’d dabbled in socialism as a young man, Walt Kelly today might be described as having libertarian impulses. Mainly, he seems to have disliked bullies and hypocrites. Politicians predisposed to totalitarianism were frequent targets. Nikita Khrushchev showed up in “Pogo” as a boorish pig; Fidel Castro as a scruffy goat.

If anything, Kelly’s only misgivings about his parodies may have been that he was unfair to the animals. Then again, like Charles Schulz, what Kelly was really doing with his comic strip was showing the good and bad that exist in human beings, the most complicated animals of all.

In 1953, in the foreword to a book about Pogo, he addressed this idea.

“Some nature lovers may inquire as to the identity of a few characters here portrayed. … Specializations and markings of individuals everywhere abound in such profusion that major idiosyncrasies can be properly ascribed to the mass. Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle.”

By the end of the 1960s, Kelly’s brand of commentary was ebbing. But a new generation of Americans was introduced to him on the first Earth Day, in April 1970, with a wildly popular environmentalist movement poster featuring Pogo saying, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Kelly liked the attention, and promptly reprised it in a strip.

The line, in which the cartoonist is satirizing famed U.S. naval war hero Oliver Hazard Perry (“We have met the enemy and he is ours”) was not new, even in 1970. It was indeed from Walt Kelly, however, and not so much in a political context but rather in a very human one. In that same 1953 foreword to his book of cartoons, Kelly wrote this:

“There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve, then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.”

And that is our quote of the week. 

Carl M. Cannon  
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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