Mallard Fillmore: Not funny, not true

As someone whose morning bowl of Cheerios cannot be properly digested unless accompanied by a perusal of the comics page, I’ve been looking at the “funnies” for many decades. Because of its placement–on the comics page, just below the fold and within close range of the Sudoku puzzle–in my daily newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch [Yes, I still subscribe. Old habit.], I can’t avoid seeing “Mallard Fillmore.”

Last Friday, my longtime annoyance with the strip boiled over.

In case you didn’t already know: Mallard Fillmore is a duck, portrayed as a TV reporter, who channels the strong conservative views of his creator, Bruce Tinsley. Mallard has been reporting his ideas since 1994, and is syndicated in 400 newspapers around the US. When it debuted, Tinsley called the comic strip an “antidote” to  Doonesbury, which is reviled among conservatives for its liberal viewpoint.

One big difference between the two comic strips is that, while conservatives managed to force Doonesbury off the comic page and onto the editorial page of many newspapers, including the Post-Dispatch, Mallard has kept its reserved spot in the P-D’s neighborhood of “Mother Goose and Grimm,” and directly above distinctly non-political “Hi and Lois” and “Beetle Bailey.” And, while Doonesbury conveys so-called liberal ideas via subtlety, satire [admittedly, often biting] and storytelling, “Mallard Fillmore” delivers the conservative party line with a blunt instrument.

Which brings me to last Friday’s strip. You may argue that it was an April Fool’s joke, but judging from Tinsley’s 17-year track record, I’d say not. For the record, here it is.

I don’t object to Tinsley expressing conservative ideas. I don’t have a problem with satirizing progressives. Our behavior at times has earned the right to be spoofed. What I do take exception to is Mallard’s distortion of facts and the accusation that anyone who believes said facts is “delusional.” When Mallard says that Head Start doesn’t work, he’s parroting [can a duck “parrot?”] a dangerous, war-against-the poor, conservative meme currently circulating in the spending-cut-happy, Republican-dominated US Congress.

Where does he get this idea? In 2010, the US Department of Health and Human Services released the findings of its Head Start Impact Study, a decades-long analysis of the effectiveness of the early-childhood program.  The key finding of the study shows that Head Start works. The study’s authors say:

Providing access to Head Start has a positive impact on children’s preschool experiences. There are statistically significant differences between the Head Start group and the control group on every measure of children’s preschool experiences measured in this study.…The Head Start children outperformed the control group in every domain that the study measured, including positive cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting impacts. The Head Start children left Head Start more ready for school than their peers in the control group.

However, the study goes on to say that—and here’s the part Tinsley zeroes in on– by the end of first grade, the Head Start children lost many of the advantages they had when they began kindergarten.

“Long-standing opponents of Head Start and other publicly funded early-childhood programs have selectively used these losses to try to discredit such programs” “says the National Head Start Association. “Instead of weakening programs that work, the task now is to figure out how to continue the children’s progress through the early years in formal education.”

Back in 1994, when Tinsley was asked to develop the character that eventually evolved into Mallard Fillmore, he offered three options: a blue hippopotamus, a big nose in tuxedo and cane, and a duck. Tinsley says the hippo went unused for fear of offending overweight people, and the nose was axed because it would “offend people of Jewish and Mediterranean descent, not to mention Arabs and anyone else with a big nose.”

Good decision by the editors to nix the first two, but while the image of Mallard is relatively benign, his views are not.