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Herblock's Half-Century: A Tiger by the Tail
By Katharine Graham
Sunday, December 31, 1995; Page C01
My mother had a saying: "Any man worth marrying is impossible to live with."
Why does this make me think of my glorious life and times with Herblock, one of the greatest ornaments to The Post and to all of journalism? Underneath his genius for cartooning and writing lies a modest, sweet, aw-shucks personality. Underneath that lies a layer of iron and steel. For the publishers and editors over him or under him, as it would be more accurate to say it's like having a tiger by the tail.
When World War II came along, Herb went into the Army and produced and edited a feature service for Army newspapers. After the war, Herb was passing through Washington. A chance encounter led to a meeting with my father, Eugene Meyer, who happened to be desperately looking for a cartoonist for The Post. Herb provided a few samples and in return, my father gave Herb a subscription to the paper. "So you can see how you like us," my father explained.
Evidently the attraction was mutual. Herb arrived at The Post the same week that my husband, Phil Graham, arrived in January of 1946. The extraordinary quality of Herb's eye, his insights and sharp comments immediately stood out. When The Post was struggling for its existence, Herb was one of its major assets, as he has been throughout his 50 years here. The Post and Herblock are forever intertwined. If The Post is his forum, he helped create it. And he has been its shining light.
Herb fought for and earned a unique position at the paper: one of complete independence of anybody and anything. Journalistic enterprises run best when writers and editors have a lot of autonomy. But Herb's case is extreme. And because he's a genius, it works.
Since he arrived at The Post, five editors and five publishers all have learned a cardinal rule: Don't mess with Herb. He's just as tough within the confines of The Post as he is in the political world outside.
Herb's independence evolved gradually. In the early years, he made several sketches for the day's cartoon and dutifully submitted them to the editorial page editor to choose. When the editor was away, Herb began showing them to a preferred group of reporters and editorial writers whose opinions he valued. Gradually, the editor's role was dropped altogether.
Of course, this has produced a few tense moments. In 1952, during the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign, The Post endorsed Ike, but Herb supported Stevenson and continued to jab away at the general. Which point of view do you think made the bigger impression with readers? Finally, Herb's cartoon was dropped by the paper for the last days of the campaign. Since his work continued to be syndicated in other papers, The Post looked silly. The Washington Daily News ran a headline: "Where's Mr. Block? One of D.C.'s Top Draw-ers Is Missing."
Even earlier, Phil protested Herb's cartoons on Congress. He feared they made The Post look as though it was ridiculing and undermining the strength of that institution. "I think we should put that little Congress' character back in the ink bottle," Phil wrote.
Back came three eloquent pages from Herb including, "When a majority of Congress fails to act, or acts badly, I think it's fair to be critical of Congress."
I too sometimes opened the paper and gasped at Herb's cartoons, particularly during Watergate when we were so embattled on all fronts. But I had learned not to interfere. And anyway, most of the time we're on the same wavelength. Even when we aren't, I should confess, I generally find myself laughing uproariously at the cartoon that has caused my apprehension. In this sense, Herb always wins.
Herb studies events and reacts to them in his own way. His point of view is liberal, and his instincts are common-sensical. But his common sense has a special twist. As economist Ken Galbraith once put it: "While Herb appreciates virtue, his real interest is in awfulness." His mind turns to the rascals, the phonies and the frauds. He has pursued them for 50 years without ever flagging except for time taken off for a couple of heart attacks and operations. But these ordeals were probably nothing compared with the distress he has caused a number of other people, such as President Nixon and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It was Herb who is said to have coined the term McCarthyism, using it on a tar barrel.
Herb's unique ability to crystallize what is right or, more likely, wrong about an issue or a person has often influenced the course of events in Washington. Naturally, the strength and impact of his cartoons often provoke strong reactions from readers who disagree. Part of the job of Post publishers is to defend Herb and the paper from these reactions.
"Since Herblock is the most gifted political cartoonist of our times," Phil wrote one reader, "by definition he therefore cannot be an organization man. Being an old reactionary and individualist, I am all for people who simply have to be individualistic. . . . I think though it will amaze you that Herblock probably considers himself frustrated and suffocated by our policy."
I too have written my share of explanatory letters. One, in 1989, said that to cartoon is to caricature, and people who are very gifted at cartooning sometimes offend. "Most of the time, however, cartoons illuminate or amuse," the letter went on to say. I doubt the irate reader was completely satisfied, but the statement, I believe, is true.
As Herb begins his second 50 years at The Post, he has lost none of his dynamic energy and original insight. He is going as strong as ever and, as a matter of fact, has just published his 12th book. It's about his cat Bella and, as usual, it's just wonderful. Herb does caricature the cat, but I don't think Don Graham and Meg Greenfield will hear from her in protest.
In fact, Bella has proven she's more than a match for Herb. For example, she is known to complain about Herb's legendary propensity to live in a rat's nest of old newspapers and magazines, discarded clothes and paint brushes and pencils. "We cats are neat," Bella is alleged to have said, while frowning on those who are not.
Now maybe Herb knows what it feels like to have a cat by the tail. It's a privilege, a pleasure and an honor we all have loved and treasured.
Katharine Graham is chairman of the executive committee of The Washington Post Co.