Cartoonist 'Herblock' draws history

February 14, 1994|By Neil A. Grauer | Neil A. Grauer,Special to The Sun

In a conversation a few years ago, Herbert Block -- currently in his seventh decade as a political cartoonist -- winced when it was suggested that he qualified as the "dean" of American editorial cartooning.

"I don't want to be the 2,000-year-old man," he protested, referring to the Mel Brooks character who has vivid recollections of the invention of the wheel. "Longevity is not the idea. It's what I've been doing!"

What Mr. Block has done with his often-pungent cartoons is assemble a record that may be unique in the annals of American editorial cartooning -- and which it is unlikely any current or future cartoonist will equal in scope, consistency or impact. His cartoons, as press critic Peter Lyon once observed, comprise "a comprehensive daybook of the follies of our era. . . . He has impaled them all." He has done his skewering with a wit and originality that still is reflected in his work, even after nearly 65 years at the drawing board.

In person, Mr. Block either can be brusque and acerbic or a warm, engaging spinner of stories, an easygoing conversationalist full of amusing and pointed anecdotes about colleagues and politicians. Both aspects of his personality are reflected well in this autobiography, his 11th book.

In it, Mr. Block offers further evidence of his skill with words as well as pictures, providing a rich assortment of tales about newspaper people and politicos he has known, admired or debunked; thought-pro- voking discourses on past and present issues; and plenty about his "personal peeves . . . common irritations and annoyances."

No good editorial cartoonist can ever lose a sense of outrage -- at injustice, mendacity, political hypocrisy and idiocy in general -- and Mr. Block's internal furnace remains well-stoked. A generous selection of his cartoons -- covering every president from Roosevelt to Clinton -- is also included.

At 84, Mr. Block resolutely refuses to dwell in the past -- the last word in this memoir is an exultant "Tomorrow!" expressing his enthusiasm for doing the next day's cartoon. Compelling himself, therefore, to write about a career that began on the Chicago Daily News in 1929 may have been an especially formidable undertaking.

Sometimes his recollections are frustratingly perfunctory. He mentions making his first overseas trip in 1952, visiting London and meeting David Low -- and neither identifies Low as Britain's greatest political cartoonist of the 20th century, nor provides details of their conversation.

Baltimoreans will be pleased to find Mr. Block's recalling with admiration two cartoonists whose work enlivened the pages of The Sun: Edmund Duffy, a hard-hitting, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner who worked for the paper from 1924 to 1948, and Richard Q. (Moco) Yardley, a unique, ebullient draftsman whose whimsical drawings delighted -- and occasionally infuriated -- readers until his retirement in 1972.

Mr. Block won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1942 and has been the Washington Post's cartoonist since January 1946, eight months before Bill Clinton was born. Although many of his most memorable cartoons were drawn during the 1950s, when he coined the term "McCarthyism" in a drawing that decried the Red-baiting smear tactics of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and in another depicted then-Vice President Richard Nixon emerging from a sewer during a campaign swing, he continued to produce Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoons for 30 years.

The political longevity of Mr. Nixon -- the cartoonist's bete noire -- served as a continuing spur to his ire, as have the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Mr. Block's most recent Pulitzer -- his fourth -- was awarded in 1979.

While Mr. Block often is considered (especially by Republicans) to be a "Democratic" cartoonist, such pigeonholing doesn't really apply. He admits to being "liberal," but both his prose and pictures show he is perfectly capable of lambasting Democrats such as Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton if they do something of which he disapproves. "When the occasion calls for it, you have to criticize your favorites," he writes.

Unlike many of today's cartoonists, Mr. Block holds "definite opinions," as he puts it. His drawings proclaim his philosophy loud and clear.

Bruce Wheltle, a perceptive observer of political cartoonists (who also had the advantage of being Moco Yardley's son-in-law), once wrote: "Herblock's work is the concentrated essence of cartooning." In a fit of pique over some critical cartoons, Lyndon Johnson canceled the awarding of a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mr. Block. Bill Clinton should rectify that oversight.

Mr. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Herblock: A Cartoonist's Life"

Author: Herbert Block

Publisher: MacMillan

Length, price: 360 pages, $24

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