During the penultimate year of my graduate studies, I had the good fortune to join a group of outstanding scholars for a three-day conference at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, where I presented my thoughts on satirical representations of Richard Nixon in the 1960s-era underground press. The paper was well-received, and editors James L. Baughman, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and James P. Danky later selected a revised and expanded version of my remarks for inclusion in this newly released collection of essays, Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Culture of Dissent since 1865 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015). The book takes up a variety of dissident discourses—from early twentieth-century vegetarianism and anarchism, to mid-century evangelicalism and comic book fandom, to anti-war GIs activism and radical feminism in the 1970s and ’80s—to expand and revise our understanding of the modern American press.
A review of the book’s Table of Contents gives a sense of the variety and depth of its scholarship. The essays include:
- James P. Danky: “Protest and Print Culture in America”
- James L. Baughman: “Protest and American Print Culture”
- Adam Thomas: “Writing Redemption: Racially Ambiguous Carpetbaggers and the Southern Print Culture Campaign against Reconstruction”
- Andrew D. Hoyt: “The Inky Protest of an Anarchist Printmaker: Carlo Abate’s Newspaper Illustrations and the Artist’s Hand in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
- Nicolás Kanellos: “Spanish-Language Anarchist Periodicals in Early Twentieth-Century United States”
- Trevor Joy Sangrey: “Pamphlets of Self-Determination: Dissident Literature, Productive Fiction”
- Laura J. Miller and Emilie Hardman: “By the Pinch and the Pound: Less and More Protest in American Vegetarian Cookbooks from the Nineteenth Century to the Present”
- Daniel Vaca: “Meeting the Modernistic Tide: The Book as Evangelical Battleground in the 1940s”
- Carol L. Tilley: “Children and the Comics: Young Readers Take on the Critics”
- Derek Seidman: “Paper Soldiers: The Ally and the GI Underground Press during the Vietnam War”
- Micah Robbins: “The Clowning of Richard Nixon in the Underground Press”
- Joyce M. Latham: “Off / On Our Backs: The Feminist Press in the ‘Sex Wars’ of the 1980s”
I’m honored to have my work presented in such good company, and I congratulate the editors for assembling such a rich collection of essays on the historical relationship between print culture and the culture of dissent in the United States.
Here are the opening paragraphs of my essay, “The Clowning of Richard Nixon in the Underground Press”:
Richard Milhous Nixon’s abuse of power cast a dark shadow over his short-lived second term, and by April 1974, his brazen obstruction of justice mobilized thousands of outraged citizens to march on Washington for the first mass protest since his second inauguration. The New York Times reported that 6,500 “spirited but good natured” protesters converged on the nation’s capital, “accompanied by rock music, streakers and the fragrance of marijuana,” to demand the “speedy impeachment” of a president who had long been the target of popular dissent. Nixon had spent his second term staunchly resisting the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation into the Watergate crimes. In a last ditch effort to suppress the sordid details captured on subpoenaed White House audio tapes, Nixon finally released redacted transcripts of his conversations just three days after the April protest—more than twelve hundred pages that presented the American public with a verbal record of a foul-mouthed national leader with a set of personal and political scores to settle. This paranoid, vindictive Nixon was in crucial ways at odds with the various personae he attempted to construct over the course of his long political career, thus confirming what many Americans suspected all along: Richard Nixon was no stable entity. The 6,500 people who gathered in Washington to demand his impeachment understood this, and—in an act of real political clarity—five protesters demonstrated the urgency of exposing Nixon’s crimes by shedding their clothes, donning cheap Nixon masks, and streaking through Washington’s crowded streets.
These five naked “Tricky Dicks” participated in an aggressive, often obscene, mode of satire that circulated widely among the countercultural New Left, most notably in the pages of the underground press. The long sixties—a period marked by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education on one end, and the 1975 fall of Saigon on the other—witnessed the resurgence of a vibrant, politically engaged journalism that challenged mainstream views of American hegemony. Publications like the Los Angeles Free Press, the East Village Other, and the Fifth Estate, to name just a few of the hundreds of underground newspapers that circulated throughout the period, established an alternative media that presented readers with starkly contrarian editorial views, thus returning to the unconstrained, activist tactics of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century press. Disposing of the so-called objectivity that lent the nation’s mainstream media its aura of authoritative truth-value, the underground press opted instead for a heady mix of fiery polemics, muckraking investigative reports, participant accounts of various protests movements, and edgy underground comix. While these newspapers were often overtly militant, they also leveled biting satirical attacks on mainstream social mores and public figures alike. Radical press-workers deployed defamatory satire in an attempt to counteract the public-relations techniques national leaders used to manipulate their public images and, by extension, public opinion. They did so most memorably in their relentless assault on Richard Nixon. Drawing on a range of irreverent tactics, alternative journalists and cartoonists advanced a sustained satirical attack on Nixon’s disingenuous, manipulative public personae. By targeting a US president with open defamation, these satirists engaged in direct political resistance to the mass-media spectacle that allows power to diffuse itself through the public-relations apparatus, and they did so by seizing on the power of print to mock, deride, and indeed libel Nixon in an effort to further galvanize a radical movement for social change.
As Vicotor Navasky suggested, satire is a powerful weapon for protest. Laughing at someone in high places is likely to promote a powerful reaction. Of all US presidents, none has attracted the attention of satirists more than Richard Nixon. Micah Robbins shows us the way Nixon’s public persona was made into that of a demonic clown by the countercultural press. In their use of print to protest Nixon, his policies, and his cronies, these editors and publishers used wildly obscene, libelous representations of the president to subvert the carefully managed public personae that helped him maintain a decades-long political career. Whether through representations in novels by authors like Robert Coover and Philip Roth or in the pages of underground newspapers and magazines such as the Realist and the Berkeley Barb, dissident satirists launched an aggressive, symbolically violent series of insults against Nixon’s reputation that proved to be an important part of the forces that brought him down.
And here are the opinions of various experts in the fields of Communication & Journalism, Politics, Popular Culture, and American Studies on the collection as a whole:
“These are fresh, fascinating inquiries into the unknown byways of American journalistic history. Protest on the Page amounts to an alternative history of the press, far different from the familiar triumphant and establishment-celebrating narrative.” —Nicholas Lemann, Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism, Columbia University
“How great it is to have a book about the history of the press that’s not about the New York Times or Washington Post, and not about the glories of a free press in a democracy. The journalism of visionary movements—anarchism, feminism, dissent in the military—is part of our heritage too, and it’s great to see it get some of the attention it deserves.” —Adam Hochschild, cofounder of Mother Jones magazine and the author of To End All Wars
“Historians of social change have always drawn upon ephemeral publications from the fringes of politics and culture. But the essays in this splendid collection show that the printed word has actually been a central player in the politics of social movements, from anarchism to vegetarianism. This sharp focus on media provides valuable new insight into how movement politics has worked in American History.” —David Paul Nord, author of Faith in Reading
“A substantial contribution to the histories of print culture, media, journalism, and non-mainstream movements, groups, and ideas.” —John Nerone, author of Violence Against the Press
If you’re interested in the history of the American alternative press, First Amendment speech freedoms, or movement politics in the Twentieth Century, be sure to take a look at Protest on the Page, which is available directly from the University of Wisconsin Press.
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins