The Washington Post

HERBLOCK TRIBUTE: Remembering The Post’s cartooning legend a decade after his death

EDITOR’S NOTE: Herbert Lawrence Block, the legendary cartoonist who was a must-read (and must-see) on The Post’s editorial page for more than a half-century, died a decade ago this month.

To celebrate the memory of “Herblock,” as he was so well known, Post friends and colleagues share their memories in Wednesday’s print edition; the Library of Congress’s Herblock Gallery is displaying 10 of his cartoons; and Comic Riffs is reprinting the insightful remembrances from his fellow cartoonists upon his 100th birthday in 2009 (at which time the Library of Congress had a major Herblock show).

Here are their thoughts on “Mr. B.”:


Cartoonist Herblock poses in his office in the early ‘60s with some of his favorite cartoons. (file photo/TWP)

by Michael Cavna

You could stroll among these freshly mounted, never-before-displayed original drawings at the Library of Congress [in 2009] and be 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 peered closer at these 82 works that made up the 100th birthday “Herblock!” exhibit and realized 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, pen in hand, a part of history. (For a Post gallery of his life and history, you can check out this.)

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 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.

The cartoonist's 1940 drawing "What Peace Now Would Mean." (The Herb Block Foundation/VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

To honor that spirit, I asked a handful of my cartooning colleagues to share their remembrances and insights about Herblock — both as a person and as an artist. Some recall his thoughtfulness, some cite his influence — and others see him as a symbol of a vanishing or bygone era, when political cartoonists in certain perches commanded not only an audience, but also a certain influence as a necessary and much-minded voice. Here is what they have to say:


He was the father of political cartooning for everybody. As I said in my eulogy [at Herb Block’s National Cathedral memorial service], you would see him walk in like Obi-Wan Kenobi — he was the person whom everyone knew and he knew everything. He would tell you [something] only if you asked. ... He walked around the newsroom a sweet little guy, but then he would shut the door and then, it was [as if] you could hear him breathing and turning in to Darth Vader. There was the dichotomy of him being so kind with his hounddog eyes and face. Then he would get in there and become [this other guy]. ... He brought down giants. ... Like with [Joseph] McCarthy, he knew historically what was going in. [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 evey 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.”


Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News


This 1974 Herblock cartoon — "We're Really Making Great Progress" — shows the economy heading to Hades in a handbasket. (The Herb Block Foundation/VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)


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.


alt-political cartoonist (”Slowpoke Comics”)


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.


Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist for the San Diego Union-Tribune


This 1973 cartoon, "Look--nice tapes, okay, boy?--okay--?" is one of many example of Herblock's unflattering depictions of President Nixon. (The Herb Block Foundation/VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

I feel that the era of lionized cartoonists like Herblock is a waning relic of a bygone society and media-scape. 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. There is still definitely a place for what we do, and the best are still contributing extremely important commentary -- it’s just that very few of the current crop of editorial cartoonists are positioned to bequeath $50 million foundations in their wills.


Pulitzer Prize- and Herblock Prize-winning political cartoonist, Tribune Media Services

Drawn during the Watergate scandal in 1973, "Mugging" shows Nixon attacking justice. (Courtesy of the Library of Congr/COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGR)


political cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune


Herblock was very nice and sweet to me. One time, in the ‘90s, 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.” Awhile later, I was sort of rubbing the top of my RFK bust when Herb whispered to me: “Don’t start eating it already.”


Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Herblock comments on George W. Bush's win over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. (The Herb Block Foundation/VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Herblock’s always been a cartoon king to me. My first book of political cartoons was a Herblock collection my mom gave me in the sixth grade. That would have been about 1967 (which means he’d already been drawing cartoons for nearly 40 years at that point).

Flash forward 20 more years and I was then a freelance cartoonist/illustrator 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-sized mural, a map of the world, waiting to see [art director] Mike Keegan and a door in the world opened. It was a very graphic entrance, and 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 was very gracious, and pretended he knew my work, which was very unlikely. He asked to see my portfolio and was generous with his time and also with advice. He had a pencil sketch he was taking to test out on associates in the newsroom — something on Reagan.

I got to see him one other time, after he died. I remember seeing his urn being carried down the aisle of the National Cathedral in a long procession. His memorial seemed like a state occasion -- it reminded me of pictures of Victor Hugo’s funeral. The idea that a cartoonist would have a huge memorial at the National Cathedral really said it all. 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.


Herblock Prize-winning political cartoonist for Politico


When I put out a book of cartoons in 1998, I sent a letter asking Herblock to do the foreword. He sent me back a very nice handwritten letter explaining he did not do forewords for other people’s books. Usually, when you get a rejection letter, you toss it in the garbage. But with Herblock’s letter, I framed it and hung it on my office wall!

Another Herblock memory is that 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 passing away. 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.


political cartoonist for the Record (N.J.)



POLITICAL & COMIC ART: Library of Congress opens masteful “Timely and Timeless” exhibit

THE GALLERY: Remembering Herblock

TOM TOLES: Post successor wins the Herblock Prize


Herbert Block reacts to the ovation at the opening of an exhibition of his work at the Library of Congress in 2000. (David Trozzo)
Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the "Comic Riffs" column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Post's Book World. He relishes sharp-eyed satire in most any form.


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