HERE, standing in the halls of the Library of Congress, you don’t always have to hit the shelves to time-travel through history. Sometimes, in the Coolidge Auditorium, the most vivid of tour guides takes the stage.
Past descriptive docents have included such Post legends as Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward; anchors named Ifill and Lehrer, Brokaw and Koppel: even such law-school grads as Sandra Day O’Connor and (then-senator) Barack Obama. For every spring, a noted figure delivers the Herblock Prize’s Lecture, and recalling the arc of Herblock’s own remarkable career — which spanned 13 administrations, from Hoover to Bush the Younger — tends to send the mind tripping through history.
And sometimes, on a special night, the journey back through the annals feels effortless, almost undetected, as the speaker steers and glides the slipstream of past milestones, deftly following the true, fluid line left by cartoonist Herbert L. Block.
And on this warm Thursday night, as the waning moon sits fat behind the Capitol dome, the waxing nostalgic speakers are set to entertain the assembled hundreds.
The night’s honoree is Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher, the longtime political cartoonist and illustrator for the Baltimore Sun and the Economist. Kal always seems to have an impish glint in his eye, but within that — as you can gather from his 20 Herblock Prize-winning cartoons mounted on easels just southeast of us — is also the dead-eye aim of a true satirist.
Kal, 60, takes us back to a time in the ’70s when his life was wide open, as undefined as an American field. He was fresh out of Harvard, having cartooned for the Crimson, and now this young man, of medium height for a mortal, was playing semiprofessional basketball in Britain — a line that he pauses on tonight, aware that the athletic link is a bit less obvious now. We laugh, and we are with him.
Kal then recalls what seems to be even a greater unlikelihood. This New England native — this Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Basketball Court — had a different pickup game going on, as he picked up extra cash, shilling for his shillings, by live-drawing and selling caricatures on Fleet Street. And now, against the odds, he took his portfolio to the esteemed Economist magazine, as a last-ditch attempt at launching an art career in the UK. It was play-to-pay time, but what were the chances that this wet-behind-the-American-ears artist was going to land such a gig in London?
The answer: Two years ago, Kal published a book of his Economist cartoons, upon the 35th anniversary of that unlikely employment, and he still relishes that fruitful relationship, which has resulted in a raft of awards.
On this night, Kal speaks, too, about the state of political cartooning, particularly in the wake of the most recent well-publicized attacks upon the freedom of expression. As he talks of courage, and of defining your own lines of satiric engagement, he turns to a large pad, and those lines morph into a warm caricature of the late Herblock himself, now cartoon-transported into our midst.
From Herblock to Kal, the line of cartooning succession feels alive. So much so that a man suddenly steps off the stage, to get a front-row seat for this living caricature.
That man, it turns out, is the next speaker we’ve all come to hear.
Donald Graham, the great Washington Post scion, has a mind so alive, his curiosity can seem to point in four directions at once, like some weather vane smack in the winds of avid journalistic fascination (and it seems only fitting, then, that the letters of the four direction-points spell out N-E-W-S).
Does any other leader in Washington seem quite so fully tuned into the next digital future, while simultaneously so plugged into D.C.’s past? Even as he scrolls through his iPad onstage, Graham wears history with the comfort of a favorite cotton blazer. So when he steps to the lectern, he points us back to midcentury with the seamless ease of a longtime Georgetown tailor.
Mr. Graham’s Grandpa “Gene,” Mr. Meyer, bought The Post at bankruptcy auction in 1933. (And the reason Meyer wasn’t wiped out by the Crash of ’29, Don notes, was because as a public official, he didn’t think it ethically proper to own stock.) But by 1937, The Post had begun bleeding enough money that decades later, the accounting statements would startle Warren Buffett.
Now, Don Graham, like any good journalist, knows that the eyes of childhood, as universal experience, make for a prime storytelling device. So Don, 70, takes us back to 1955, when the talent that pulled him into The Post’s page as a 10-year-old was the legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich — back in that dreadful decade for both the Redskins and the Senators. But amid the national scare and scourge of McCarthyism — a term coined by Herblock himself — young Don would come to appreciate the unleashed genius of The Post’s multiple-Pulitzer cartoonist.
Literally and figuratively, The Post’s fortunes began to rise largely on the popularity of Herblock and Povich. Amid McCarthyism, the paper was courageous, while Herblock was fearless, and peerless. And this crucible, Don says, would prep Herb for the Nixon years, when Herb saw around corners while others were still trying to find the Watergate’s front door.
Graham tells of how, within days of the Watergate break-in, Herblock visually tied the crime to the White House, and when publisher Katharine Graham saw that very cartoon before going to press, she famously asked him: You’re not going to run that, are you?
Don closes with what he calls a “pointless anecdote,” except that of course the point is sharp, because the tale pinpoints just how deeply human Herb was.
Now, Povich was a pretty fair golfer, while Herb was the world’s worst. But one winter, Don recounts, the great cartoonist intensely studied the greats of the game, including Palmer. And in their first outing of a new year, after Povich cracked a smart drive, Herb stepped to the tee, took his club back, and — whoof! — topped his ball about 10 yards.
Now, I cannot repeat Mr. Graham’s concluding verbiage verbatim in this space, not with the kiddies so close. But the haymaker of a punch line “kills.”
So let’s just say that on that day, in four-letter fashion, a full-throated Herblock went AWOL from Arnie’s Army.
And with that last laugh, this special ceremony, on this warm Washington night, is one for the history books.