Cover Story

I'll never duck a controversy

He walks and talks and quacks like a conservative, but he's much more than that. Meet Mallard Fillmore creator Bruce Tinsley, a cartoonist as politically incorrect in real life as his main character is in fiction. Hatched in controversy, Mallard now flies in more than 400 newspapers around the country, but Mallard's creator credits not controversy but God's grace for his success.

Issue: "The Man Behind the Duck," July 26, 1997

Bruce Tinsley hesitates to tell how he dreamed up the idea of his born-again (or hatched-again), politically conservative cartoon duck. He fears that folks will think he's spinning a bald-faced yarn. "It's so politically correct," he says of the origins of Mallard Fillmore. "It's too perfect."

But he tells the tale anyway. Mr. Tinsley's bosses at the newspaper where he once worked had asked the artist to design a mascot for their weekend entertainment section. Mr. Tinsley's first idea was a blue hippopotamus. "The managing editor and the executive editor said they couldn't believe I submitted a drawing like that," Mr. Tinsley recalls. "It would offend fat women. My hippopotamus was appropriately gender neutral. I don't know why they came up with fat women as opposed to fat people."

So he submitted his next idea, which was, by his description, "a huge nose in a tuxedo."

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"I thought this would be perfect because he was dressed up, a tux on, a top hat and a cane. That was immediately shot down, too, because they said a big nose would offend Jews and people of Mediterranean descent. The second thing they said was that noses in the '90s were associated with cocaine."

His third submission was a duck. "The duck won by default," Tinsley says. "It didn't offend anybody, although the executive editor did wonder if the duck shouldn't be wearing pants."

If Mallard didn't offend anyone at first, it wasn't long before his webbed feet were stepping all over liberal toes. Mallard the Mascot had become Mallard the cartoon, and Mr. Tinsley's new publisher and new editor asked him to pipe down his conservative voice. He refused. They fired him. "The publisher made no bones about it. He said, 'You're too conservative for us. We're more liberal than your old editor and publisher.' I'm not sure how that was possible. Maybe they were just less tolerant."

Mallard Fillmore, a conservative TV reporter employed by liberal bosses and working with an air-head anchor (Mallard might say that's redundant), is the conservative answer to Doonesbury. Indeed, many newspapers now run Doonesbury on the left-hand side of their editorial page, butting (that's an appropriate verb) Mallard up against Zonker and Co. on the right-hand side. While nothing is off limits, Mallard consistently skewers all matters liberal, from Bill Clinton to the news media with a few jibes at talk-show host Jerry Springer thrown in for fun.

Mallard is so conservative that occasionally he is tossed out of one of the more than 400 newspapers that carry him, in much the same way that Rush Limbaugh might be kicked out of NPR's Christmas party. That's when Mr. Tinsley finds out the size of his following. (Mr. Limbaugh, by the way, is a fan and occasionally reads aloud a Mallard strip on his daily program.)

In Colorado, for instance, The Denver Post's editorial page editor didn't care for Mallard's politics and yanked the cartoon. Mr. Tinsley's two-week series about Teddy Kennedy and Bill Clinton on spring break in Florida was the final provocation. It went beyond the pale of good taste, says Sue O'Brien, who rues the decision. "All I can say is we tried to stop running Mallard," says Ms. O'Brien, pain still evident in her voice. "We got absolutely clobbered. He has more dedicated fans out there than you would believe."

The clobbering was sufficient to convince Post Editor Dennis Britton not only to reinstate the duck, but to do so with a signed, front-page, top-of-the-fold explanation. "Mallard Fillmore, whether Sue and I think he's mean-spirited or not, has a flock of fans, many of whom chided us for being thin-skinned and narrow-minded," Mr. Britton wrote. "Clearly, we are both on occasion.... Most of you told us to lighten up, not to censor, to give the 'other side' a voice, to honor the First Amendment.... We think you made excellent points.... The Duck Flies Again."

With the occasional pulling of his strip, Mr. Tinsley joins the likes of fellow Christian cartoonist Johnny Hart, whose Christmas and Easter cartoons are routinely censored by the Los Angeles Times. And like Mr. Hart, Mr. Tinsley uses those holidays to openly proclaim his faith.

Mr. Tinsley, like his Denver fans, is appalled at the sensitivity of the keepers of the First Amendment. "I have newspaper editors who will say, 'I can't stand Mallard Fillmore, but we publish it because we think it lends balance to our page.' And then again, I have other newspaper editors who say, 'It makes too much fun of the media. Why am I going to publish something that makes fun of journalism?' I can't believe how thin-skinned they are."

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