Since the recent publication and resulting rave reviews of “A Life to the Contrary” by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen, cartoonist Al Capp has been enjoying a revival.
Thirty-four years after his death at age 70, readers are learning about America’s most celebrated cartoonist of the 20th century. Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip ran for 43 years, starting in 1934, and its syndication rocketed to more than 900 newspapers in 28 countries, reaching 600 million readers.
Capp wrote about the fictional poor mountain hamlet named Dogpatch and its hillbilly residents, such as Abner Yokum, voluptuous wife Daisy Mae (he avoided her clutches for the first 18 years of the strip), and his parents Mammy and Pappy Yokum, along with a large cast of supporting characters.
The comic characters made lasting contributions to the nation’s vocabulary, such as “double whammy” and “Sadie Hawkins Day,” when once a year single women of Dogpatch chase available men and, if successful, married their “catch.”
But there’s a part of Capp’s life that is almost forgotten and one that may surprise even the most devoted aficionados of the cartoonist. In 1970, the Nixon White House tried to recruit Cambridge-area resident Capp to run against Sen. Edward Kennedy in the Democrat’s third race for a Massachusetts Senate seat.
Long a registered Democrat and fighting liberal, Capp had opposed the anti-Communist investigations of Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin and satirized Southern segregationists in Congress through Dogpatch’s corrupt “man in Washington,” Sen. Jack S. Phogbound, his name a veiled reference to the word “jackass.”
By the late 1960s, Capp had moved sharply to the right. The anti-Vietnam War movement particularly upset the cartoonist, who spent considerable time meeting and encouraging wounded veterans. Run over by a trolley at age 9, one of Capp’s legs was amputated above the knee and he wore a prosthetic for the rest of his life.
He lampooned the anti-war Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as “Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything” (SWINE), and protest singer Joan Baez as “Joanie Phonie.”
“I live a stone’s throw from Harvard,” quipped Capp. “A stone thrown by protesters nearly hit me.”
By 1970, Capp’s biting wit and ever-present cigarette were fixtures on television talk shows. He confronted liberals from late-night host Dick Cavett to Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. The cartoonist also lectured at colleges nationwide, where he was often met by hecklers and relished the verbal jousts.
Enter Chuck Colson, President Richard Nixon’s adviser in the White House and a resident of Massachusetts.
With Kennedy wounded by the Chappaquiddick affair — where he drove a car off a bridge off the eastern end of Martha’s Vineyard, causing the death of female staffer Mary Jo Kopechne — Colson wanted to find a Republican opponent who would play rough with him. While Kennedy was considered unbeatable in Massachusetts, such an opponent could at least reduce the chances of his becoming Nixon’s Democratic opponent in 1972.
Colson felt Capp fit the bill and Capp himself was clearly interested. As historian Rick Perlstein recalled, “After Kennedy announced that, yes, he would be running for re-election in 1970, Al Capp, at the bidding of the White House, switched his registration [to Republican] to run against him.” Soon, publications from The Boston Globe to Esquire were highlighting a possible Capp campaign.
But Colson had not factored in the fury of the liberal Republican establishment in Massachusetts, which had long lined up behind former State Party Chairman Josiah “Si” Spaulding, who was well-financed and had vowed never to bring up Chappaquiddick in a debate with Kennedy.
The state GOP organization also worried about the impact a conservative firebrand like Capp would have on their state ticket led by Gov. Francis Sargent, who faced a tough race against Boston Mayor Kevin White.
“Shocked at rumors the White House was courting Capp,” reported syndicated columnist Bob Novak, “Sargent telephoned Colson in Washington to check it out. The governor was even more deeply shocked when he learned from Colson it was all too true.”
But Capp decided not to run. Perhaps he realized what a Senate campaign would take or he did not want to give up his comic strip and lecture dates.
Spaulding won the Republican nomination and lost 58 percent to 42 percent to Kennedy. Predictably, he never mentioned Chappaquiddick. Sargent won re-election, but in 1974, he was defeated by Democrat Michael Dukakis, who was the losing lieutenant governor nominee in 1970.
More than he ever did while working in the White House, Chuck Colson changed people’s lives in a big way as a born-again Christian and founder of the Prison Ministries.
Al Capp’s final years weren’t pretty. In 1972, he was charged with committing adultery with a college student in Eau Clair, Wis., before pleading to a lesser charge. In 1977, after admitting he had been neglecting his comic strip, Capp ended “Li’l Abner’s” run. Two years later, he died of emphysema.
These days, Al Capp is increasingly recalled for the good things he did and the smiles he brought to millions. “Li’l Abner” went on a U.S. Postal stamp in 1995 and his creator was chosen posthumously as one of 31 artists in the Cartoonists Hall of Fame. The new biography of him appears to be a hit.
A further example of the impact he had on people was that the mere mention of him as a U.S. Senate candidate got a lot of folks excited at the time.
John Gizzi is the former political editor for Human Events, working for the conservative weekly from 1979 to 2013. Gizzi is a recipient of the William A. Rusher Award for Journalistic Excellence, was named Journalist of the Year by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002, and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV talk shows.
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