Humble Herblock hit hard, but always above the belt

October 17, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Daily newspapering can require toughness, what with demanding deadlines and the need for thick skin, especially if one is in the business of criticizing politicians, as Herbert Block was as America's premier political cartoonist.

Yet in all his years until his death last week at 91, the man who signed his prodigious output "Herblock" was a living contradiction.

For all his rapier-like assaults in print on the pompous, the hypocritical and the crooked in public life, he was the gentlest of souls.

At the funeral service for him the other morning at the National Cathedral, Donald Graham, his last boss as chairman of the Washington Post, after recalling Herblock's famous skewerings of the likes of Sen. Joe McCarthy, President Richard Nixon and a host of scoundrels in between, closed by simply calling him "a lovely man."

And that he was, to everyone who ever met him in his public or private life -- ever smiling, even-tempered, solicitous of others' feelings, humble.

As a political reporter at the Post during the Watergate hearings in the 1970s, I was fortunate to have my seat in the newsroom at the very front, and often was the first to be approached by Herb, a batch of cartoon drafts in his hand.

The first time he asked me what I thought of them, a few hours before his daily deadline, I was astonished.

I probably told him they were all great, which invariably they were. But he would ask again, or seek assurance that he had his facts right, saying the cartoon after all concerned my beat.

He would repeat this exercise with other working stiffs through the newsroom, seeking their opinions before retreating to his office and drawing board to make his own choice and apply the finishing touches.

Herb was not a big man for the Washington social circles, but I did run into him often over the summers at Bethany Beach, Del., where he regularly vacationed. He was a familiar sight pedaling an adult version of a tricycle, stopping to chat about this or that political blowhard who had recently aroused his passion. But he always did so more in wonder at the audacity of the man or woman than with any malice.

He was, indeed, a man without malice in a line of work that often drew bitter allegations of malice from his targets or their sycophants.

In political cartooning, it is a major challenge to lampoon someone without hitting below the belt by over-exaggerating a physical shortcoming or overstating the criticism.

Herblock was never guilty of either excess, except maybe in the case of drawing Nixon's perpetual 5-o'clock shadow.

Perhaps it was his innate gentleness that kept him from going over the line, as some of his much younger colleagues on occasion are wont to do. It was sometimes said of Herb that he didn't hate enough to keep up with the younger generation, and he surely could have pleaded guilty to not hating, except, maybe, toward Nixon. It was the strength of his work that for all his tough criticisms he always tinged it with humor.

His two best-known cartoons may have been the one showing Nixon climbing out of a sewer and the one after his election picturing a barbershop with a sign signed "H. Block, Proprietor" that said, "This shop gives to every new president a free shave."

The service for Herblock was quite a religious one, with much saying of prayers and singing of hymns, which was rather surprising in that the man practiced no formal religion. The Golden Rule was his religion, and he lived it in his relationships with everyone. The son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, he told in a television interview several years back about how his mother tried to get him to make his First Communion by keeping him in short pants through grade school, with the admonition, "No First Communion, no long pants."

She finally relented, and Herb got his long pants, not that he ever seemed to care much about his attire. He dressed for comfort and, judging from his baggy attire, he may have been the most comfortable man in American journalism. Indeed, it can be fairly said of him that he "afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted" -- and everyone else who came his way.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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