Left the Building
giant passed this way, taking almost all of the last hundred years to
do it. Herbert L. Block, who signed his editorial cartoons "Herblock,"
died on Sunday, October 7, the day we started bombing Afghanistan, just
six days short of his 92 birthday. His death at just this moment was
"inappropriate," wrote Mary McGrory, a Washington Post
colleague. "There never would have been a good time,"
she went on, "but at this moment—when the worst threat since Hitler
is darkening our lives—it is particularly hard to take."
next day, the Post, Herblock's home for the last half century,
started his obit at the bottom of the front page and jumped it inside
to two more pages. At the top of the front page were the headlines announcing
the air strike in bin Laden land.
It was Herblock's father who invented
the portmanteau signature. While in high school, young Herbert was sending
drawings and witticisms in to their local paper's "contributions"
column. Civilian contributors signed their work with their initials
or a pen name. Herbert's father suggested that his son combine his first
and last names by letting them share their common consonant.
Herblock was—is—a colossus astride the
roads of editorial cartooning. No one has matched him in the length
of his career: his first editorial cartoon was published April 24, 1929;
his last, August 26, 2001. That's 72 years. He was in the army for three
years (1943-45) during World War II, but the 69 years of active editorial
cartooning that remain still constitute a record.
He cartooned through 13 presidents—Herbert
Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John
F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter,
Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Two of
them, Ike and Nixon, repeatedly canceled their subscriptions to the
Post because of Herblock's cartoons. He is one of only five cartoonists
to win three Pulitzer Prizes (1942, 1954, 1979), and he shared a fourth
with the Washington Post for its coverage of Watergate. And he
might've had a fifth (or a fourth of his own): the Pulitzer committee
deadlocked over Herblock and another cartoonist in 1936, and, rather
than acknowledge a tie, the committee simply awarded no prize that year.
In 1994, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's
highest civilian award. (LBJ almost gave him one in 1967 but evidently
had second thoughts and passed on the opportunity, probably because
of the cartoonist's opposition to the President's Vietnam policies.)
But it isn't the length of Herblock's
career or the number of awards he has won that give him the stature
that inspires unqualified admiration and envy among his colleagues.
They admire him for his principled stand on public policy and social
issues; and they envy him his unprecedented independence—his absolute
freedom to express his opinions without editorial interference.
Celebrating Herblock's 50th anniversary
at the Post, Katharine Graham, then the publisher, wrote: "He
fought for and earned a unique position at the paper: one of complete
independence of anybody and anything. Journalistic enterprises run best
when writers and editors have a lot of autonomy. But Herb's case is
extreme. And because he's a genius, it works."
Herblock's unwavering liberalism and his
trenchant and unrelenting assault on hypocrisy in a newspaper published
in the seat of government (where there is plenty of political hypocrisy
to assault) contributed to the elevation of the Washington Post
from a fourth-rate paper in the city to a first-rate paper in the nation.
Herblock was as much a part of the national institution that the paper
became as the ink on its newsprint.
Graham acknowledged his role: "When
the Post was struggling for its existence, Herb was one of its
major assets, as he has been throughout his 50 years here. The Post
and Herblock are forever intertwined. If the Post is his forum,
he helped create it. And he has been its shining light."
Born in 1909, Herblock was twenty when
he went to work for the Chicago Daily News where he was the second-string
editorial cartoonist. Vaughn Shoemaker was the first stringer with his
cartoon on the paper's front page; Herblock's appeared on the editorial
page. Herblock left Chicago in 1933 to join the staff of the Newspaper
Enterprise Association in Cleveland. It was while there that he won
his first Pulitzer, but he almost wasn't there then.
In the spring of 1942, Herblock was summoned
to the New York offices of NEA where he fully expected to be fired by
Fred Ferguson, the syndicate's president, who customarily occupied the
opposite end of the political spectrum from the cartoonist. While Herblock
was cooling his heels in Ferguson's waiting room, the syndicate received
word that he'd won the Pulitzer. One of the NEA editors took Herblock
in to Ferguson's office and broke the news.
"The expression ‘mixed feelings'
never showed so clearly on a man's face," Herblock wrote afterwards.
"Ferguson gave a sort of anguished smile. It was the only time
anyone at NEA had won such a prize, but it was the wrong person at the
Herblock wasn't fired. But within a year,
he was no longer with NEA. He was in the army.
In the autumn of 1945, Herblock, anticipating
his release from military service, was looking around for a berth with
a newspaper. He rather liked Washington, D.C., and then, by chance,
he met Eugene Meyer, a millionaire who had bought the Washington
Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933 and had managed to keep the
paper alive by injecting it frequently with funds from his personal
fortune. Meyer offered Herblock a job, and Herblock took it, starting
early in 1946. Meyer had told the cartoonist he expected a cartoon for
every day the paper published, and since it published every day of the
year, Herblock drew seven cartoons a week for the first years of his
For the first half-dozen years, he showed
preliminary sketches of cartoon ideas to an editor. But after the presidential
election in 1952, Herblock's cartoons went into print at the Post
without let or hindrance. By this time, he'd coined the term
"McCarthyism" (in a cartoon published March 29, 1950—less
than two months after Joe McCarthy first attracted attention by asserting
that 205 communists worked in the State Department). He'd published
his first book in 1952 and was firmly established as a journalistic
power in the city as well as in the nation. Meyer's son-in-law, Phil
Graham, was now publisher of the paper, and Graham favored Eisenhower
in the presidential contest; Herblock, the unrepentant liberal, favored
Adlai Stevenson. As a result, the editorial page of the Post
frequently suffered from a dyslexic condition: it promoted Ike in text
and Stevenson in Herblock's pictures. Graham, who had many friends among
Washington's politicians, was embarrassed by this split personality
at the heart of his paper. Herblock, seeking to be accommodating, suggested
that the Post needn't run his cartoons during the campaign: he'd
continue to produce them, but they'd see publication only through his
syndicated distribution. Graham agreed but soon regretted it. Stevenson
supporters noticed the absence of Herblock's cartoons almost at once,
and the rival Washington Daily News, delighted at the chance to needle
the Post, ran an article about the missing cartoonist. He wasn't
really missing, of course: his support of Stevenson, thanks to syndication,
was in evidence everywhere in the country but Washington, D.C. Graham
was more embarrassed by the accusation that he was censoring his star
cartoonist than by the schizophrenia his editorial page displayed when
he published Herblock's cartoons. So after only a few days, Herblock
was back. And thereafter, Herblock was never again required to get editorial
approval for his cartoon. He was his own editor, and the cartoon he
drew was the cartoon the Post printed.
Katharine Graham, who succeeded her husband
as publisher, once said: "Since he arrived at the Post,
five editors and five publishers all have learned a cardinal rule: Don't
mess with Herb."
Herblock's steely incorruptibility lent
the Post's editorial page a stalwart integrity: here was a paper
not afraid to publish dissenting views from within. Henceforth, Herblock
was, in effect, the liberal conscience of the paper.
"His point of view was liberal,"
said Katharine Graham, "and his instincts were common-sensical."
Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau doesn't
quite agree. Admiring Herblock as a man of truly deep conviction, Trudeau
said: "I never thought of him either as a liberal or a conservative
but as a satirist with a satirist's conviction that because this is
America there is always room for improvement. That kind of idealism
and hope never waned over the decades."
When he died, Herblock left an estate
of over $50 million, $49 million of it in Washington Post stock.
That he should have unfettered editorial freedom at the paper, then,
may not surprise a generation made cynical by overexposure to the 24/7
cable news babble of sensation and rumor. But Herblock didn't always
own stock in the paper. He won his independence as a crusading spirit
whose tenacious will could not be denied, whose passions had a logic
so persuasive that they repeatedly earned their way into print.
The tireless crusader, however, had a
distinctly human side that showed to everyone who knew him. Unmarried,
his personal habits teetered into slovenliness. Sartorially, he was
permanently rumpled. His office was a chaotic warren of stacks of old
newspapers and magazines, clippings and discarded pieces of clothing,
and coffee cans filled with soft-lead pencils and used brushes.
A Post colleague, Robert Asher,
wrote: "Though he could boil down global complexities and put them
in historical context brilliantly, Herb never could deal with the basics
of existence, such as how to drive, buy a new refrigerator, or get to
In the newspaper's staff directory, Herblock
listed the Washington Post as his home, and he ate most of his
meals in the paper's second floor cafeteria, often bringing plates of
food up to his office to store in the refrigerator there or taking them
home by taxi to his Georgetown residence where he'd freeze them for
Vitriolic in print, he was gentle in person.
Unassuming and almost apologetic in demeanor, he punctuated his utterances
with the mildest of exclamations—"oh, hey," "golly,"
or "oh, boy."
"All the energy and venom went into
the cartoons," columnist David Broder said. Animator Chuck Jones,
a friend, thought Herblock was "a tiger posing as a possum."
Mary McGrory said: "Despite his preeminence,
he never succumbed for a second to the local disease, self-importance,"
and she went on to note that "he preferred to communicate with
jokes and gags."
Post reporter remembered a dinner dance at the American Society
of Newspaper Editors at which he'd observed an exuberant Herblock dancing
with an equally exuberant Walt Kelly, a capering tableau of champions
who'd confronted Joe McCarthy and lived to tell about it.
Herblock padded around the offices of
the Post in carpet slippers or running shoes, wearing a plaid
flannel shirt and a funny hat. The shirt was his version of an artist's
smock. The hat Herblock called his Thinking
Cap: it was a toy helmet topped with a light bulb that the cartoonist
could set blinking to indicate he was having an idea.
His daily routine was unvarying. He arrived
at the paper after noon, and by five o'clock
or so, he had concocted four or five ideas for a cartoon. Then came
the legendary "five o'clock shuffle" as the cartoonist made
his way to the newsroom, the assortment of sketches for his cartoon
in his fist. Nearly six feet tall with a slight paunch, a Jimmy Durante
schnoz and the visage of a slightly trimmer Rodney Dangerfield, Herblock
was bent and slow moving in his last years, and he smiled as he shuffled
along, stopping to re-orient a lost copy boy or to greet friends, inquiring
after their families. In the newsroom, he would approach a reporter
at his desk and stand diffidently, silently, at one side, not wanting
to interrupt. When the reporter looked up, Herblock would apologize
for the intrusion and say, in a voice vaguely reminiscent of Goofy's,
"Got a mo'?" The reporter invariably did have a moment for
Herblock, and so the cartoonist would ask him to look over the sketches
he'd brought along and say which he liked best—and, more importantly,
which one had the facts right.
"Is this right?" Herblock would
ask. "Does this work? Is this fair? Is this premature?"
As McGrory observed, here was America's
premier editorial cartoonist, "who fiercely fought off any editorial
supervision from above," seeking it from below, from some humble
But Herblock was not seeking approval:
he was consulting with experts. The reporter whose reaction he sought
had been deliberately picked because his beat gave him intimate knowledge
of the subject Herblock was tackling that day. If Herblock was doing
a cartoon about the defense budget, he'd take his ideas to the Pentagon
correspondent for reaction. He showed his cartoon ideas to others, too—to
secretaries, stock boys, other reporters along his route to the desk
of his consultant-for-a-day. Their reactions told him whether or not
the cartoon was making the point he wanted to make. But it was chiefly
the expert reporter's knowledge he wanted to bring to bear on his proposed
target and tactic.
And after getting responses to his day's
crop of ideas, Herblock went off and drew the final version of one of
them. He inked with pen and brush and then gave the picture a variety
of gray tones by shading with a grease crayon on the pebble surface
of the paper. His cartoons are typically festooned with labels—a nondescript
fellow is a "voter," a jar of cookies is "tax rebate,"
a small child is "conscience," and so on. And most of his
caricatures, except for presidents and the most well-known politicians,
carry their names on their sleeves for identification even though they
are all, without quibble, readily recognizable likenesses, deftly wrought
with slight but telling exaggeration. This confetti of labels gave his
work an old fashioned patina; but in the ferocity of his attack, he
is thoroughly modern, even avant garde. And his caricatures are superior
to most of the work of today's editorial cartoonists, who too quickly
adopt each other's formulations (Bush's ears, for example, which are
not, really, large enough to justify the attention that they get these
days) and peddle the resulting generic brand as the original article.
After finishing his drawing, Herblock
took it to the engraving department and waited around until they could
show him a proof. And then, chances are, he went back to his office
and puttered around until the wee hours, watching late-night tv news
broadcasts and reading magazines and newspapers, stoking up for the
"We might notice when he arrived
every day," Asher noted, "but not when he would leave."
Herblock wrote 12 books, including one
autobiography and one about a stray cat who took up residence with him
for a time. The other ten were collections of his cartoons accompanied
by Herblock's text, which supplied historical and political background.
As a youth, I bought Herblock's second book, Here and Now, when
it came out in 1955. I never read the text. I was looking at the pictures.
I studied Herblock's drawings to learn how to draw wrinkles in clothing.
This will seem a trivial compulsion these days, when all raiment is
spandex and proficiency at drawing anatomy is more important than an
ability to rendering clothing, but in my salad days, you had to draw
people with clothes on, and wrinkles were an important part of clothing.
The wrinkles Milton Caniff lavished on his creations were much too complex
a combination for me to unlock, but Herblock's wrinkles were as uncomplicated
and straightforward as his politics. And they were likewise convincing.
And his prose was as forthright and unaffected
as his artwork. His first book is called The Herblock Book, and
its first chapter is entitled "Begin Here." No confusion.
No dilly-dallying. Just plain speaking. With a dash of self-deprecating
"I'd hardly be giving away any trade
secrets if I told you how a book like this comes to be written,"
he starts off, "because I'm not really in the trade. In this particular
author-reader relationship—if it can be called that—we're both starting
from scratch. ... What you seem to have got hold of here is a kind of
free-wheeling book of commentary. It's not a complete history of political
events, not a definitive work on any subject, and it's not ‘inside'
anything except my head. ... While you look at the pictures, I run along
on this sound track, telling you how I feel about some of the subjects
in general, recalling a few incidents here and there, and digressing
every once in a while to mention something about the cartoons themselves."
In short, Herblock's embarkation verbiage
on his maiden voyage in book authorship is as accurate and unvarnished
an introduction to the book and to the man as we're likely to find anywhere.
Herblock was one of the only two newspaper
cartoonists recognized by Editor & Publisher as belonging
among the fifty "most influential" newspaper people of the
20th century. Charles Schulz was the other one. And now they're both
But, with Herblock as an exemplar, we
should not be down-hearted. He ended his autobiography by talking about
the opportunity that the next day's cartoon offers, always, to compensate
for whatever shortcoming today's cartoon might embody. And thus the
last word in the book about his life is a ringing joyfully optimistic
all have tomorrows. And, like Herblock did before us, tomorrow we have
another chance to do it right, to make another beginning, a better one.
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