The Lessons of a Cartoonist's Crusade Against McCarthyism

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With newspapers on the wane, the documentary reveals how important cartoonist-journalists like Herblock are to the democratic system. "It was a real re-education for me on the vital role that the press has to play in keeping our politicians honest," Stevens said, "and to do what government should be doing—watching out for the little guy." Not incidentally, among the talking heads, Jon Stewart and Lewis Black pay homage to Herblock as their antecedent. "Shakespeare showed us it's often the court jester or fool who gets to say the truth," Lukinson said. "Although as someone says in our film, even court jesters were, at times, beheaded."

"Interviewee after interviewee said again and again that no one was on the McCarthy case before Herblock—and that it was indeed, a monumental act of courage to be out there alone in that environment."

Herblock had an atypical relationship with the Washington Post's editorial page. Most editorial cartoonists followed the dictates of their host newspaper, but not him. "There's a famous story," Stevens related, "which we researched to be 100 percent true, that Philip Graham, the publisher of the Post asked Herblock in the fall of 1952 not to create such unflattering cartoons about Eisenhower. Herblock felt Stevenson was the better presidential candidate. Herb continued, however, and Graham came to him one day and said he was going to have to pull his cartoons when they went against Eisenhower—and therefore against the Post's editorial opinion. Herblock said he understood—it was Graham's right—but he reminded Graham that his cartoons would still go out to almost 1,000 other papers in the country via syndication. Shortly, the Washington Daily News put up an article, 'Where's Mr. Block?' A publicity scrum followed, and the reaction was so strong, that Herblock was put back in the paper. More importantly, his right at the Post to publish his own opinion was never again questioned."

Stories like this abound, but shoehorning an entire life into a film is a challenge, so the producers opted to forgo giving the audience a history lesson. "Structure is what makes documentaries soar, or crash and burn," Stevens explained. "We concluded, then, that it had to be a story about a man with his decent, timeless ideals—and how he took on the mightiest of public figures with his pen every working day of the week. His opposition included Hitler, McCarthy, Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton—not to mention the gun lobby and tobacco lobby, and just about any other lobby which put its financial interests ahead of the little guy."

Stevens hopes viewers will ask of themselves what Herblock asked of his audiences: "to play a role in our democracy, because if one doesn't—if one's voice is not heard—there are plenty of people out there who have powerful voices who are willing to manipulate the democracy for their own financial gain, while doing it at our expense." Lukinson looks forward to the audience feeling they would have liked to have known Herblock and that his name will be around for a long time to come. "He is a real touchstone," she said, "not just to journalists and satirists, but to all of us Americans, to anyone who believes there is a common good."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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