Washington breeds a peculiar sort of person-as-institution. In the halls of the Senate, that means senators for life like Robert Byrd, walking chronicles of legislative history and parliamentary procedure. It creates journalists like David Broder, the embodiment of sober, right-thinking moderation and American political tradition. It creates grande dames like Katharine Graham, beloved for her hostessing and respected for her stewardship of the Washington Post.
In that universe, Herbert Lawrence Block was a peculiarly singular character. His 55 years in the capital's leading paper certainly qualify him as an institution. He didn't have the profile or power of a Byrd, but the sweep of his career—from the Great Depression to the Bush Administration—took in even more. His name wasn't in boldface in papers twice a week, although his cartoons, under the name "Herblock," ran five and even six days each week in the Post and as many as 1,800 other papers across the nation. He won three Pulitzer Prizes, and his journalism was extremely influential; a 1950 cartoon even coined the term "McCarthyism." A semi-reclusive presence who avoided the party scene and listed his official address at the Post building, he was still a beloved figure in the capital.
The artist, who died just weeks after his final cartoon was published in 2001, is the subject of a documentary, Herblock: The Black & the White, which debuts Monday on HBO. The film is directed by Michael Stevens, whose father, the Oscar-winning documentarian George Stevens Jr., became friends with Herblock in the 1960s when he headed the motion-picture division at the U.S. Information Agency. (The elder Stevens produced the new movie.)
"Herblock was completely a humble, aw-shucks, sweetheart kind of guy," Michael Stevens told me. "You never got the sense that he had an axe to grind. It was all very friendly, the classic kind uncle, kind grandfather."
But aides to frequent targets like Richard Nixon probably didn't feel the same way. "When he closed his door and his office and went to work on the cartoon of the day, a certain kind of fire and certainty came out in him that he did not exhibit in his dealings with other people."
Stevens wanted to capture the man he'd known, but he also wanted to depict a time when a newspaper cartoonist had vast power, before television had sapped newsprint's influence—to say nothing of the Internet. An irony of Herblock's legacy is that he flourished as a creator of powerful images in an era when the printed—and broadcast—word were king. Today's media environment is far more visually oriented, with bright, color pictures on screens big and small. Yet there's no cartoonist of his stature and reach today.
Stevens also wanted to capture the way Herblock pulled off often sharply critical satire with uncommon humanity, and without resorting to cheap snark and acerbity.
"The nature of our humor in this country has evolved or devolved in the last 50, 60 years depending on your point of view. Putdown humor is the source of all humor these days. It finds an easy target and it goes after low-hanging fruit," Stevens says. "Herblock worked from a place of total mental clarity and understanding of the issues and the bigger issue at stake."
To demonstrate what that means, Stevens selected a few of his favorite cartoons from across Herblock's career and discussed them with me.
By the time Richard Nixon completed his improbable comeback by taking the White House in 1968, Herblock had been lampooning him for two decades, having first encountered him in California in the late 1940s. "He said, 'Listen, you’re about to come into office, you’ve earned the right to be president of the United States. You're going to get one free shave, and we'll go from there,'" Stevens says. "It was his way of saying, 'I'm going to be fair to with you. I'm going to not let your past acts frame the way I think about you or cartoon about you."
"This is a classic. Which is his Schindler's List? Which is his A Place in the Sun? Which is his Godfather? It would be this cartoon," Stevens says. The 1974 image alludes to Nixon's famous claim as well as the 18-minute gap in the White House tapes. Nixon canceled his home subscription when his daughters were young so Herblock's cartoons wouldn't upset them.
This is the cartoon that coined "McCarthyism." As Stevens points out, what's impressive about the cartoon is how quickly Herblock picked up on the danger Joe McCarthy posed: The panel ran in March 1950, just a month after the Wisconsin senator's infamous Wheeling Speech, in which he said he had a list of names of Communists in the State Department, and four years before the Army hearings that would bring him down. "At first glance you get it right away. There's the entire Republican Party being dragged toward these buckets of tar and the Republican party's going to be stained by it," Stevens says. "This McCarthyism bucket at the top harkens back to the Salem Witch Trials. There's not that much comedy in it." The figures around the elephant are RNC Chair Guy Gabrielson, Senate Minority Leader Kenneth Wherry, and Senators Robert Taft and Styles Bridges.
Herblock started his career in 1929 at the Chicago Daily News, then jumped to the Newspaper Enterprise Association before enlisting in the Army. He joined the Post after mustering out in 1946. Both of these cartoons date from the Depression. "His go-to subject matter always was the little guy, those who did not take up as much ink as everyone else in the stories of the newspapers. That came from his Chicago roots—he had a true Midwestern set of values based on community an watching out for one another, and it showed in his cartoons until the end." Stevens notes the Herblock's later style hadn't yet developed—the earlier works leave less white space, and use a thicker style influenced by the great 19th-century French cartoonist and caricaturist Honore Daumier.