Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Herb Block recalled by friends, colleagues at The Post

October 18, 2011

Gwen Ifill remembers him as “an eccentric old guy shuffling around The Post newsroom in a ratty sweater.” And she remembers how surprised she was when he introduced himself to her. He was a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner. She was a “lowly” Metro reporter.

“I was in awe of him,” says Ifill, now a nationally known correspondent at PBS.

Herb Block — or Herblock, as he signed the cartoons he drew for The Washington Post for 55 years — wasn’t just being polite, either. He wanted the young reporter’s feedback on the sheaf of sketches under his arm. Ifill still marvels at his saying: “ ‘I don’t want to bother you.’ He actually wanted to know what you thought.”

Bob Woodward remembers Herblock as “the genius down the hall.” During the Watergate investigation, Block wandered into the newsroom in search of inspiration.

“What’s coming?” he’d ask Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Then he’d repair to his office and skewer then-President Richard Nixon and his men — again.

Donald E. Graham remembers visiting Herblock in the hospital in August 2001. Block was 91 and still drawing five cartoons a week. The publisher gently suggested that the cartoonist, hired by Graham’s grandfather Eugene Meyer in 1946, might want to ease off a little. Block, who had a cartoon in the paper every day when he was in his prime, hated the idea.

“Cutting back on his output just wasn’t in Herb’s nature,” Graham says. “To me, Herblock was the greatest cartoonist who ever lived.”

Mr. B. and the Blockettes

Herblock died 10 years ago this month. His friends and colleagues have been sharing memories of him this year as part of the Herblock Oral History Project being conducted by the Library of Congress.

Along with such luminaries as Ifill and Woodward, the library has interviewed six women who refer to themselves as the Blockettes and to Herblock as Mr. B. The Blockettes were Herblock’s personal assistants, paid by him rather than by the paper. Even now, 10 years on, they get teary-eyed when they talk about him.

For his part, Block, a lifelong bachelor, grew so dependent on these women — especially Jean Rickard, the first and longest-serving of the Blockettes — that he joked he should wear a sign: “If lost, please return to Jean Rickard c/o Washington Post.”

The Blockettes’ duties ranged from clipping photos of pigs shot from every possible angle should Mr. B ever need to draw one, to discreetly purging his fridge of old food. Mr. B. apparently had trouble throwing things away. “Okay, I’m a pack rat,” he confessed in one of his 11 books. Once, he caught Sarah Alex, the last Blockette, trying to dispose of some old yogurt. “Put it back,” he commanded. “Yogurt doesn’t go bad.”

Block didn’t take kindly to any of his stuff being moved — and he always noticed. He would explain why the item in question needed to be right where he had left it. Blockette Jill Stanley describes his office as “an organized disaster.” He wasn’t a slob, she says. He was “an information hoarder.”

The Library of Congress interviews are crammed with examples of his generosity, gentleness and goofiness.

“That’s Herb Block?” Woodward recalls thinking when he met the master for the first time. The sweet, modest demeanor did not match the ferocity of the cartoons — or the class-clown behavior.

If you happened to walk through The Post’s editorial department during the second half of the 20th century and saw a guy in a gorilla suit, or a set of bunny ears or with a lit bulb over his head, it was Herblock. Once, after Elizabeth Taylor had toured the newsroom, Block stood in his office door with his arms around himself, pretending to be fighting off Liz’s amorous advances.

‘One of the great journalists’

The Blockettes tell tales of Herblock’s eccentricity a little reluctantly. They want him to be remembered for his works rather than his quirks. Rickard, now executive director of the Herb Block Foundation, declares that her boss was “one of the great journalists of the 20th century.” This is a biased observer if ever there was one, but the claim is entirely reasonable.

From 1929 to 2001, Herblock published 18,000 cartoons on every conceivable newsworthy topic, winning the Pulitzer in 1942, 1954 and 1979. In 1973, he shared in the Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism that was awarded to The Post for its coverage of the Watergate scandal.

If there was a unifying theme in Herblock’s work, says Bob Woodward, it was hypocrisy. Roger Wilkins, an editorial writer at The Post during the Watergate years and now a history professor at George Mason University, puts it this way: “He loved America and he loved sticking it to people who were unkind to America.”

Chief among the people Block “stuck it to,” of course, was Nixon — although Woodward insists that the best word for Block’s treatment of Nixon was that he “exposed” him. Block began exposing Nixon in 1948, when the future president began making a name for himself as a Commie-hunting congressman. A 1954 cartoon shows then-Vice President Nixon arriving at a campaign rally — via the town sewer.

Perhaps Block’s best-known Nixon cartoon is the one published within a week of the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building in 1972, which shows footprints leading to the White House. As usual, says Graham, “Herb was miles ahead of everyone else.”

In his memoir, Block recalls bumping into Katharine Graham, Donald’s mother and predecessor as The Post’s publisher, on his way through the newsroom with the footprints cartoon. She laughed when he showed her his latest creation, then said, “But you’re not going to print that, are you?” He was, in fact, on his way to the engraver. Graham did not try to stop him. He had earned that degree of independence.

The other leading figure in Herblock’s rogues’ gallery was Sen. Joseph McCarthy. A 1950 cartoon shows a Republican elephant being pushed toward a rickety platform of tar buckets labeled “McCarthyism” — the first published use of that term. At a time when many public figures were afraid to challenge McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade lest they be tarred with the same brush, Herblock did what he always did: He got out his own brush.

But more striking than the cartoons that were pegged to a particular historical moment are the issue-oriented ones — on the environment, gun control, misplaced spending priorities, American dependence on foreign oil and the corrupting influence of money in politics — that would still be timely if they appeared in tomorrow’s newspaper.

‘Helped build the paper’

Herblock lived simply. He’d get the chicken tetrazzini at The Post cafeteria for lunch, refrigerate what he didn’t eat and have the rest for dinner. He didn’t own a car. He didn’t hobnob with Washington’s movers and shakers. He never had a family. And he died with $50 million — an astonishing sum for an ink-stained wretch.

You might say Herblock came to The Washington Post at the right time. He acquired stock in the company when it wasn’t worth much and reaped the benefits when the company prospered. But it wasn’t just luck. “Herb helped build the paper, and the paper helped build a fortune for him,” Donald Graham says.

When Herblock died, he distributed a chunk of that fortune to a host of charities and nonprofit organizations that he believed in.

The rest went to the founding of the Herb Block Foundation, which is dedicated to defending civil liberties, battling discrimination, helping the underprivileged get educations — and keeping alive the art of the editorial cartoon.

Accepting the annual Herblock Prize from the Herb Block Foundation in 2005, Tony Auth disputed the notion that Block had no children.

“That’s not quite right,” said Auth, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There is not a political cartoonist in America who has not been influenced by Herblock. We are all his children.”

Frank is associate professor of communications at Penn State University and consultant to the Library of Congress for its Herblock Oral History Project.

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