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 Herbert Lawrence Block  (1909 - 2001)

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Lived/Active: District Of Columbia/Illinois      Known for: political cartoonist, caricature

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Herbert Lawrence Block
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Herbert L. Block was for many years an editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post, where his distinct point of view, given free rein by his paper, established him as a pull-no-punches cartoonist.  He conveyed the public's fears of the atomic bomb through a menacing character called "Mr. Atom".  He saw the civil rights of the nation's black population as the next big agenda item.  He even attacked the Daughters of the American Revolution for discrimination.  He showed the courage of his convictions when he chose to confront an issue that many cartoonists - and their papers - gave a wide berth, by aiming his sights at the junior U.S. senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy.  Block is remembered for having coined the term McCarthyism.  He was a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner (1942, 1954 and 1979).

Born in Chicago, Illinois, on October 13, 1909, Block was influenced by the work of Jay Darling and Edmund Duffy.  He drew briefly for the Evanston News- Index, and at nineteen, became staff cartoonist with the Chicago Daily News.  He spent 1929-32 with the Chicago Daily News.  His cartoons, signed Herblock, were hostile to the presidency of Herbert Hoover.

In 1933, Block moved to the Newspaper Enterprise Association in Cleveland, the feature service established by Edward Scripps.  During the 1930s he was a loyal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.  He later commented: "I had started working before the Depression and was never out of a job.  But an awful lot of people were, and this guy was doing something about it.  It taught me that government can do the things that need to be done."  In 1942 Block won his first Pulitzer Prize for cartooning. Block joined The Washington Post in 1946, after serving in the U.S. Army from 1943-45.

In the early 1950s, he was one of the few cartoonists willing to take on Joseph McCarthy.  Block was the first person to describe this crusade against people with left of center political views as McCarthyism.  McCarthy responded by calling the Washington Post "the Washington edition of the Daily Worker".  Where editorial cartoonist Ollie Harrington was forced into exile and Bill Mauldin into retirement, Block survived and went on to win his second Pulitzer for Editorial Cartooning in 1954.  The award was for a cartoon (The Washington Post and Times-Herald) depicting the robed figure of Death saying to Stalin after he died, "You were always a great friend of mine, Joseph." Another Pulitzer award followed in 1979.

At the Washington Post, Block knit together a number of historical graphic threads in his work.  Block admired Edmund Duffy, whose anti-KKK and other cartoons of unbridled savagery for the Baltimore Sun earned him not only a niche in the history of the medium but also three Pulitzers.  Block was also influenced by Ding, and probably the comic aspects of Vaughn Shoemaker.  But by the 1950s Herblock himself was setting a new national fashion for the way editorial cartoons should be drawn.  He rose to the fore during the McCarthy Era, and sustained his place through the Nixon Years.

For over sixty years Block produced drawings that expressed his liberal views on politics.  This included attacks on racial discrimination and segregation.  One friend, Ted Koppel, remarked that: "In person, Herb is the sweetest, gentlest man you could ever imagine.  But put him behind a pen and something happens.  His cartoons can be like a direct hit to the solar plexus."

By the 1990s Block's cartoons were appearing in over 300 newspapers and magazines in the United States.  In a 1977 survey of editorial cartoonists, Herblock's peers overwhelmingly named him the greatest working editorial cartoonist and a major artistic influence. "I remember sending a Herblock cartoon around to my colleagues before a vote," says U.S. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Illinois), who believed the cartoon might sway senators' opinions.  Simon calls Herblock the "most influential" cartoonist he knows.  Pat Quinn, state treasurer and Democratic candidate for secretary of state, says, "Herblock and (former Washington Star cartoonist Pat) Oliphant helped form my political views when I was a student at Georgetown.  Herblock would take the side of the underdog.  He was a champion of people who didn't have lobbyists and friends in high places.  And he was good at bursting the pomposity of many of the people in elected office."

On November 14th, 1993, Brian Lamb interviewed Herb Block.
Brian Lamb: Who was Joe McCarthy?

Herb Block: Who was he? He was the United States senator from Wisconsin and a man who, after he'd been in the Senate for a while, found that there was pay dirt in pretending to find Communists in the government. He made a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, I think in 1950, February, in which he said, "I think there were 205 Communists in the government," and he never showed people any list.

Brian Lamb: Here's a cartoon from the year 1950 -- The headline on it is, "You mean I'm supposed to stand on that?" And right up here is the word McCarthyism. Did you invent that?

Herb Block: That's the first use of that word that I know of and I remember how it originated because I wanted to put something on that tar barrel and you couldn't call it McCarthy himself, and you wouldn't say McCarthy techniques or so on, and I thought, "Well, maybe just use one word, McCarthyism, and, you know, it caught on".

Brian Lamb: Did you ever think that McCarthyism, as you defined it, was a threat, a real threat to this country?

Herb Block: Oh, yes. Certainly. God, it was a threat at the time. And it was a very real threat and there were people driven out of office, people whose careers were wrecked, there were people who commit suicide because of the attacks on them.

Herblock sprayed ink on big issues and big shots, from Vietnam to Watergate and the Soviet bear, from presidents Truman to Nixon and Clinton. His shrapnel has stung Slobodan Milosevic, Yasser Arafat, the National Rifle Association and others. Clinton, Al Gore, and George W. Bush have also taken fire.  Few Herblock targets, however, were as favored as Nixon, drawn with deep-set, malevolent eyes, five o'clock shadow and, when he was vice president in Eisenhower's administration, with a bloodstained hatchet in hand.  Herblock drove Richard Nixon to tell campaign aides in 1960, "We have to erase the 'Herblock image."   The cartoonist had angered Nixon by repeatedly drawing him as a sewer-dwelling scoundrel with a sinister five-o'clock shadow.  But Herblock offered a truce when Nixon was elected president in 1968.  He gave Nixon a shave.

A retrospective of his work was displayed at the Library of Congress in fall 2000: "Herblock's History: Political Cartoons from the Crash to the Millennium". Herblock's awards are almost as numerous as his years at The Washington Post.  In addition to winning three Pulitzer Prizes for cartooning and the National Cartoonists Society's "Rueben" for outstanding work, he is the only living cartoonist whose work is in the National Gallery of Art.

A fierce defender of civil rights, Herblock designed the U.S. postage stamp commemorating the 175th anniversary of the Bill of Rights (1966), and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. The author of more than a dozen books, including The Herblock Book (1952), The Herblock Gallery (1968), Herblock's State of the Union (1972), Herblock's Special Report (1974), and Herblock on All Fronts (1980) and Herblock: A Cartoonist's Life. His autobiography, A Cartoonists Life, was published in 1993.

On December 31, 1995, the late Katherine Graham, chairman of the executive committee of The Washington Post Company, wrote the following essay, which appeared in the Washington Post.

By Katharine Graham
Sunday, December 31, 1995; Page C01
My mother had a saying: "Any man worth marrying is impossible to live with."
Why does this make me think of my glorious life and times with Herblock, one of the greatest ornaments to The Post and to all of journalism? Underneath his genius for cartooning and writing lies a modest, sweet, aw-shucks personality. Underneath that lies a layer of iron and steel. For the publishers and editors over him or under him, as it would be more accurate to say it's like having a tiger by the tail.

Herb started out in his hometown of Chicago doing editorial cartoons for the Chicago Daily News in 1929. Four years later he became a syndicated editorial cartoonist for the Newspaper Enterprise Association Service in Cleveland, where he won the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes. When World War II came along, Herb went into the Army and produced and edited a feature service for Army newspapers. After the war, Herb was passing through Washington. A chance encounter led to a meeting with my father, Eugene Meyer, who happened to be desperately looking for a cartoonist for The Post. Herb provided a few samples and in return, my father gave Herb a subscription to the paper. "So you can see how you like us," my father explained.

Evidently the attraction was mutual. Herb arrived at The Post the same week that my husband, Phil Graham, arrived in January of 1946. The extraordinary quality of Herb's eye, his insights and sharp comments immediately stood out. 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.

Herb 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.

Since he arrived at The Post, five editors and five publishers all have learned a cardinal rule: Don't mess with Herb. He's just as tough within the confines of The Post as he is in the political world outside.

Herb's independence evolved gradually. In the early years, he made several sketches for the day's cartoon and dutifully submitted them to the editorial page editor to choose. When the editor was away, Herb began showing them to a preferred group of reporters and editorial writers whose opinions he valued. Gradually, the editor's role was dropped altogether.

Of course, this has produced a few tense moments. In 1952, during the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign, The Post endorsed Ike, but Herb supported Stevenson and continued to jab away at the general. Which point of view do you think made the bigger impression with readers? Finally, Herb's cartoon was dropped by the paper for the last days of the campaign. Since his work continued to be syndicated in other papers, The Post looked silly. The Washington Daily News ran a headline: "Where's Mr. Block? One of D.C.'s Top Draw-ers Is Missing."

Even earlier, Phil protested Herb's cartoons on Congress. He feared they made The Post look as though it was ridiculing and undermining the strength of that institution. "I think we should put that little Congress' character back in the ink bottle," Phil wrote.

Back came three eloquent pages from Herb including, "When a majority of Congress fails to act, or acts badly, I think it's fair to be critical of Congress."
I too sometimes opened the paper and gasped at Herb's cartoons, particularly during Watergate when we were so embattled on all fronts. But I had learned not to interfere. And anyway, most of the time we're on the same wavelength. Even when we aren't, I should confess, I generally find myself laughing uproariously at the cartoon that has caused my apprehension. In this sense, Herb always wins.

Herb studies events and reacts to them in his own way. His point of view is liberal, and his instincts are common-sensical. But his common sense has a special twist. As economist Ken Galbraith once put it: "While Herb appreciates virtue, his real interest is in awfulness." His mind turns to the rascals, the phonies and the frauds. He has pursued them for 50 years without ever flagging except for time taken off for a couple of heart attacks and operations. But these ordeals were probably nothing compared with the distress he has caused a number of other people, such as President Nixon and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It was Herb who is said to have coined the term McCarthyism, using it on a tar barrel.

Herb's unique ability to crystallize what is right or, more likely, wrong about an issue or a person has often influenced the course of events in Washington. Naturally, the strength and impact of his cartoons often provoke strong reactions from readers who disagree. Part of the job of Post publishers is to defend Herb and the paper from these reactions.
"Since Herblock is the most gifted political cartoonist of our times," Phil wrote one reader, "by definition he therefore cannot be an organization man. Being an old reactionary and individualist, I am all for people who simply have to be individualistic. . . . I think though it will amaze you that Herblock probably considers himself frustrated and suffocated by our policy."

I too have written my share of explanatory letters. One, in 1989, said that to cartoon is to caricature, and people who are very gifted at cartooning sometimes offend. "Most of the time, however, cartoons illuminate or amuse," the letter went on to say. I doubt the irate reader was completely satisfied, but the statement, I believe, is true.

As Herb begins his second 50 years at The Post, he has lost none of his dynamic energy and original insight. He is going as strong as ever and, as a matter of fact, has just published his 12th book. It's about his cat Bella and, as usual, it's just wonderful. Herb does caricature the cat, but I don't think Don Graham and Meg Greenfield will hear from her in protest.

In fact, Bella has proven she's more than a match for Herb. For example, she is known to complain about Herb's legendary propensity to live in a rat's nest of old newspapers and magazines, discarded clothes and paint brushes and pencils. "We cats are neat," Bella is alleged to have said, while frowning on those who are not.

Now maybe Herb knows what it feels like to have a cat by the tail. It's a privilege, a pleasure and an honor we all have loved and treasured.
__________

The following is the text of a radio interview of Herb Block with Washington Post columnist Bob Levey.

Alexandria: There was an online discussion last week with a Washington Post editor that brought up many questions about the liberal slant of that paper. Do you see yourself as contributing to the Post's reputation as "a little short of objective"?

Herblock: I consider myself an independent newspaper man expressing opinions. Roger Rosenblatt in a recent public broadcasting piece described me as an equal opportunity cartoonist, but which he meant taking shots at both sides. You can see Herblock cartoons from the last three months (approximately 42 in all) by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/herblock/archives.htm

Bob Levey: Why did you merge your first name with your last? You could have had just as glorious a career as Herb Block, I'll bet.

Herblock: The two names were merged in a kind of rechristening by my father. When I was in grade school, I contributed to newspaper columns. This was at a time when everyone felt they had to have a pen name of some kind. And when I started writing little paragraphs for newspaper columns, I was casting around for the nom de plume when my father suggested combining the two names. Later when I began drawing cartoons, people who read Chicago newspapers had become kind of familiar with that name. So I kept it in the cartoons, creating a lot of confusion for readers who wondered what was my real name.

Ellicott City, MD: was there ever a time you did a cartoon about an individual and later had the feeling that you had been unfair in your treatment of that person?

Herblock: I don't think so and I certainly hope not. I do try to be fair, particularly in getting to the point of what somebody actually said and don't try to criticize for the wrong things. I'm sure there are people who have appeared in the cartoons who may feel that a cartoon itself is unfair or that the way they are drawn is not right.

Kensington, MD: More of the Nixon tapes were recently released and now we learn that he not only disliked Jews but also blacks, women and Hispanics. You were relentless in your satiric attacks on Nixon. Yet the campaign to redeem him, if not to grant him sainthood, has continued since his death. Has your attitude toward Richard Nixon softened in any way over the years?

Herblock: No, it hasn't. And Richard Nixon, even though he is no longer with us, keeps reminding us of what he was like through the tapes that keep being released. In that respect, you might say that he is still his own worst enemy although there might be lots of competition for that title.

Bob Levey: Whenever I think of a Herblock "signature," I think of the way you drew Richard Nixon. He had a number of distinctive features--the nose, the hunched shoulders. But you always featured his thick beard. Why? Was it because the beard showed up so prominently in the Kennedy-Nixon TV debates?

Herblock: Bob, as you know, I gave Nixon, and Joe McCarthy also, a five o'clock shadow. They literally had it and it seemed to fit their characters. But I also tried to do the complete figure and mannerisms, such as Nixon's hunching position and McCarthy's strange smile or giggle.

Bob Levey: Through 53 years at The Washington Post, you have never run out of fodder, and I freely predict you never will. But have you ever wondered what it would be like to draw cartoons somewhere else--Hollywood, for example, or New York?

Herblock: No. I think Washington is the ideal place for cartoons. And especially since it has taken on its own Hollywood aspects. Sometimes, Washington ways and Hollywood ways seem to meld together.

Martinsburg, WV: Mr. Block - thanks for all the great cartoons over the years. Have you ever "steered clear" of any topics for cartoons? (never noticed it, but...)

Herblock: Thanks for the nice question. And I don't think I ever have felt I had to steer clear of any subject. Since the current scandals, I think we've all gone through a test on what's properly printable and what isn't.

Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining with our guest, Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herblock

Washington, DC: Are there times when your cartoons present a position different from the position laid out in a Post editorial? Is there any coordination between at all between you and the Editorial writers?

Herblock: No, there is no coordination with the editorial writers although I sometimes try out sketches on various newsroom and editorial writers. As an example of a different position from the editorials, I was not in favor of the recent expansion of NATO although The Post editorials were. There have been a number of examples of differences and one of the great things about The Washington Post is that it takes account of personal opinions in signed pieces of work.

Washington, DC: Were you regularly beaten-up by Republicans as a child?
Herblock: The answer is no. And actually, the first political cartoons I did were for a Republican political organization. An early cartoonist hero was Ding Darling of the Des Moines Register, who I think might have been called a progressive Republican. I wasn't beaten up by Democrats either, although I've done cartoons many of them could not like too well.

Bob Levey: To see "Five Decades of Herblock" (a collection of essays from 1946 to 1995, including an appreciation by Katharine Graham), go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/herblock/5decades.htm

Bob Levey: In a recent interview, cartoonist Pat Oliphant said you were a "dragon slayer" because of your anti-McCarthy cartoons in the 1950s. Do you agree that you helped grease the skids under the Senator?

Herblock: I hope so, Bob.

Washington, DC: Do you draw for a national audience, or do you make any claims to be a local cartoonist in a town where the local news happens to be of national interest? And whenever lampooning local issues and politicians, do you consider how your message would carry through to Post readers beyond the Beltway?

Herblock: Yes. I bear in mind that the cartoons appear elsewhere, but also find local issues that make news elsewhere. For example, I did cartoons about Mayor Marion Barry. And I've also done many cartoons on the District of Columbia suffering from taxation without adequate representation in Congress.

Falls Church, VA: Are you a democrat or republican? Its impossible to tell by looking at your work. [edited for space]

Herblock: Thank you. I think the reason it's not possible to tell is because I consider myself an independent journalist. I wish all readers felt as you do.

Bob Levey: What are the qualities of a memorable cartoon?

Herblock: It's hard to say. Very often it's a cartoon that has a certain simplicity, but there have been excellent cartoons that used a number of words or that may have looked a little complicated.

Bob Levey: I'm no artist, heaven knows, but the likely presidential candidates for 2000 all seem to be difficult to draw. George W. Bush has those sunken eyes, Dan Quayle has that shy smile, Al Gore has that broad forehead. Are these problems or opportunities?

Herblock: Bob, some of them look as if they'd be easier or harder than others. I think when somebody appears as often as a President, you develop your own set of lines which people recognize as your caricature.

Annandale, VA: Do you think women could be good editorial cartoonists? Any particular reason, in your opinion, why so few are around today?

Herblock: There are more women editorial cartoonists than there used to be. And some are really excellent. Signe Wilkinson, in Philadelphia, is easily one of the best in the business. And there are others.

Bob Levey: I'm a little surprised you didn't beat up on the Redskins in Monday's paper, at the end of their sixth consecutive rotten season. Any reason?

Herblock: I guess I was just too appalled to do anything on that.

Bob Levey: Most guys your age have long ago hung up their smocks. Will Herblock ever do that?

Herblock: Not if I can help it.

Washington, DC: Do you think its easier for a liberal to get into heaven than it is for a conservative?

Herblock: I think they'd probably have their own Heavens

Washington DC: People often compare the Lewinsky stuff with Watergate. You clearly don't think they're of equal stature. But what past president does Clinton most remind you of? (Or what Greek tragic figure?)

Herblock: He doesn't remind me of any particular president

Herblock: There is no favorite period except perhaps whatever one we're in at the time. The most current book is a memoir called "Herblock: A Cartoonist's Life," which is illustrated with about 300 cartoons.

Scenic Washington, DC: I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but what advice would you give to aspiring cartoonists? Also, who was your favorite political figure to draw?

Herblock: I think the main thing is to be interested in the subject matter and liking to draw cartoons. The best way to break into the business is just to try submitting your work to publications. On that question about whether President Clinton reminds me of any tragic Greek figure. The figure who comes most to mind was Nick the Greek. Not tragic, but quite a gambler.

Vienna, VA: Having just finished reading this year's New Yorker cartoon issue, I was wondering if you know/knew any of the magazine's famous cartoonists -- and if so, if you have any interesting stories to tell about your relations with them?

Herblock: I met several of the New Yorker cartoonists and liked them. A visit to Charles Addams at his home was particularly interesting. Among other things, he collected crossbows, something that most people don't have around the house.

Bob Levey: That's it for today. Many thanks to our guest, the one and only Herblock.




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