The Incomparable Herblock, Up Close

A former colleague reflects on working alongside the cartoonist Herb Block, as well as some of the surprising aspects of Block's private life revealed in the new documentary Herblock.
herblock LOC.jpg
Library of Congress

For decades, a ritual took place at the Washington Post almost every afternoon around 4:00 p.m.: Herbert Block, whose signature was Herblock but who was known to all in the newsroom as Herb, would emerge from his spectacularly untidy office among the row of editorial writers and make his way across the floor clutching a half-dozen pencil sketches. In those years—ending in 2001, when Herblock died at age 91, only weeks after the publication of his last cartoon—the pace at that point in the day on the sprawling news floor was beginning to reach a noisy culmination of typing clatter and chatter, as reporters and editors created and refined the copy that would fill the daily from the front page to the crime shorts and obituaries. There was a rhythm to the activity that, in retrospect, had an irresistible energy—one that has largely been replaced in the digital age by technology and the deepening belief that the era of newspapers, at least as practiced in Herblock's years, is a relic of bygone times.

Herb's preference was to stop at the desks of copy editors and the night news editors who were just arriving for work. In a tentative manner, apologizing for the interruption, he would ask their opinions about draft cartoons and their possible captions. He was invariably deferential, and rarely did he directly disagree with the comments. How Herb decided whose judgment to solicit was a mystery, but to be included among the chosen was an honor that provided a measure of pride regardless of where else you fit into the newsroom's hierarchy. Herb then went to his office where, as I recall, he often took a short nap and then made up his mind. By deadline, there was a black-and-white crayon drawing that, by their thousands over the years, captured with a devastating edge the essence of whatever or whoever was the political focus of the moment. In my time at the Washington Post, which included five years as an editor, I was an occasional stop on Herblock's forays.

How Herb decided whose judgment to solicit was a mystery, but to be chosen was an honor regardless of where else you fit into the newsroom hierarchy. Herb then went to his office where, as I recall, he often took a short nap and then made up his mind.

Herblock's brilliance is captured in a new documentary, Herblock: The Black & The White, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. TheAtlantic.com has already featured "The Lessons of a Cartoonist's Crusade Against McCarthyism," an astute assessment of Herblock and the film by Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA Design Program at the School of Visual Arts. Herblock's work also gets significant and deserved attention in Victor S. Navasky's new book, The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power (my friend Navasky is former editor and publisher of The Nation). Lacking the expertise of Heller and Navasky's historical overviews, my particular pleasure from the film is as a reminder of Herblock's amazing prescience on one great issue after another, particularly from the 1950s onwards. He skewered the public figures he abhorred (his Richard Nixon collection alone would have secured his place forever as a definer of the "Tricky Dicky" persona). Within days of the 1972 Watergate break-in, before it began to make the barest dent on public awareness, Herblock's drawings brought the case right to the White House doors.

Presented by

Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

Just In