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Humility Through a Well-Founded Confidence

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2001; 2:46 PM

When Herbert L. Block -- Herb to his friends, Herblock to the world -- shambled diffidently through The Washington Post newsroom in his grubby lumberjack shirt, a gentle grin curving beneath his Jimmy Durante schnoz, you didn't instantly think: There goes one of the most important political commentators of the 20th century, a towering figure in the history of editorial cartooning and probably the most prescient journalist we will ever meet.

He didn't need airs. He had the serenity that comes from infinite and well-founded confidence. For more than 50 years, he was read -- and often feared -- at the breakfast tables of the most powerful figures in American government, but he never sought their favor or tried to be one of them.

There's no adequate one-paragraph summary of the man. We could try the holy-cow statistics:

Herblock covered 13 presidents, from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, in a professional career touching nine decades, from the 1920s to the present. He won three Pulitzer Prizes and shared a fourth, had his work in the collection of the National Gallery of Art and was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But that paragraph misses the core facts about Herblock. Those go something like this:

His greatness hinged on his principles and his courage. His principles -- basically the small-L liberal trinity of freedom, equality and brotherhood -- endowed his vast body of work with awesome consistency. His courage enabled him to espouse those principles in a clear, blunt and very public way even under withering pressure.

However, that summary obscures the incredible lightness of Herblock, who died Sunday night. For nearly 92 years, he lived mostly by humor. With friends, he was the sort of fellow who went in for puns and birthday candles that were impossible to blow out. With his enemies, the humor was savagely ironic or scalpel sharp.

So in place of summary, an anecdote:

The late Miami newspaper editor Bill Baggs kept a rubber stamp on his desk for answering angry mail. It said, "This is not a simple world and there are no simple answers."

Herblock answered his friend by having his own stamp made: "It is too and there are so."

Perhaps that was the key. Herblock's world was not gray. It was as sharply black-and-white as his signature drawing style. If one sign of intelligence is the ability to see past dogma to nuances, then a sign of genius is seeing past nuances to fundamental truths. Herblock figured out certain fundamental truths very early and stuck with them to the end.

An amazing number of his drawings from the 1920s or '30s or '40s could be published today without alteration. His first professional work, for example, appeared on April 24, 1929. Herblock drew a wide vista of freshly clear-cut forest with the caption "This is the forest primeval -- "

An anti-smoking cartoon came two years later, in 1931 (although it took a later heart attack to persuade Herblock, a four-pack-a-day man, to quit). In 1932, he drew a cartoon in favor of campaign finance reform.

Imagine: Before John McCain was born, Herblock was doing cartoons on campaign finance reform.

You didn't have to agree with all his opinions -- many people didn't, to put it mildly. But there was no denying that his ideas had heft and edge. He knew precisely where he stood, and it was solid ground. This clarity often allowed him to choose the right battles, and fire the first shots, before anyone else knew what was going on.

As a very young man, Herblock not only had Hitler's number from the get-go. He also saw very early that the real menace was not just fascism, but totalitarianism. While much of the left was extolling the Soviet Union as the lone bulwark of freedom, Herblock was decrying Stalin's purges, in 1936, and warning against Soviet imperialism, in 1937. His cartoons pleaded with America to wake up and get involved. He was the Orwell of the drawing board.

This made him no friends among the America First isolationists, nor any friends among the lefties. Herblock was a hot potato. Just weeks after Pearl Harbor, Herblock was summoned to the boss's office at the newspaper syndicate where he worked. He was about to be fired. Then the phone rang: He had won his first Pulitzer.

So although Herblock would eventually be synonymous with The Washington Post, the truth is he was an established superstar before he got here. Eugene Meyer bought The Post in 1933, and a dozen years later still had a struggling newspaper on his hands. In a bold play for attention, he hired the sharpest and most audacious cartoonist in the country.

Editorial cartooning had been in decline in the decades since the death of Thomas Nast, Herblock's hero and the first great American cartoonist. From coast to coast, with few exceptions, editorial pages were kludgy with jingo and platitudes. Cartoons were full of dawning suns labeled "American Power in the Orient," fat men with satchels spilling cash labeled "Greed," Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeves, and similar grease-pencil cant.

Herblock hit Washington like a slap in the face. He perceived the heavy domestic price Americans would have to pay for the dawning Cold War, in both fear and loathing. Herblock drew fear as a looming, ugly and recurrent specter representing the atomic bomb -- and soon came a much larger, uglier brother, the H-bomb. As for the loathing, Herblock dubbed that "McCarthyism."

He coined the term in a classic example of his genius. The panel showed a balky GOP elephant with a hilariously reluctant expression. A tottering tower of tar barrels rose beside him, labeled "McCarthyism." The caption said, "You want me to stand on that?"

Here was the difference between an artist and an ordinary journalist. Herblock compressed a huge amount of information and thinking into an instant. His supreme self-confidence, with all the temperament that implies, flowed from his knowledge that he could do this day after day, year after year.

Along with editorial writer Alan Barth, another staunch liberal (and feeding on the reporting of Murrey Marder on the news side), Herblock crystallized opposition to Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and the hunt for communists in American government. Many of the isolationists who learned to hate Herblock during the '30s were now McCarthyites. Now they hated him more than just about any other journalist in the country.

Long before Woodward and Bernstein, this fight, and Herblock's ultimate vindication, defined The Washington Post -- for both its supporters and its critics. The late Katharine Graham's struggle through Watergate is widely known, but her husband's trial-by-Herblock was a vivid precursor.

Publisher Philip L. Graham was more conservative than Herblock. (Most people were.) And a difference of opinion with Herblock mattered -- Herblock was unlike most journalists in that people actually paid attention to him. When the two men split over Eisenhower's bid for the White House in 1952, Graham took the remarkable step of pulling his cartoonist from the paper for several days.

That never happened again. For the next half-century, Herblock reported to no one. He showed his finished cartoons to the editor "only as a courtesy," in the words of friend and colleague Peter Milius. "The Post is his forum," Mrs. Graham once explained. "He helped create it, and he has been its shining light."

He soon used the freedom to portray Eisenhower's vice president emerging from a sewer. Of all the lashings Herblock administered to Richard M. Nixon over the years, this was the one that hurt the most, Nixon once said.

It was hate at first sight. The young Californian had been in Congress barely a year when Herblock first drew him, in 1948, as a Salem witch hunter with a heavy five o'clock shadow. Herblock returned time after time to portray Nixon as a ruthless thug and hypocrite. The defining power of these cartoons was matched only by Nast's images of Boss Tweed nearly a century earlier -- and Nixon knew it. He said in 1960 that the key to winning the presidency was his ability to "erase the Herblock image." But like an accusing demon, the five o'clock shadow materialized on national television during Nixon's debates with John F. Kennedy.

Herblock prevailed, for the time being, and after the Oval Office tapes were heard in 1974, he prevailed for all time.

Those are probably his three crucial achievements: the campaigns against isolationism, McCarthyism and Nixon. Fourth would be his early, humane and typically forceful support for the civil rights movement.

The most ambitious journalist would be happy with just one of these.

He never seemed like a giant, though. He reserved his easy erudition for his captions, where he quoted Tennyson and Goethe and so on. Around the office, he was known for his comically messy office, his love of gossip and his eye for the ladies. His voice was unmistakable -- a little like Goofy's.

Mrs. Graham nailed it when she said: "Underneath his genius for cartooning and writing lies a modest, sweet, aw-shucks personality. Underneath that lies a layer of iron and steel."

There's a temptation in Washington to heap praise and absolution on anyone who survives into old age. But time, if anything, may have clouded Herblock's brilliance. After he showed what was possible in cartooning -- the intelligence and the snap -- a generation of terrific craftsmen came along. He was no longer an alp alone in a desert. He also stuck proudly to his style, even as Pat Oliphant, Garry Trudeau and the late Jeff MacNelly revolutionized the look and feel of editorial cartoons.

The younger cartoonists worshiped Herblock as a pioneer and role model. Oliphant, perhaps his nearest peer, says admiringly: "He took on the bastards and won."

All the same, cartoonists being what they are, the younger artists joked good-naturedly about the fixed-in-amber appearance of his work. Over drinks at cartoonist conventions, they would dash off drawings on cocktail napkins showing men wearing hats -- hats!! -- leaping backward in surprise at news from a television set that still had knobs and dials instead of a remote control.

But Herblock's style was a rough equivalent of the intricate, antique voice kept fresh for half a century by the legendary columnist Murray Kempton. A Herblock was a Herblock and a Kempton was a Kempton -- there was no mistaking either man's work for anyone else's, which is the essence of artistic style.

Moreover, there's a maxim in editorial cartooning that the craft is 95 percent idea and only 5 percent drawing. Herblock never ran out of ideas. He did arguably the best panel on the failed Carter presidency, in which a blurry Carter wonders why his image isn't clear.

He drew the senior George Bush in magician's garb, stirring up some voodoo economics beneath a portrait of Ronald Reagan. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," said the caption. He portrayed Bill Clinton walking a tightrope with the budget balanced on one finger and a comely young woman on the other. He pictured Sen. Joseph Lieberman applying jumper cables to the dead battery of Al Gore.

Last spring there was an exhibition of Herblock's work -- more than 70 years' worth -- at the Library of Congress. One woman viewing his cartoons was overheard to say: "Wow! History repeats itself."

So it does. A recurring theme of Herblock's work was the hovering, menacing legacy of bad choices and missed opportunities. Tough but humane, amused but never resigned, he tried to learn history's lessons and apply them, keenly and unflinchingly, through all the ebbs and flows of time -- those ceaseless waves that seem new each time they hit the beach, but that are, to the wise man, the same old water.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company