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My Bill Mauldin Story, or: A Tale of Two Vets

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Dear Vet,

Thanks for the memories, specifically the biographical sketch of Bill Mauldin, the great but never assuming cartoonist for Stars and Stripes during the World War, Act II.


I worked in a cubicle across from his office when I was an editorial writer at the Chicago Daily News in a different life, and he'd found refuge at our sister paper, the Sun-Times.

. .

Those were the days when we had 'em coming and going, morning and evening, the working stiffs on the South Side in the morning, then at the end of the workday the snap-brim commuters on the Chicago and Northwestern in the evening, "Mad Men" types headed back to Golf and Glenview and points upwardly mobile.

. .

I never exchanged more than a respectful nod with Mauldin, not wanting to trouble him. To me he was still the glorious cherub who gave us Willie and Joe, the two dogfaces who were the real faces of his war. And he was still uncompromising -- and giving the brass fits.

The cartoonists were the best parts of the Field papers' opinion section. (Mike Royko, our real star, appeared elsewhere in the Daily News.) The cartoonists, unlike the editorial writers, never had their opinions edited/emasculated. Maybe the front office didn't think cartoonists were sufficiently serious to interfere with. To me they were the most serious part of the paper.

I was tickled when Mauldin backed a rugged old Marine named Paul Douglas for re-election to the U.S. Senate that year against whatever smooth nonentity the Republican elite had put up against him. In 1966, it was little Chuck Percy, who was supposed to have had quite a business career. He struck me as the next generation's version of Thomas E. Dewey.


My boss thoughtfully arranged for me to have lunch with Mr. Percy -- so I would be suitably impressed and wax a little more enthusiastic about Our Candidate.

When I returned, he asked me, expectantly, how I had found Mr. Percy. "Easy," I replied. "I just looked down and there he was."

. .

Neither Paul Douglas' politics -- nor his Keynesian economics -- were mine, but character always counted more than politics with me, which is one reason I'll never understand why people part with friends over political disagreements.

My admiration for Sen. Douglas was scarcely enough to influence the paper's choice of candidates in that election. I still shudder at the memory of those daily editorial conferences, which were never complete until any and all original ideas had been drained of any bite, and sufficiently diluted to achieve the correct degree of blandness that seemed required of our editorials. Until they had the drone of conventional platitudes, the taste of beer gone flat, the sound of sonorous nothings. The best that could be said of them was that they were inoffensive, which is also the worst thing that can be said of an editorial.

. .

As you can imagine, I didn't stay long at the Daily News. I never did learn to hold my mouth right. I did stick it out at the News for a year to the day before heading back to Pine Bluff, Ark., as fast as our old station wagon would get us home. Though make no mistake, we loved Chicago itself, a town that's always been better than its newspapers.


When I got back to Arkansas, my conscience prompted me to write Sen. Douglas a letter saying I was sorry if I'd had any role in the outcome of that election. He replied with a note punched out on an old typewriter, complete with the e's smudged and the o's filled in by years of acquired grime. Its substance: "Don't worry about it, son. I get a lot of letters like that these days."

Paul Douglas, like some great Douglas fir, towered over his colleagues in the Senate and certainly over the Daley gang at city hall. It was only natural that, in an age of mediocrity, he'd lose that election. In part because that giant of the Senate wouldn't turn his back on the grunts in Vietnam, not to mention the Vietnamese who were fighting with us, and join the cut-and-run crowd.

Lest we forget: The experts, the sophisticates, the David Halberstams and Sydney Schanbergs and the rest of the Pulitzer Prize-winning crowd at the New York Times had assured us that it was time America cleared out of Southeast Asia. Then it would get better. ("Indochina without Americans: for most, a better life." --New York Times, April 13, 1975.)

We would leave, all right, and the boat people and "re-education" camps and killing fields would follow. Paul Douglas was never much of one for sophistication. He could just sense what would happen when America withdrew from the world: nothing good. It had happened before, which was why he'd had to fight his war.


What a team they made, grizzled old Sen. Douglas and ever-young cartoonist Mauldin. The old battle-hardened giant with hands the size of catcher's mitts and the baby-faced kid even in middle age.

I better quit now. Just thinking about those two, I'm starting to tear up. And that won't do for an

Inky Wretch

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