By J.F. McKenna
As the Summer of Scandal promises to scorch us all, we may want to reach for a classic balm. The one I recommend comes only in traditional form, which means it’s a bit harder to find than the current one-dose, time-release curatives. But this rhetorical remedy is well worth the search.
A strong dose of Pogo is just what the nation needs.
Pogo? you ask. Is that the acronym for an Obamacare offshoot, or maybe an ingenious digital therapy from The Cleveland Clinic? If such questions immediately come to mind, you’re most likely part of the post-comics generation and have never encountered this usually black-and-white, color-on-Sunday epiphany, one cleverly wedged between Blondie and Dick Tracy. Too bad. Some of contemporary America’s most stinging social commentary used to be embedded in the daily comic pages, providing covert fodder for many a thinking citizen who preferred keeping his vote and his political opinions to himself. Oh hey, Bill, caught me readin’ the funny papers on the way to work again.
Pogo was the gold standard for mass-media satire. From 1949 until 1975, an era that started with McCarthyism and ended with Watergate, a little possum and his animal chums took up comic-page space and a bit of space in the heads of those who saw Walt Kelly’s Okefenokee Swamp as more than just a well-drawn locale for gentle humor. It was Pogo Possum himself who uttered the sagest analysis of our problems in 2013 America.
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
When we’re being completely honest, the Pogo Syndrome can’t be dismissed. American leaders still can’t or won’t explain how an American ambassadorial outpost in Benghazi was attacked last year. The Obama Administration is ham-handedly spinning its explanation for the use of the IRS for Chicago-style criminal enforcement. And the Attorney General curiously wants to take on the investigation of his decision to stalk journalists exercising the First Amendment as it was originally intended.
Talk about a swamp. I’m sure the late Kelly would be more than grateful for today’s bounty of satirical raw material. Our spendthrift Congress alone would be a corrupt cup that runneth over with grist for Pogo panels. The artist and former political cartoonist, who died in 1973, knew behavior perfect for lampooning when he saw it. That included the Congress-like bat trio of Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred, one of whom once uttered, “Whichever pair of trousers you puts on in the morning, that’s who you are for that partic’lar day.” Sounds like the 21st century Beltway, doesn’t it?
Back in the day, while we were chuckling at the antics of Kelly’s sometimes colorful characters, we acknowledged that we were actually laughing at our own foibles as citizens. Pogo, himself a reluctant presidential candidate twice in the strip, preferred fishing to involving himself in the shenanigans of the swamp. Meanwhile, Kelly characters such as wildcat Simple J. Malarkey engaged in Joe McCarthy-like bullying that improved Okefenokee not one whit.
Describing himself once as a man opposed to “the extreme Right, the extreme Left, and the extreme Middle,” Kelly grasped that Politicus Americanus is just as flawed as the creatures in his little kingdom—and just as apt to reach for the nostrum that appeals to his vanity even while it fails to tackle the particular problem confronting him.
“Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend,” Kelly wrote in June 1953. “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. 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. Forward!”
Forward indeed. Walt Kelly, along with little Pogo, understood that ours is an imperfect world, a swamp if you will. But its imperfection doesn’t excuse any of us from trying to make this swamp a little better.
To quote Kelly quoting Pogo, “If you can’t vote my way, vote anyway, but VOTE!”
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, communications consultant and former editor of the national manufacturing magazine Tooling & Production. He has chased stories throughout the country and as far away as Japan, Israel and that most exotic of financial lands, Wall Street. Reach him at email@example.com or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.