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The Charlie Brown cartoon that haunted Reagan

Charles Schulz pictured in 1956, drawing his most celebrated creation

Somerset House in London has put on an exhibition on the work of Charles Schulz, the American cartoonist famous for Peanuts – the story of Charlie Brown, his friends and his dog called Snoopy, a beagle with a taste for ice-skating and root beer. The show commences unpromisingly: “This exhibition explores the ways in which Peanuts has touched us all on so many different levels… on issues such as war, racism, feminism and gender-fluidity.” Oy vey. Why does everything nowadays have to be a political seminar?

Except that the curators had a point. Schulz used his cartoon to explore adult themes through the eyes of children: Charlie endures love, loss, anxiety and humiliation. Snoopy, bizarrely, gets hangovers from the root beer. And as America’s postwar story became more complicated, Schulz moved with the times. In 1968, a schoolteacher wrote to the cartoonist urging him to include a black character in the all-white strip. After a lot of humming and hawing (Schulz was worried about patronising black readers) he finally debuted a boy called Franklin in a beach scene with Charlie. Charlie asks Franklin if his whole family is there and he replies: “No, my dad is over in Vietnam.” The strip is remarkable: a white boy and a black boy, utterly at ease with each other at a time when cities burned in race riots. The next speech bubble, equally powerful, is Peanuts at its best. “My dad’s a barber,” says Charlie. “He was in a war too, but I don’t know which one.” And that’s wars for you. So many of the darn things, the names get lost.

But the real eye-opener at Somerset House was a letter from Ronald Reagan dated July 30, 1970, when he was governor of California. “I write particularly … of one of your strips a few weeks ago which continues to haunt me … Charlie was asking Lucy about what happens to a very nice baby waiting in heaven to be born when the mother and father decide they don’t want it. Lucy of course put him down severely, Charlie finished simply remarking he still thought it was a good question.”

In 1967, Reagan signed California’s Therapeutic Abortion Act into law. As he says in the letter, he could “only reconcile abortion with right of self-defence, namely the right of the mother to protect herself and her health against even her own unborn child if the birth of that child threatened her”. Proponents of the Act said this would reduce backstreet abortions; the implication was that it would be used under very limited circumstances. Thousands of legal abortions were subsequently procured. Reagan writes that the blame lay with doctors who were too willing to declare women “suicidal… and they do this on a five minute diagnosis… Well,” he concluded (and you can just hear his folksy way of saying “well”), “I didn’t mean to let you in on all my problems but just to give the background of why you touched a nerve … Nancy sends her best and please give our regards to your lovely girl.”

What did Schulz make of this? The exhibition doesn’t say. But the consensus is that the artist was both a political liberal and a literate Christian whose faith also changed with the times. The same man who insisted that a passage from the King James Bible be read out in the famous A Charlie Brown Christmas special – something that in 1965 was rarely done on television – later described himself as a secular humanist. And two years before Reagan wrote to him, Schulz’s wife accompanied their teenage daughter to Japan for an abortion. She was pregnant and unmarried.

Does the contrast between Reagan’s ideals and Schulz’s real life matter? No. A good cartoon strip achieves the post-structuralist dream of killing the author: its meaning is in the eye of the beholder, all the more so for being short and sparse and open to a billion interpretations. Like a haiku.

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Mao Zedong was a man who put a lot of faith in enigmatic poetry. I’ve just finished reading Julia Lovell’s excellent book on the transmission of his vague yet poisonous ideas – Maoism: A Global History – and it seems one place where his ideas got lost in translation was Africa. The Africans come out of this episode rather well.

In the 1960s and 70s, China poured cash into educating, flattering and bribing newly independent states to come over to their side – and while they won some converts to Maoist theory, many Africans took the money and smiled politely, but had no intention whatsoever of building an atheist proletarian dictatorship. Three weeks was about all the Zambians could take of the training; one Kenyan complained that incessant political debate ruined his tea break. Best of all, a Chinese foreman found a worker taking “an unauthorised nap under a tree” and demanded to know what he was doing. The African replied, wisely: “God has told me to rest.”

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor