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The Looney Tunes Campaign

A couple of days ago, an acquaintance—someone who knows I have every one of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD sets—pointed me toward this Slate article by long-time political analyst Jeff Greenfield. Obviously, my friend thought I’d be interested in the way Greenfield tried developing a key political insight by referencing some of my favorite characters: Insofar as modern presidential candidates act like or otherwise display the qualities of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, he noted, it’s the Bugs-like candidate who wins.

Well, what a revolting development this is, I thought to myself when I got through reading. Bad enough to see these fools’ faces every time I turn on the news. Now I’ll be seeing them when watching Looney Tunes, too.

Greenfield’s thesis, I’ll admit, is the kind of cute, clever and moderately compelling observation political journalists are so prone to make, even if it is also more than a little demeaning; after all, no cartoon character—certainly none of the iconic Termite Terrace crew—deserves to be lowered beside and compared to an inhabitant of the United States Senate.

Okay, that’s the easy and obvious joke to make. But really, Greenfield’s observations are loose and facile. It’s not just the large loopholes he has to insert and the obvious exceptions he has to elide in order to make his political generalizations work out—quick, who in 1972 (Nixon vs. McGovern) was Bugs and who was Daffy? No, the real problem is that Greenfield is a greenhorn about cartoons. He has no notion of the rich resources he misses even when he tries bringing the Looney Tunes crew into electoral analysis.

Let’s start with a couple of obvious points he ignores. Bugs vs. Daffy, for instance, is not the first and not the most famous cartoon confrontation to spill off the Warner Bros. lot. What about Bugs’s long-running feud with Elmer? If the Bugs-Daffy dynamic explains some elections, doesn’t a Bugs-Elmer dynamic explain others? Gerald Ford, surely, was Central Casting’s idea of a real-life Elmer Fudd, and Jimmy Carter, before he became the most malaise-ridden president since Herbert Hoover, had a very rabbity grin. Ronald Reagan had the luck of four rabbit’s feet in 1984 when he squared off against Walter Mondale—again, no one’s idea of a Daffy but very close to my idea of an Elmer. And back in the 1950s, Ike may have been balder than Adlai, but when Peter Sellers played the Elmer-like President Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, it was Stevenson he was caricaturing.

Like a lot of cartoon rookies, Greenfield pays too much attention to Chuck Jones’s versions of the characters. (He explicitly admits he’s talking about Jones’s Bugs and Daffy, but the adjectives would tip us off anyway.) Bugs, he says, is “at ease, laid back, secure, confident. His lidded eyes and sly smile suggest a sense that he knows the way things work. He’s onto the cons of his adversaries. … Bugs never raises his voice, never flails at his opponents or at the world. He is rarely an aggressor.” Daffy, on the other hand, “is ever at war with a hostile world. He fumes, he clenches his fists, his eyes bulge, and his entire body tenses with fury. His response to bad news is a sibilant sneer …. Daffy is constantly frustrated, sometimes by outside forces, sometimes by his own overwrought response to them.”

The Bugs Greenfield describes actually emerged relatively late at Warner Bros.; up until the early to mid 1950s he was usually characterized as a mischievous, semi-magical pixie. It is, for instance, very hard to mistake the Bugs of Bob Clampett’s “The Big Snooze” for Jones’s cool and collected aphorist. Nor was Bugs always immune to darker impulses: From the late 40s into the early 50s, Robert McKimson directed a rabbit who at his most pleasant was still extremely aggressive, and who at his worst was deeply aggrieved. Greenfield suggests that John McCain, so truculent and angry and suspicious of lobbyists, has a Daffy-like temperament. I’ll leave it to the individual reader to judge whether Senator McCain more closely resembles the duck of “Well Worn Daffy” (with, perhaps, the mice as the lobbyists in Greenfield’s metaphor) or the Bugs of “Rebel Rabbit,” whose sense of honor has been deeply affronted.

Be that as it may, even if we stick to the Jones unit, Greenfield doesn’t recognize the master’s subtle sense of the difference between story logic and character logic. Bugs always triumphs over Daffy in a Jones cartoon like “Rabbit Seasoning.” But Jones had his thumb on the scale: Bugs only has to wait for Daffy to self-destruct; at most, he nudges Daffy into blundering. Now, until recently this sort of thing would have nicely characterized the Obama-Clinton race, where Hillary kept flailing incompetently against an opponent who, in turn, effortlessly wafted upward just out of reach. The problem is that this sort of thing only works because the “smart, cool” character (Bugs) stays intact and sympathetic by being passive. But if the “smart, cool” character is active—and every politician must become active eventually—Jones was perfectly capable of swapping him and the stooge in their “winner” and “loser” roles. See “The Ducksters” for only one of many cartoons where Porky, after winning our sympathy through constant abuse, turns the tables on “smart” Daffy when the latter finally makes a mistake. More than one political commentator has noted that Hillary wins when she looks like a victim, and I’d wager that she captured the votes of many blue-collar women in the Ohio primary after they decided that Obama looked less like the unflappable Bugs outwitting the paranoid Daffy than like the obnoxious Daffy abusing the persecuted Porky.

(An aside: Personally, I think the Obama-Clinton rivalry looks a lot like that between Frisky Puppy and Claude the Cat in “Two’s a Crowd.” In that cartoon, the long-time pet (Claude; Hillary) becomes psychotically jealous when a new pet (Frisky; Obama) displaces the neurotic cat in the affections of the family (the Democratic Party), leading to the cat’s increasingly violent but hapless attempts to kill the nearly oblivious interloper. That cartoon, alas, is not online, but here is another pairing of the two so the uninitiated can see how they interact.)

Jones liked to concentrate on two-character dynamics, and the fall election will likely feature only two major contestants. But if we’re talking about the way the candidates are visualized, we should remember that our perceptions can change when other characters jump in and start interfering. Consider Friz Freleng’s “Little Red Riding Rabbit,” where the appearance of an obnoxious third party completely re-engineers the character alignments and audience sympathies, and one of its real-life counterparts: The New York Times recent, awkward self-insertion into the presidential race, which in the short term has reconciled McCain and his conservative detractors. An even better example of the way campaigns actually play out might be McKimson’s baroque, four-cornered “Crowing Pains,” where heroes become victims become losers become persecutors depending upon who’s doing what horrible thing to whom, and where every alliance is evanescent. Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, with their unstable relations, are an especially apt point of comparison. Josh Marshall uses a boxing metaphor to describe Hillary’s recent footwork against Obama; to me, Obama looks like Foghorn just after the dog has dropped a dish cover over his head and rung it like a bell.

In any Foghorn Leghorn cartoon, winners are winners only until they are losers (and vice versa), which suggests just how futile it is to firmly tie any particular candidate to any particular cartoon character. Events interfere and perceptions change. Sometime between 1976 and 1980 Jimmy Carter morphed from Bugs Bunny into Mr. Meeks. Bill Clinton had something of Bugs’s effervescence when he was in office; today his attempts to woo the party voters on his wife’s behalf look more and more like Pepe LePew’s amorous attentions to a deeply reluctant cat.

It might seem that Election Day 2008 (knock wood; we all remember 2000) will bring closure; certainly it will drop a “That’s All, Folks!” curtain on the campaign trail. But too much can happen between now and then for us to be sure of what kind of cartoon we’re watching in the run up. Except, of course, that it will be no match for what the professionals came up with more than half a century ago.

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