Q&A with Herblock
"Levey Live," appears each Tuesday from 12 to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion offering washingtonpost.com users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it.
Good afternoon. I'm your host, Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. My guest today is Herblock, The Washington Post's prize-winning, if not legendary, editorial cartoonist. Next month marks Herbert L. Block's 53rd year at The Post. He joined the paper in 1946, after serving in the U.S. Army from 1943-45.
Herblock's awards are almost as numerous as his years at The Post. In addition to winning three Pulitzer Prizes for cartooning and the National Cartoonists Society's "Rueben" for outstanding work, he is the only living cartoonist whose work is in the National Gallery of Art.
A fierce defender of civil rights, Herblock designed the U.S. postage stamp commemorating the 175th anniversary of the Bill of Rights (1966), and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. The author of more than a dozen books, his latest is "Herblock: A Cartoonist's Life."
Read the transcript below
Alexandria: There was an online discussion last week with a Washington Post editor that brought up many questions about the liberal slant of that paper. Do you see yourself as contributing to tha Post's reputation as "a little short of objective"?
Herblock: I consider myself an independent newspaper man expressing opinions. Roger Rosenblatt in a recent public broadcasting piece described me as an equal opportunity cartoonist, by which he meant taking shots at both sides when I think necessary.
Message to viewers: You can see Herblock cartoons from the last three months(approximately 42 in all) by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/herblock/archives.htm
Bob Levey: Why did you merge your first name with your last? You could have had just as glorious a career as Herb Block, I'll bet.
Herblock: The two names were merged in a kind of rechristening by my father. When I was in grade school, I contributed to newspaper columns. This was at a time when everyone felt they had to have a pen name of some kind. And when I started writing little paragraphs for newspaper columns, I was casting around for the nom de plume when my father suggested combining the two names. Later when I began drawing cartoons, people who read Chicago newspapers had become kind of familiar with that name. So I kept it in the cartoons, creating a lot of confusion for readers who wondered what was my real name.
ellicott city,MD: was there ever a time you did a cartoon about an individual and later had the feeling that you had been unfair in your treatment of that person?
Herblock: I don't think so and I certainly hope not. I do try to be fair, particularly in getting to the point of what somebody actually said and don't try to criticize for the wrong things. I'm sure there are people who have appeared in the cartoons who may feel that a cartoon itself is unfair or that the way they are drawn is not right.
Kensington, MD: More of the Nixon tapes were recently released and now we learn that he not only disliked Jews but also blacks, women and Hispanics. You were relentless in your satiric attacks on Nixon. Yet the campaign to redeem him, if not to grant him sainthood, has continued since his death. Has your attitude toward Richard Nixon softened in any way over the years?
Herblock: No, it hasn't. And Richard Nixon, even though he is no longer with us, keeps reminding us of what he was like through the tapes that keep being released. In that respect, you might say that he is still his own worst enemy although there might be lots of competition for that title.
Bob Levey: Whenever I think of a Herblock "signature," I think of the way you drew Richard Nixon. He had a number of distinctive features--the nose, the hunched shoulders. But you always featured his thick beard. Why? Was it because the beard showed up so prominently in the Kennedy-Nixon Tv debates?
Herblock: Bob, as you know, I gave Nixon, and Joe McCarthy also, a five o'clock shadow. They literally had it and it seemed to fit their characters. But I also tried to do the complete figure and mannerisms, such as Nixon's hunching position and McCarthy's strange smile or giggle.
Bob Levey: Through 53 years at The Washington Post, you have never run out of fodder, and I freely predict you never will. But have you ever wondered what it would be like to draw cartoons somewhere else--Hollywood, for example, or New York?
Herblock: No. I think Washington is the ideal place for cartoons. And especially since it has taken on its own Hollywood aspects. Sometimes, Washington ways and Hollywood ways seem to meld together.
Martinsburg, WV: Mr. Block - thanks for all the great cartoons over the years. Have you ever "steered clear" of any topics for cartoons? (never noticed it, but...)
Herblock: Thanks for the nice question. And I don't think I ever have felt I had to steer clear of any subject. Since the current scandals, I think we've all gone through a test on what's properly printable and what isn't.
Half an hour remaining with our guest, Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herblock
Washington, DC: Are there times when your cartoons present a position different from the position laid out in a Post editorial? Is there any coordination between at all between you and the Editorial writers?
Herblock: No, there is no coordination with the editorial writers although I sometimes try out sketches on various newsroom and editorial writers. As an example of a different position from the editorials, I was not in favor of the recent expansion of NATO although The Post editorials were. There have been a number of examples of differences and one of the great things about The Washington Post is that it takes account of personal opinions in signed pieces of work.
Washington, DC: Were you regularly beaten-up by Republicans as a child?
Herblock: The answer is no. And actually, the first political cartoons I did were for a Republican political organization. An early cartoonist hero was Ding Darling of the Des Moines Register, who I think might have been called a progressive Republican. I wasn't beaten up by Democrats either, although I've done cartoons many of them could not like too well.
To see "Five Decades of Herblock" (a collection of essays from 1946 to 1995, including an appreciation by Katharine Graham), go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/herblock/5decades.htm
Bob Levey: In a recent interview, cartoonist Pat Oliphant said you were a "dragon slayer" because of your anti-McCarthy cartoons in the 1950s. Do you agree that you helped grease the skids under the Senator?
Herblock: I hope so, Bob.
Washington, DC: Do you draw for a national audience, or do you make any claims to be a local cartoonist in a town where the local news happens to be of national interest? And whenever lampooning local issues and politicians, do you consider how your message would carry through to Post readers beyond the Beltway?
Herblock: Yes. I bear in mind that the cartoons appear elsewhere, but also find local issues that make news elsewhere. For example, I did cartoons about Mayor Marion Barry. And I've also done many cartoons on the District of Columbia suffering from taxation without adequate representation in Congress.
Falls Church, VA: Are you a democrat or republican? Its impossible to tell by looking at your work. [edited for space]
Herblock: Thank you. I think the reason it's not possible to tell is because I consider myself an independent journalist. I wish all readers felt as you do.
Bob Levey: What are the qualities of a memorable cartoon?
Herblock: It's hard to say. Very often it's a cartoon that has a certain simplicity, but there have been excellent cartoons that used a number of words or that may have looked a little complicated.
Bob Levey: I'm no artist, heaven knows, but the likely presidential candidates for 2000 all seem to be difficult to draw. George W. Bush has those sunken eyes, Dan Quayle has that shy smile, Al Gore has that broad forehead. Are these problems or opportunities?
Herblock: Bob, some of them look as if they'd be easier or harder than others. I think when somebody appears as often as a President, you develop your own set of lines which people recognize as your carictature.
Annandale, VA: Do you think women could be good editorial cartoonists? Any particular reason, in your opinion, why so few are around today?
Herblock: There are more women editorial cartoonists than there used to be. And some are really excellent. Signe Wilkinson, in Philadelphia, is easily one of the best in the business. And there are others.
Bob Levey: I'm a little surprised you didn't beat up on the Redskins in Monday's paper, at the end of their sixth consecutive rotten season. Any reason?
Herblock: I guess I was just too appalled to do anything on that.
Bob Levey: Most guys your age have long ago hung up their smocks. Will Herblock ever do that?
Herblock: Not if I can help it.
Washington, DC: Do you think itís easier for a liberal to get into heaven than it is for a conservative?
Herblock: I think they'd probably have their own Heavens.
Washington DC: People often compare the Lewinsky stuff with Watergate. You clearly don't think they're of equal stature. But what past president does Clinton most remind you of? (Or what Greek tragic figure?)
Herblock: He doesn't remind me of any particular president.
washington, d.c.: Two questions, please. First, what has been the favorite period of your career to cover, and second--is there an "archive" or book that one can review your work from years past?? Keep up the great work!!
Herblock: There is no favorite period except perhaps whatever one we're in at the time. The most current book is a memoir called "Herblock: A Cartoonist's Life," which is illustrated with about 300 cartoons.
Scenic Washington, DC: I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but what advice would you give to aspiring cartoonists? Also, who was your favorite political figure to draw?
Herblock: I think the main thing is to be interested in the subject matter and liking to draw cartoons. The best way to break into the business is just to try submitting your work to publications.
Vienna, VA: Having just finished reading this year's New Yorker cartoon issue, I was wondering if you know/knew any of the magazine's famous cartoonists -- and if so, if you have any interesting stories to tell about your relations with them?
Herblock: I met several of the New Yorker cartoonists and liked them. A visit to Charles Addams at his home was particularly interesting. Among other things, he collected crossbows, something that most people don't have around the house.
That's it for today. Many thanks to our guest, the one and only Herblock. Be sure to join us next Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. when our guest will be Kenneth A. Samet, president of Washington Hospital Center. We'll discuss health care issues in Washington and elsewhere.