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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 10/13/2009

The 'Herblock!' Show: Cartoonists, Library of Congress Pay Tribute on Legend's 100th Birthday

By Michael Cavna

The Library of Congress's exhibit "Herblock!" (opening today) celebrates the late political cartoonist Herb Block on his 100th birthday. (Doree Lovell)

You stroll among these freshly mounted, never-before-displayed original drawings at the Library of Congress and you are struck anew by the sheer span of Herb Block's career. The longtime Washington Post political cartoonist covered 13 presidential administrations -- from Hoover to Bush the Younger -- in a sweep of history that ranged from the Great Depression to, nearly, 9/11.

Then you peer closer at these 82 works that make up this new "Herblock!" exhibit -- which opens today, on what would have been his 100th birthday -- and realize anew how much the man who coined the term "McCarthyism," and who visually linked Watergate to the Nixon White House within mere weeks of the burglary, was himself, pen in hand, a part of history. (For a Post gallery of some of these selected works, click here.)

Given this sweep as well as his readership among the powerfully and politically connected, one is tempted to summon the line from "Citizen Kane": "All of these years he covered, many of these he was." Except that by most accounts, Herblock was far too humble to claim such a place in history. In his view -- according to colleagues and confidants -- he was just doing his job. Just looking out for the little guy and holding the powerful accountable. It was a career, then, that could have been fittingly directed not by Orson Welles, but rather Frank Capra.

After viewing the exhibit, you go to The Washington Post newsroom and realize that eight years after Herb Block's death, the building is filled not with his ghosts, but with his hosts. There are many ready to bear witness to the peregrinations of the man many called "Mr. B.," as he emerged from his office to show ink-and-graphite roughs to the few, the fortunate. He is said to have listed The Post as his address for the staff directory; perhaps that is why his spirit can seem to reside here still.

For today, though, to honor that spirit, I asked a handful of my cartooning colleagues to share their remembrances and insights about Herblock -- both as a person and as an artist. Some recall his thoughtfulness, some cite his influence -- and others see him as a symbol of a vanishing or bygone era, when political cartoonists in certain perches commanded not only an audience, but also a certain influence as a necessary and much-minded voice. Here are some of their thoughts:

What I admire most about Herblock is that he cartooned from a definite moral perspective -- and a good one, at that. Too many daily editorial cartoonists go for the easy-breezy sight gag or contemporary movie reference without actually saying much. Herblock took the job seriously.
alt-political cartoonist ("Slowpoke")

3/29/50 'YOU MEAN I'M SUPPOSED TO STAND ON THAT?'by Herb Block in the Washington PostEnlarge Image

He was the father of political cartooning for everybody. As I said in my eulogy [at Herb Block's National Cathedral memorial service], you would see him walk in like Obi-Wan Kenobi -- he was the person whom everyone knew and he knew everything. He would tell you [something] only if you asked. ... He walked around the newsroom a sweet little guy, but then he would shut the door and then, it was [as if] you could hear him breathing and turning in to Darth Vader. There was the dichotomy of him being so kind with his hounddog eyes and face. Then he would get in there and become [this other guy]. ... He brought down giants. ... Like with [Joseph] McCarthy, he knew historically what was going in. [Like Edward R. Murrow], he had the guts to go after McCarthy and knew how dangerous he was. To have someone like that, in that position at The Post -- how cool was that?

Of the 20th century, he was the giant. There were a lot of great cartoonists, but there was not a great cartoonist in the position of being where evey cartoon was a local cartoon in Washington. He influenced our government so much, and it's true what Nixon said: "When you opened the paper ... Oh my God."
political cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News

I remember being 21 and eager to become an editorial cartoonist. I found a Herblock collection in the college library and as I read it I remembered thinking how much impact a cartoon could have. It occurred to me that editorial cartooning wasn't just a "fun job," it also looked like a serious calling...a profession where you could make a difference.
political cartoonist for the San Diego Union-Tribune

6/23/72 'STRANGE--THEY ALL SEEM TO HAVE SOME CONNECTION WITH THIS PLACE' by Herb Block in the Washington PostEnlarge Image | Launch Gallery

I feel that the era of lionized cartoonists like Herblock is a waning relic of a bygone society and media-scape. In the not-so-old days, a good political cartoonist was a highly influential contributor who was conspicuously impolite in an otherwise staid newspaper environment. Now that impoliteness is the norm in our social and political dialogue, it's much harder to surprise and shock your audience. Their attention is so much harder to win than it was a generation ago.

It seems so quaint in retrospect that Herblock really raised a ruckus when he drew Nixon unshaven, poking his head out of a (gasp) sewer. There is still definitely a place for what we do, and the best are still contributing extremely important commentary -- it's just that very few of the current crop of editorial cartoonists are positioned to bequeath $50 million foundations in their wills.
political cartoonist for the Journal News (N.Y.)

His work was a huge influence on me. Not so much artistically as much as conceptually. His passion and tenacity were a constant inspiration. Even when I was a kid growing up in Madison, Wisc., Herb's work appeared almost daily in the afternoon daily. You just knew that his cartoon would pull no punches. I was amazed he could do that day after day.
political cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune

'Getaway Car,' Dec. 12, 2000. From the exhibition 'Herblock!' at the Library of Congress.Enlarge Image

Herblock was very nice and sweet to me. One time, in the '90s, I won a Robert F. Kennedy award for my cartoons and Herb won one for a book he'd done. The award is a dark-brown bronze bust of RFK. It's kind of a somber ceremony, because most of the awards go to stories focusing on the less fortunate. When I got my award, I sat and whispered to Herb that the bust they gave me was "chocolate." Awhile later, I was sort of rubbing the top of my RFK bust when Herb whispered to me: "Don't start eating it already."
political cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Herblock's always been a cartoon king to me. My first book of political cartoons was a Herblock collection my mom gave me in the sixth grade. That would have been about 1967 (which means he'd already been drawing cartoons for nearly 40 years at that point).
Flash forward 20 more years and I was then a freelance cartoonist/illustrator schlepping my portfolio by The Washington Post to show to designers and art directors. I remember sitting outside the newsroom in front of a wall-sized mural, a map of the world, waiting to see [art director] Mike Keegan and a door in the world opened. It was a very graphic entrance, and out came an older gentleman with a cane. I noticed he was wearing an old Pendleton wool shirt. rolled up at the sleeves, and the sleeves were all flecked, really lathered with spots of white. I realized it was white-out and this had to be Herblock himself.
I jumped up to introduce myself, and told him I just had to seize this opportunity to shake the hand of a cartoon giant. He was very gracious, and pretended he knew my work, which was very unlikely. He asked to see my portfolio and was generous with his time and also with advice. He had a pencil sketch he was taking to test out on associates in the newsroom -- something on Reagan.
I got to see him one other time, after he died. I remember seeing his urn being carried down the aisle of the National Cathedral in a long procession. His memorial seemed like a state occasion -- it reminded me of pictures of Victor Hugo's funeral. The idea that a cartoonist would have a huge memorial at the National Cathedral really said it all. He was a king of cartooning, a class act who practiced his cartoon art at what may have been the height of prestige for the profession.
political cartoonist for Politico

When I put out a book of cartoons in 1998, I sent a letter asking Herblock to do the foreword. He sent me back a very nice handwritten letter explaining he did not do forewords for other people's books. Usually, when you get a rejection letter, you toss it in the garbage. But with Herblock's letter, I framed it and hung it on my office wall!

Another Herblock memory is that I found out the day after he passed away that he had died. It happened on Oct. 8 in 2001, and that was my 50th birthday. So instead of dwelling on that, I was mostly sad about Herblock passing away. I also wrote a piece on Herblock for my paper's op-ed page -- the only time I have written something for my paper. One of the points I made was that I learned more about 20th-century history from looking at Herblock's old books of cartoons, which I have collected, than I ever did in a classroom.
political cartoonist for the Record (N.J.)

By Michael Cavna  | October 13, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon  | Tags:  Herb Block; Herblock; Library of Congress  
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For those that have never read his books, collections of his editorial cartoons, they're accompanied by a considerable amount of editorial text; all of it intelligent and thought provoking, whether you agree with his points of view or not. And, because he's persuasive in a simple manner, you can easily come around to his point of view; or, if you don't, you understand it and can understand his having those points of view.

In a manner, you're reading his books, for text and for the cartoons, which in reality are visuals or picture text more than they are cartoons.

I've always felt that the should have a link to the Herblock's cartoons, as they used to. Of course I also thought that the Los Angeles Times should have links to all of Jim Murray's columns, The New York Times to Red Smith's Columns, etc. It would bring to life long-enjoyed or appreciated writers/columnists/pundits/etc. to an audience that wouldn't otherwise see them.

Side note: I've got several of Mr. Block's books, both new and used, and always wanted to send him one to be autographed. But I never wanted to impose on him. Subsequently I've gotten several books from dealers, authographed by Mr. Block to other people. I've always regretted not imposing on him to authograph the books.

Posted by: Dungarees | October 13, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

I like to see stories such as this one. When I was younger, my art teacher signed me up for a caricature class in 1989 hosted by the Smithsonian. Pat Oliphant was the featured teacher. It was an experience I'll never forget. I LOVED his exhibit as well.

He was telling us the story of the Nixon drawing he did that didn't go over very well but landed him cartooning history...hee hee.

all in all, my respect for political cartooners skyrocketed! So much thought goes into that's alot deeper than meets the eye.

So hats off to Herb Block and a wonderful career on his 100th!!!

Posted by: cbmuzik | October 13, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Would it be too much to have a balanced view of him? He very often attacked people with no good reason, made fun of their physical appearance, and otherwise launched personal attacks. He attacked the first President Bush on the day of his mother's funeral. And let's not forget that he spent years supporting Alger Hiss, until the day he was convicted of perjury, when Hiss was never heard of again in Block's cartoons. A little balance here.

Posted by: ggreenbaum | October 13, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I am the only one who thinks this guy is not funny?
He was recently lampooned in the Multiverse episode of Family Guy.

Posted by: neversaylie | October 13, 2009 2:47 PM | Report abuse

I couldn't stand Herblock. He was a typical left wing propagandist who hated Republicans. He and Michael Moore have a lot in common. If the DNC wasn't paying part of his salary they should have been for all the work he did for them.

His greatest offense though was that he wasn't even funny. Jon Stewart may be a shill for the Democrats, but he is funny. Herblock came off as a pea brained hack. Commemorating his work will at least show today's youth how little it took to succeed at WaPo with Ben Bradlee, Art Buchwald, et al. as long as you towed the party line. Good riddance to bad humor.

Posted by: maxtel1910 | October 13, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

I am bored with laudatory babble on Herblock, but the Post is too invested in him not to be. Too bad. Whatever one makes of his liberal biases or the quality of his work, the only appropriate term for it is "thoroughly unfunny."

Jeff MacNelly was 10X the political satirist Block ever was. And he drew a daily too!

Posted by: chambers14 | October 13, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Herblock would have gotten a good laugh at some of the comments here, coming from the usual right wing suspects.

There were three true English language giants of the political cartoon in the 20th century, each in his own distinctive way: David Low, Herblock, and Oliphant. And while Herblock may not have had the consistently savage wit of an Oliphant, or Low's worldwide following, his influence may have been the greatest of them all. I'm not sure why Dungarees keeps posting the same comment, but with regard to the text in Herblock's books, he's absolutely spot on. Between Herblock and the late Alan Barth, the great Post editorial writer in the postwar period, the Post had a conscience and a vision that it's been struggling to recover ever since. Between those two, the likes of Joe McCarthy never had a chance.

Posted by: andym108 | October 13, 2009 8:18 PM | Report abuse

"Father of political cartoons?" Ever heard of Thomas Nast? He should be called the father if there is one. Sheesh doesn't anyone know American history? Apparently the Post does not.

Posted by: SSTK34 | October 13, 2009 9:05 PM | Report abuse

Herblock WAS great. But he was no Jeff MacNelly. And his best days, like WaPo's, were what, 35-60 years ago? What's next, a retrospective on Norman Rockwell's work for the Saturday Evening Post?

WaPo's biggest problem is that it is living in the past. You don't see the NYT reliving the Pentagon Papers over and over and over. WaPo would be better off figuring out how to be relevant going forward. Test prep revenues aren't going to stay high forever.

Posted by: gbooksdc | October 13, 2009 11:24 PM | Report abuse

Even though I'm more inclined to agree with the sentiment expressed by "dungarees" than the off-base vitriol spouted by "maxtel1910", the former does not bear repeating FIVE times. Could someone delete the remaining four?

Posted by: kilby | October 15, 2009 6:28 PM | Report abuse

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