Over the weekend, while most of the other living presidents were attending the funeral of Barbara Bush, President Donald Trump was disputing a Washington Post account that he calls Attorney General Jeff Sessions “Mr. Magoo” and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “Mr. Peepers.”
The Washington Post said I refer to Jeff Sessions as “Mr. Magoo” and Rod Rosenstein as “Mr. Peepers.” This is “according to people with whom the president has spoken.” There are no such people and don’t know these characters...just more Fake & Disgusting News to create ill will!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2018
First of all, these are pretty funny jokes, and if I were Trump, I would just take credit for them, because why not, you know? Trump occasionally stumbles on a solid joke in the insult comedy vein he is so fond of, then almost always immediately backs away from it. Embrace your talent, Mr. President!
But it’s the “don’t know these characters” bit that has caused the most consternation, because, I would posit, there is basically no way a television-addicted baby boomer wouldn’t know who these characters are. Hell, it’s pretty hard to be a reasonably pop culture savvy American over 30 and not have heard the phrase “Mr. Magoo” in some context, though I’ll grant that “Mr. Peepers” is a more obscure reference. But if you’re someone who was born between 1945 and 1955 and who watched a lot of TV as a kid, you probably know who Mr. Peepers is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because once again, my rather extensive knowledge of American film and television of the mid-20th century proves useful in explaining something the president has done. Who could have predicted, etc.
Let’s answer the most basic questions first.
Who are Mr. Magoo and Mr. Peepers?
Voiced by Jim Backus and created by the hugely influential United Productions of America animation studio (usually just known by its initials of UPA), Mr. Magoo was, for a time, a cartoon star on the level of Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny.
The character was a nearly blind old man, and the best Magoo cartoons balanced jokes about Magoo’s crotchety nature with jokes about how he couldn’t see very well, so he was always stumbling into dangerous situations. (The worst cartoons mostly just laughed about how he couldn’t see very well.) Magoo cartoons won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film twice, including for When Magoo Flew, which I’ve embedded above if you want to see the character at his finest.
UPA was notable for its stripped-down approach to animation, compared to the lusher house style of Disney or the manic pop art of Warner Bros. The characters were beautifully drawn and animated, but UPA got tons of mileage out of the power of suggestion, using shapes and lines to create more abstract backgrounds against which the characters could act out their tales.
This design style eventually lapsed into self-parody (especially as the studio ran into money troubles and slashed its budgets), but in the best Magoo cartoons, it suggests something akin to a newspaper comic strip come to life. (Remember, the height of UPA in the 1950s was also the era when Charles Schulz’s similarly minimalist Peanuts was taking off in newspapers.)
Anyway, Magoo eventually fell out of the upper echelons of cartoon stars, especially since UPA struggled to develop a supporting character on the level of a Donald or Daffy Duck to back him up. (The closest they came was a sound effects-emanating boy named Gerald McBoing-Boing, who wasn’t as versatile a character as Magoo.) But the fact that he starred in the first full-length animated TV Christmas special — 1962’s Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol — and has been revived periodically in attempts to make him relevant again (most notably in a 1997 movie starring Leslie Nielsen) makes it really hard to believe Trump has never heard of Magoo.
As mentioned, Mr. Peepers is a bit more obscure as a reference, but it seems like one Trump would be aware of. Over three seasons from 1952 to 1955, the sitcom Mister Peepers cranked out 127 episodes (of which only 102 still survive) about the titular character (played by Wally Cox), a mild-mannered high school teacher living in the kind of idyllic small-town American television celebrated often in the 1950s.
The show is one of the most significant early sitcoms, debuting less than a year after I Love Lucy and standing as one of the first shows to prove that earlier series’ innovations could be replicated on other shows. It ran for years and years in syndication, where young baby boomers could catch it in reruns.
I, admittedly, haven’t seen a ton of Mister Peepers, but the episodes and clips I have watched depict a rather meek man who manages to keep from being bowled over by his stronger-willed friends and colleagues through gentle good humor and spirit. And Cox, who played the character, made a career out of playing characters with a deceptive strength. He was, after all, probably even more famous for being the voice of Underdog. Mr. Magoo — who’s best known for being a doddering old blind man — is a better insult than Mr. Peepers, who is a pretty good guy, all things considered, though I guess if you reduce all of human life to a battle for dominance, his gentle good humor must seem pretty weak.
And I’ve seen the argument that Trump was somehow referring to the Saturday Night Live character Mr. Peepers, a half-monkey, half-man played by Chris Kattan, or the even more obscure Mr. Peepers from Comedy Central’s raucous parody Another Period, where the character of the same name is a butler played by Michael Ian Black. But c’mon. Rod Rosenstein looks just like Mr. Peepers. It’s a good joke! Like I said!
Donald Trump is a television addict who seems occasionally embarrassed about that fact
Here’s what’s most puzzling about this to me: Why is Trump pretending he never called Sessions or Rosenstein those names?
I think it’s safe to say that a television-addicted baby boomer (a description very easily applied to the president) would know both Mr. Magoo and Mr. Peepers. Indeed, having been born in 1946, Trump is almost exactly the right age to have had his young brain steeped in a pop culture stew where both characters were well-known reference points — like how someone born in 1986 would almost certainly get a reference to “Grampa Simpson” or “Steve Urkel” (to choose a similarly nerdy sitcom character without a long-lasting legacy).
And it’s not as if Trump has attempted to hide his dislike of Sessions and Rosenstein, believing they didn’t sufficiently kowtow to him in shutting down Robert Mueller’s investigation. Trump has spoken and tweeted about his thinly veiled contempt for the two so frequently that I thought long and hard about including the modifier “thinly veiled” in this sentence.
To be sure, a lot of this probably stems from his constant desire to depict all news outlets that aren’t Fox News as thorns in his side, to shift the battle to “Trump versus the media” as often as possible, because his core voters dislike the media intensely. Trump understands on some instinctual level that if he can sow distrust in that media (and the attorneys general), then whenever the Mueller probe hits, his loyalists will be less likely to believe anything in it.
But still: This is the hill he dies on? And he claims to never have heard of two characters he almost certainly has?
Trump’s relationship to the mass media — and especially to television — is a complicated, occasionally tortured one. He loves it and craves its attention, but he also likes to hit back and seem as if he is bigger than television. He wants so badly to be on TV, but he also wants so badly to be so big that TV needs him more than he needs it. Look at how frequently he frames stories about TV in terms of “ratings,” which almost always redound to his benefit, even when he doesn’t quite understand what he’s talking about.
I wouldn’t dare draw a massive psychological profile from this, but Trump does, occasionally, seem a little embarrassed by just how steeped his brain is in television, at how dependent on it he is, especially because being so reliant on television for entertainment and information marks him as older, as do these references. Maybe some part of his brain can still hear a parent telling him to turn off the TV and come to dinner, or maybe he wants people to think he’s cool, but on some level, Trump must intuit that being able to crack extremely accurate Mr. Magoo jokes makes him seem as old and doddering as the former cartoon king. And for a guy who loves narratives of dominance, that won’t stand.