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Herblocklocked

(13 October 1909–08 October 2001)
  • Robert C. Harvey

Herblock (13 October 1909–08 October 2001), political cartoonist, was born Herbert Lawrence Block in Chicago, Illinois, the son of David Julian Block, a chemist and electrical engineer, and Theresa Lupe Block. Young Herbert drew from a very early age, and his father enrolled him in the Art Institute of Chicago's Saturday classes when he was eleven; the next year, he was awarded a part-time scholarship. While in high school, he drew cartoons for the school's weekly newspaper and for the suburban Evanston News-Index. He also regularly contributed paragraphs of witticism to a popular Chicago Tribune column of reader submissions, “Line o' Type or Two,” for which, following his father's suggestion, he used a portmanteau pen name created by combining his first name and his last, hinging it at the common consonant. Upon graduation from high school in 1927, he worked briefly as a reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau and then freelanced artwork before entering Lake Forest College that fall. For the next two years, he commuted daily from the family home, then in Winnetka; but when a summer job temporarily replacing the editorial page cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News turned into a permanent position, Herblock abandoned his college career to second the paper's front page political cartoonist, Vaughn Shoemaker.

The cartoons of both cartoonists were distributed nationally by the newspaper, and Herblock's work attracted the attention of editors at the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a newspaper feature syndicate headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, to which he relocated in early 1933 when N.E.A. offered him a job as staff editorial cartoonist. In the spring of 1942, Herblock won his first Pulitzer Prize, but within a year, he was no longer at N.E.A. From early 1943 until late 1945, he was, as he put it, ”associated with the U.S. Army.” After basic training at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, Herblock went into public relations at the Army Air Force Tactical Center near Orlando, Florida, where he drew cartoons and wrote press releases. He was eventually transferred to New York where he continued drawing and writing and helped edit a ”clip sheet” of information, safety tips, cartoons, and photographs for the Camp Newspaper Service, the military version of a feature syndicate that distributed its products to military units all over the world. Upon discharge from the army, Herblock began doing editorial cartoons for the Washington Post and continued until he died, over 55 years later.

For most of that time, Herblock regarded the Washington Post as his home, and he ate most of his meals in the paper's second-floor cafeteria. 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. 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 he walked around the office, showing them to various reporters and editors whose assignments gave them intimate knowledge of the subject Herblock was tackling that day. And after getting responses to his day's crop of ideas, Herblock picked one and drew the final version of it. Inked with pen and brush, his cartoons of the early 1930s were linear productions in the manner of J. N. (”Ding”) Darling of the Des Moines Register. But within a few years, Herblock was embellishing his drawings with a grease crayon, rubbing it across the pebble-finish drawing paper to give the pictures a variety of gray tones. By the mid-1950s, Herblock's drawing style was the most imitated in the field.

Herblock published his first book in 1952 and was firmly established as a journalistic power in Washington as well as in the nation. He wrote eleven more books, including one autobiography and one about a stray cat who took up residence with him for a time. The other nine were collections of his cartoons accompanied by Herblock's text, which supplied historical and political background. And his prose was as forthright and unaffected as his artwork. His first book is called The Herblock Book, and its first chapter is titled ”Begin Here.”

No other cartoonist has matched Herblock in career longevity: his first editorial cartoon was published 24 April 1929; his last, 72 years later, on 26 August 2001. He cartooned through thirteen presidents, none of whom, regardless of political affiliation, escaped the cartoonist's scrutiny and ridicule. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon repeatedly canceled their subscriptions to the Post because of Herblock's cartoons. Herblock portrayed Ike as a friendly, simple-minded buffoon, and he always gave Nixon a sinister-looking five o'clock shadow and once drew him crawling out of a sewer. When Nixon was elected president, Herblock drew his own cluttered office as a barber shop with a sign on the wall: ”This shop gives to every new President of the U.S. a free shave.” The Democrats fared no better: Herblock once drew Jimmy Carter with a blurred face like an out-of-focus television image, and he gave Lyndon Johnson the imperious air of a monarch who ruled by divine right. Herblock believed it was the role of the political cartoonist to criticize the government, and he did it, guided by ”the small-L liberal trinity of freedom, equality and brotherhood,” which, wrote the Post's David Von Drehle, ”endowed his vast body of work with awesome consistency.” He was a lifelong advocate for civil rights and for the environment. His first cartoon for the Chicago Daily News showed a clear-cut forest of tree stumps over the caption, ”This is the forest primeval—.”

Herblock 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 the Watergate scandal. In 1994, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. He received awards from virtually every journalist organization, and in 1957 he was named ”cartoonist of the year,” receiving the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award. But it is not the length of Herblock's career or the number of awards he won that gave him the stature that inspired unqualified admiration and envy among his colleagues. They admired him for his principled stand on public policy and social issues; and they envied him his unprecedented independence—his absolute freedom to express his opinions without editorial interference.

Celebrating Herblock's fiftieth 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. Since he arrived at the Post, five editors and five publishers all have learned a cardinal rule: Don't mess with Herb.” 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. Effectively the liberal conscience of the paper, Herblock's steely incorruptibility 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, as Graham acknowledged, to the elevation of the Washington Post from a fourth-rate paper in the city to a first-rate paper in the nation. For his first half-dozen years at the Post, 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 had coined the term ”McCarthyism” in a cartoon published 29 March 1950, less than two months after Wisconsin's Senator Joseph R. McCarthy first attracted attention by making the dubious assertion that 205 communists worked in the State Department. The cartoon depicted several Republican Party leaders trying to get the G.O.P. elephant to stand atop a shaky stack of paint-smeared buckets labeled ”McCarthyism”; the reluctant elephant says, ”You Mean I'm Supposed to Stand on That?” In one of his most powerful cartoons of this era (one of the most effective visual metaphors made meaningful and potent by the accompanying wording), a man is dashing up a ladder toward the torch in the Statue of Liberty's hand; labeled ”Hysteria,” the man shouts ”Fire!” as he carries aloft a bucket to extinguish freedom's flame. From the same period, Herblock's emblem of the menace of nuclear weapons was a huge anthropomorphic bomb wearing an antique Greek helmet and labeled ”Mr. Atom.”

When he died, Herblock left an estate of over $50 million ($49 million of it in Washington Post stock) with which he endowed a foundation in his name to foster education, to improve the Washington community, and to encourage young editorial cartoonists. As a measure of his stature in American journalism, Herblock was one of only two newspaper cartoonists recognized by Editor & Publisher as belonging among the fifty ”most influential” newspaper people of the twentieth century.

Bibliography

The original art of Herblock's cartoons (he never gave any away to admirers) is archived at the Library of Congress. Herblock's autobiography, Herblock: A Cartoonist's Life (1993), supplies most of the biographical information, supplemented by many articles written about him during his long career and at the time of his death. He was a member of Sigma Delta Chi, Professional Journalist Society, an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Herblock's books are The Herblock Book, 1952; Herblock's Here and Now, 1955; Herblock's Special for Today, 1958; Straight Herblock, 1964; The Herblock Gallery, 1968; Herblock's State of the Union, 1972; Herblock Special Report, 1974; Herblock on All Fronts, 1980; Herblock Through the Looking Glass, 1984; Herblock at Large, 1987; Bella and Me: Life in the Service of a Cat, 1995. Obituaries are in the Washington Post and the New York Times , both 8 Oct. 2001.