Herblock's pen was mighty indeed

Appreciation: The veteran editorial cartoonist, who died Sunday at 91, skewered targets right and left.

October 09, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The Washington Post's late publisher Katharine Graham once said that her "glorious life and times" with the great political cartoonist Herblock made her think of one of her mother's sayings: "Any man worth marrying is impossible to live with."

Graham said that beneath Herblock's genius for cartooning and writing lay a "modest, sweet, aw-shucks personality. ... Underneath that," she added, "lies a layer of iron and steel."

For his publishers and editors, it was "like having a tiger by the tail," she said.

For a dozen presidents and untold Cabinet members, generals, authoritarian cops, pusillanimous censors, petty tyrants, poltroons and politicians, a Herblock cartoon could bite like a tiger.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on the death of political cartoonist Herblock that appeared in yesterday's Today section misstated information about two of his cartoons. A 1954 cartoon featuring Richard Nixon emerging from a sewer coincided with the then vice president's tour of the country before mid-term congressional elections. A second cartoon that offered Nixon a clean shave was drawn in November 1968. The Sun regrets the error.

"His mind turns to the rascals, the phonies and the frauds," Graham said in a 1995 appreciation that appeared in the Post. "He has pursued them for 50 years without flagging ... "

Herbert Lawrence Block - his father suggested he elide the first and last names into Herblock - died of pneumonia Sunday at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, a week shy of his 92nd birthday. He had been a political cartoonist 72 years, 55 years with the Post.

He was the dean of American political cartoonists - an appellation he hated; it only means you're older than anyone else, he once said. And he was perhaps the greatest editorial cartoonist in the United States.

He was about 19 when he joined the Chicago Daily News in his hometown. For 10 years he worked for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and during that time - in 1942 - he won his first Pulitzer Prize for his body of work. He won two others and shared one with the Washington Post staff for Watergate coverage in the '70s.

"He certainly was the greatest American political cartoonists in the history of the profession," says Neil A. Grauer, a Baltimore writer and caricaturist who knew Herblock about 30 years.

"Not just because of his longevity," Grauer says, "and he's had the longest career of anybody in the business, but the key was he was good ! He was good for 72 years and that's astonishing! When he started out, he was probably doing six cartoons a week, maybe seven. At the end of his career, he was doing four cartoons a week.

"And one of those cartoons - not all of them - but one of them would be damn good. And after 72 years, if you can still come up with a good idea once a week, you're phenomenal!"

Editorial cartoonists perhaps rise to their best against people or things they don't much like.

"Political cartoons, unlike sundials, do not show the brightest hours," Herblock wrote in a Sunday essay for the Post about five years ago. "They often show the darkest ones, in the hope of helping us move on to brighter times. And they all represent personal views."

His last cartoon in the Post on Aug. 26 was a typically acid swipe at a president, George W. Bush this time, in a pre-terrorist-crisis stance.

He was generally a political liberal, a strong union supporter and a member of The Newspaper Guild for more than 50 years. He was often more liberal than the Washington Post's editorial position.

"But in those years," Grauer says, "it was Herb's cartoons that were printed all over the country, not the Post's editorials."

The Post, for example, endorsed Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential race. Herblock supported Adlai Stevenson and the Post pulled his cartoons a week or so before the election.

"Since his work continued to be syndicated in other papers," Katharine Graham wrote, "the Post looked pretty silly."

He perhaps was sharpest in his devastating caricatures of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and President Richard Nixon. He coined the word "McCarthyism" with a March 29, 1950, cartoon that showed a Republican elephant being pushed on a platform of tar buckets and a barrel labeled "McCarthyism."

He nearly always showed McCarthy and Nixon with dark 5 o'clock shadows.

McCarthy complained to Walter Winchell that he had to shave twice a day "because of that guy and his cartoons," recalled Herbert Katz, who curated a Library of Congress exhibition of Herblock's cartoons last October.

And Nixon felt he had to "erase the Herblock image," Katz wrote in the exhibit's catalogue.

For the 1954 Republican convention, Herblock showed Nixon emerging from a sewer. He did give Nixon a clean shave for his inauguration as president in 1972.

But he was soon back lampooning Nixon and his vice president, Maryland's Spiro T. Agnew. He portrayed Agnew wielding a tar brush this time and Nixon urging him on.

He was merciless during the Watergate years. There was Herblock's Nixon dangling from two reels of tape with the famous missing 20 minutes in his mouth drawn as the word "not," and Nixon's statement reading : "I am a crook."

Herblock supported racial equality, showed cigarettes in a coffin in 1964, fiercely opposed the Vietnam War and lambasted corporate greed. He was environmentally sound as far back as his first cartoon in 1929. He then depicted tree stumps spreading away from a clear cut hillside with the caption: "This is the forest primeval."

"Through his cartoons he has chronicled the best and the worst America has to offer," Katz wrote of Herblock. "No editorial cartoonist in American history, not even Thomas Nast, has made a more lasting impression on the nation than Mr. Block."

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