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Herblock, Through The Eyes Of History

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.

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

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.

-- MATT DAVIES, political cartoonist for the Journal News (N.Y.)

One time . . . 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." A while later, I was sort of rubbing the top of my RFK bust when Herb whispered to me: "Don't start eating it already."

-- MIKE LUCKOVICH, political cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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.

-- JEN SORENSEN, alt-political cartoonist

I was a freelance cartoonist/illustrator [two decades ago] 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-size mural, a map of the world . . . and a door in the world opened. . . . 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 asked to see my portfolio and was generous with his time and also with advice. . . . 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.

-- MATT WUERKER, political cartoonist for Politico

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. . . . 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.

-- JIMMY MARGULIES, political cartoonist for the Record (N.J.)

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