Last Laughs

Jules Feiffer's America: From Eisenhower to Reagan By Jules Fiefler Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; $12.95, 254 pp

BERNARD MERGENDEILER was first sketched by Jules Feiffer in New York City in the late 1950's. An upper-class urban liberal, about 25 years old, he was anxiety-ridden and obsessed with sex, but he usually had to settle for platonic "meaningful relationships."

Bernard's friend Huey, on the other hand, was a suave, muscular brute. He was apolitical, insensitive, and preoccupied with sex. "If I had any respect for girls, I'd never make out," he once told Bernard. And he always got what he wanted by abusing urbane women tired of "meaningful relationships."

When John F. Kennedy entered the While House, Bernard was given a role model. Here was a dashing, handsome leader who reputedly made it with famous gorgeous women. Bernard tried, too, but he continued to have personal problems, tortured by women who would draw out his most intimate personal secrets and then break up with him. Many of them ditched him for one-night flings with Huey.

As the decade progressed and the war divided the country, Bernard kept up with the times. His frustration turned to anger. He became hostile toward the opposite sex--sometimes openly. Huey balded, got married, and sold air conditioners.

By the '70s, Bernard's life was going down the tubes: his wrath become disillusionment, his world view one of a fraud. The futile search for the right woman lost some steam. Since the Bicentennial, Bernard has all but dropped from sight.


In the introduction to his latest collection, Jules Feiffer describes the slice of America the cartooned pair was meant to symbolize: "Greenwich Village make-out men, wine and cheese parties...bosses who thought it was a violation of friendship to ask for a raise, anxious fathers sand possessive mothers. Village men and women explaining themselves in an endless babble of self-interest, self-loathing, and evasion." Bernard and Huey, Feiffer expains, were "Robert Benechley heroes launched into the Age of Freud."

They were also the reason Feiffer began his drawing career in 1956--to play on and give wide exposure to the humorous foibles of his liberal intellectual crowd. He soon learned, however, that "these characters, self-obsessed as they were, could not live independently of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president of their existence." So he sharpened his pen on politics as well, and has drawn about people, presidencies, and their interaction ever since.

Jules Feiffer's America: From Reagan to Eisenhower, the cartoonist's belated 25th anniversary album, is valuable not only for Feiffer's witty, ironic insights but also for its telling social history. By mixing Bernard and Huey--and a host of other unnamed husbands, wives, lovers, and children--with Ike, Jack, Lyndon, Dick, Jerry, Jimmy, and Ronald, Feiffer's collection uniquely bridges the gap between the timeless New Yorker genre of cartoon and the dated, sharply topical political humor of a Herblock or an Oliphant. The combination effectively gives Feiffer's particular perspective on how one segment of the country lives, and how it has transformed.

RATHER THAN just providing a pleasant hodgepodge of drawings, like most such collections, Feiffer introduces each section with a snappy summary of his motivating psychology. "During the 'Ike Age,'" he writes, "the economy prospered, the middle class grew, the attention span died." People had simple political worries--The Bomb. Accordingly, the cartoons centered on muddled fears of nuclear war and confrontation with communists. Bernard and Huey's associates are obsessed with nonconformism and the nations' apathy.

Kennedy was the "Sundance Kid," who "blew into our lives like a blast of cold air." Leading into the Kennedy batch of drawings, Feiffer acknowledges the excitement the young leader provided, but he also sees in him a certain liberal aristocrafic falseness. "Style engulfed substance," he writes. Kennedy's views on foreign affairs "were shaped by James Bond." The cartoon characters begin to evince a certain liberal hypocrisy. One concludes that "civil rights used to be so much more tolerable before Negroes got into it."

The section on Johnson--"Here Lies Lyndon"--follows Feiffer's crowd through an America disillusioned and betrayed. Feiffer's wit perhaps peaks here, mirroring his personal fury at Johnson--the dealer who made significant progress in civil rights and poverty eradication programs, then let Americans down by escalating the Vietnam War. "Mine is rage of a lover betrayed," Feiffer writes in retrospect. "I don't often trust in public figures; Johnson seduced me." The division and incomprehension among liberals comes through clearly in the section.

THE ERA FEIFFER TREATS in "Vietnixon" saw the development of a dilemma that eventually hurt his cartoons, pushing him more towards politics and away from the people-and-politics intimate type of commentary that showed his distinctive touch. As Feiffer explains it, the increasing radicalism of his old crowd and of the left in general made him feel wishy-washy. But Nixon resolved the problem--he provided a simple political enemy that could unite all of the left. "He brought the revolution to its knees," Feiffer writes, "and released me into a world that I once more understood."

The people in the "Vietnixon" drawings become more depressed, more fearful of one another, more isolated. More notably, the drawings themselves become more political, as Feiffer abandons his psychological barbs to join the crowds heaping more topical abuse on Nixon. Chronicling "Happy Hooligan" Ford, "Jimmy the Cloud" Carter and "Movie America" Reagan, Feiffer proves to be a less adept political commentator than social observer. Despite occasional flashes, he falls victim to the overdone, obvious punchline. Bernard and Huey disappears, and with them Feiffer's magic.

Several major newspapers carried Feiffer daily thoughout his heyday in the 60s 70s. But now, although he is still visible: the cartoonist has essentially returned to his Greenwich Village roots in the more limited-audience Village Voice. For the mainstream left, he is largely replaced by his equivalent in modern-day sociopolitical commentary, Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury, Feiffer's America underlines this retreat to the outskirts, but still preserves the high points of a brilliant career.