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'Herblock!' Exhibit Prompts Reflections on Political Cartoonist's Reach

The Library of Congress celebrates the 100th anniversary of political cartoonist Herblock's birth with an exhibition of 82 drawings that have never been displayed at the library.

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By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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.

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Then you peer closer at these 82 works that make up this "Herblock!" exhibit -- which opened Tuesday, 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 a part of history.

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, the four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, 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.

To honor Herblock's legacy, I asked a handful of my cartooning colleagues to share their remembrances about him and/or insights about his work. Here are their condensed thoughts:

He was the father of political cartooning for everybody. . . . He brought down giants. . . . Like with [Joseph] McCarthy, he knew historically what was going on. [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 every 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."

-- MIKE PETERS, political cartoonist for the Dayton (Ohio) 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.

-- STEVE BREEN, political cartoonist for the San Diego Union-Tribune


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