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.
By 1950, Herblock's sparer, mature style and one of his favorite themes have both begun to emerge (though he had already won his first Pulitzer). Stevens argues that the cartoon has to be viewed in its context to understand why it's important: "You can say, oh, it's obvious, but the truth of the matter is that at the time, Herblock was the one guy who was cartooning about [money in politics] effectively enough to be able to be in 1,800 papers every day. The sad part is that not much has changed."
In this 1962 cartoon, John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev labor to keep a lid on atomic weapons. "He had the habit, with the nuclear-proliferation issues, of monsterizing," Stevens says. Even in November 1962, immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Herblock held out hope for Cold War reconciliation. "It took a point of view that the Soviet leader was a good guy, that the Soviet leader was in lockstep with the American president, and that the Soviet leader was sweating just as hard to solve this problem as John Kennedy was."
Dwight Eisenhower doesn't come across as well in this 1956 panel. Ike is depicted as a diffident, almost impassive observer to racial clashes across the country. "As the 'fire chief' he was the one most responsible for addressing the early embers of the fire so it would not spread as it did," Steven says. An incredulous Uncle Sam looks on.
It's either a testament to Herblock's knack for finding the timeless angle on stories or proof that nothing ever changes in American politics that so many of his cartoons look as though they could run today in any daily newspaper. This 1993 strip is one such cartoon. The challenge for a journalist—as anyone who reads the quickly derivative columns of some of the country's biggest names will know—is managing to say something new, a task made harder when your career runs for 70 years. Herblock had drawn cartoons decrying the gun lobby as early as the 1960s. "At a certain point it must have been debilitating," Stevens says. "We were never able to discern this—did a frustration develop? He effectively was repeating in a circular fashion his deeper examination of issues decade after decade after decade. You get to a cynical point of view: Does anything ever change?"
In Bill Clinton's second term, the president was facing impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. At the same time, he was in negotiations with Republicans led by Newt Gingrich on balancing the budget. Herblock detected in this a second tricky balance. "The low-hanging fruit would point this toward sexual innuendo. There might be a cigar. Whatever the easy chuckle is. This takes it one step further, to how a man who is cheating on his spouse needs to lead a dual life. It's a much more sophisticated way and a memorable way to grab that low-hanging fruit."
This pair of cartoons, from 1952 and 2000, shows how Herblock's obsession with wealthy interests' power in the political sphere developed over the years. "Unfortunately, we're looking at a cartoon in 2000 that is not that different from the one we saw in 1950."
How long was Herblock a high-profile cartoonist? Long enough that he was around to denounce isolationists and appeasers during Hitler's rise. This 1935 cartoon for the Newspaper Enterprise Association was published three years before the Munich Agreement.
The 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty this month has produced a slew of stories about how LBJ prioritized the poor in a way that no president has since. But the contemporary record shows that view wasn't unanimous at the time—and shows ways in which Johnson faltered when he could have been helping the little guy, in Herblock's eyes. This panel is from 1967.
"There’s no putdown humor in this," Steven says. "It’s the painful contrast between those who are suffering, the U.S. urban needs, the everyman, and this gilded, bejeweled prostitute, which is the Vietnam War, which is being fed billions of dollars at the expense of the people who need it the most. That's hard-hitting because it's now low-hanging fruit. It's a sophisticated way of showing the idiocy of Lyndon Johnson's policy."
It's also not really all that funny. There are outlandish caricatures, and Herblock captures Johnson's somewhat lecherous mien uncannily, but the point isn't sugarcoated. "If you really look at the subtext—and I doubt Herb was thinking of this much subtext—it's basically saying Lyndon Johnson was creating policy with his dick rather than with his brain," Stevens says. "There are layers to this—on the surface it's a chuckle, and then there's contemplation, and then there's an 'Oh my.'"