By HARRY L. KATZ
Born in Chicago on Oct. 13, 1909, Herbert Block grew up in a family where art, history and politics really mattered. His father, an accomplished chemist, also had a talent for writing and cartooning, contributing to such turn-of-the-20th century humor magazines as Life, Puck and Judge. He supported his son's early studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. He "showed me something about drawing," he said. His father also worked as a reporter for the Chicago Record; and his older brother, Bill, was a reporter on the Chicago Tribune and later the Chicago Sun. During high school, Mr. Block drew cartoons and wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper. From his earliest years, he prepared for a career as a journalist.
After graduation from high school, he worked briefly as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. He also wrote on topical subjects for a contributors' column in the Tribune. Pen names were common then and his father suggested combining two names into one, and "Herblock" was born. Enrolling at Lake Forest College in Illinois, he majored in English and Political Science. His association with a professor who had worked for the Secretariat of the League of Nations furthered his interest in international affairs. Near the end of his sophomore year, he applied for a job at the Chicago Daily News, and was given the opportunity to replace an editorial cartoonist who was leaving. The job worked so well that it ended his academic career.
Just 19 years old in 1929, Herblock joined the major leagues of newspaper cartoonists. Among these were veteran Chicago Tribune cartoonists who had not long before generously taken time to look at his school paper efforts, discuss them with him, and give him originals of their drawings. Among these established cartoonists were Carey Orr, Gaar Williams and the much-loved and highly respected John T. McCutcheon, a Chicago institution. Mr. Block was a particular fan of "Ding" Darling of the New York Herald Tribune, whose cartoon opinions were characterized by humor and vitality. Others were Edmund Duffy of the Baltimore Sun, whose crayon drawings were striking, and Chicago News colleague and front-page cartoonist, Vaughn Shoemaker, whose drawings were noted for their clean pen lines. Drawing upon them all, he refined his own style that, to this day, remains concise and compelling.
Early in 1933, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office amid economic devastation, Mr. Block left the Chicago News, and was hired as the only editorial cartoonist for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), a Scripps-Howard feature service headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio.
"The Cleveland job was a whole new ball game," wrote Mr. Block in his memoirs." His Chicago News cartoons had been syndicated nationally but now reached many more papers. His commentary grew sharper and more prescient through the 1930s, responding to widespread unemployment and poverty in America, the concurrent rise of fascism in Europe and communist tyranny in the Soviet Union.
The Depression politicized Mr. Block. Sheltered from economic hardships by his steady income, he observed the suffering around him and used his editorial panel as a vehicle for progressive reform. He admired Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal policies and recalled that "during the early days of the New Deal, I did get to see what government could do. My feelings are best expressed in a statement by a Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, that the object of government is to do for a people what they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot do as well for themselves."
Mr. Block came into his own during the Depression. Domestically, he stirred controversy with powerful images attacking the volatile oratory of such American demagogues as Father Coughlin and Huey Long. Largely supportive of New Deal policies, he nonetheless questioned President Roosevelt's efforts in some areas, notably an unsuccessful attempt in 1937 to increase the number of Supreme Court justices. In foreign affairs he hit his stride, warning of the threats to peace posed by fascism in Europe.
He created derisive portrayals of military dictators Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, all scheming and dreaming of conquests and empires. He brought their activities to the notice of a public and politicians who, after the disillusionment that followed World War I, had turned inward to isolationism. Targeting dictatorships, he used symbols to carry his message: a sharpened Soviet sickle poised to execute political prisoners or a Nazi cap extinguishing the lamp of German civilization.
An early advocate of aid to the allies resisting Nazi aggression, Mr. Block was in favor of measures to prepare America for what was becoming a great world struggle. He exposed Nazi activities, giving them graphic form and visual power. He drew metaphors for the resilience of the human spirit, the inhumanity of war and the duplicity of dictators, finding heroes among innocents and victims, and taking to task villainous politicians. By 1941, with Britain under siege by the Nazis and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor still on the horizon, his cartoons took aim at the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.
Fred Ferguson, president of NEA, opposed what he called the cartoonist's "interventionism," and what the cartoonist called "anti-isolationism." Ferguson summoned him to New York in spring 1942 to discuss their differences. "My life has been full of fortunate coincidences," Mr. Block said, for even as he sat in the New York office awaiting the disagreeable face-off, he received the news he had won his first Pulitzer Prize, vaulting him into national prominence and leaving his flummoxed publisher speechless.
His 1942 Pulitzer Prize, based on cartoons of 1941, vindicated the cartoonist's stance and solidified his reputation as one of the country's foremost political commentators. Early in 1943, he was drafted into the Army at the age of 33. He produced cartoons and articles and edited a "clipsheet" that was distributed throughout the Army, until he left the service late in 1945.
Hired as editorial cartoonist by The Washington Post, he moved to Washington in 1946. He has remained in that position ever since, drawing daily cartoons from the nation's capital for more than half a century. Katharine Graham wrote recently, "The extraordinary quality of Herb's eye, his insight and 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."
In Washington, he has achieved a rare freedom from editorial control, sharing preliminary sketches with trusted office colleagues before selecting and creating a final cartoon for publication. He and the Post were in agreement on the excesses of the "anti-communist era" and the damage caused by the reckless opportunism of McCarthy. A strong believer in civil liberties, he directed cartoons against the House Committee on Un-American Activities from its earliest days under Congressman Dies in the 1930s until its expiration decades later. Despite the motives of some individual committee members, he held to the view that there was something wrong with a group of congressmen deciding what (and who) was "un-American."
Later, during the Vietnam War, he came more and more to oppose the American government's policy, and his cartoons ran counter to the newspaper's editorial position. Numerous editors have attempted unsuccessfully over the years to influence or alter his cartoons, suggesting he voice a different opinion. Mr. Block has invariably demurred, standing by his work and upholding his now legendary reputation for editorial independence. A thoughtful journalist and gifted cartoonist, he is universally admired for his integrity. Recently Mrs. Graham wrote of him, "Herb fought for and earned a unique position at the paper: one of complete independence of anybody and anything."
Herblock's longevity is due in part to the journalistic passion inspired by his father and older brothers. Unlike many cartoonists, he chooses to work in his office, adjacent to the newsroom, rather than drawing at home or in an isolated studio. He takes full advantage of the proximity to expert verification of facts and the latest news from Washington and around the globe.
When his drawing goes to press, it is his own, without question. Through the decades, he has remained true to certain issues and principals: supporting civil rights measures, gun control, campaign finance reform, funding for education and democracy for residents for the District of Columbia, among other issues. "Take one issue at a time and one administration at a time and deal with it the way you see it," is how he describes his approach.
Raised in what he says might now be called "secular humanism," he takes a dim view of politicians who see religiosity as essential to public service. His longtime assistant, Jean Rickard, suggests that his parents instilled in him a strong sense of right and wrong, the confidence to express his views openly and the courage to stand up for what is right. For example, on the issue of racism, which he began addressing immediately after World War II (in advance of virtually all American cartoonists), he notes "I never had those feelings growing up. My father and mother felt that you should simply be a good citizen and think about the other guy."
Mr. Block has been thinking about "the other guy" throughout his career. For more than 70 years, through his cartoons, he has chronicled the best and worst America has to offer, from the depths of the Great Depression to the new millennium. No editorial cartoonist in American history, not even Thomas Nast, has made a more lasting impression on the nation than Mr. Block. His influence has been enormous, both on his profession and the general public, although he modestly eschews such praise with anecdotes. One such story involved a comment overheard during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Walter Winchell said he had come upon Senator McCarthy shaving and complaining that he had to shave twice a day now "because of that guy [Herblock] and his cartoons." Apparently his caricatures of the senator as an unshaven, belligerent Neanderthal found their mark. Asked if he felt he played a role in checking McCarthy's rise to power, the cartoonist quietly responded, "I sure tried to." Richard Nixon expressed a similar reaction to the cartoons, saying at one point that he had to "erase the Herblock image."
Humor has been one of Mr. Block's greatest assets, drawing people in, encouraging them to read the cartoon and consider his opinions. Laughter warms the coldest heart and lends perspective to serious issues and events. "I enjoy humor and comedy," he says, "and like to get fun into the work." Humor is an important vehicle for delivering a message, making "it a little easier for the medicine to go down."
Mr. Block's cartoons may never cure cancer or the common cold, but for the better part of a century they have helped ward off the ill effects of war, bigotry, economic opportunism, political arrogance and social injustice. What more could we ask of one man?
"Herblock's History: Political Cartoons from the Crash to the Millennium," a major exhibition featuring the work of political cartoonist Herbert Block, will be on display in the North and South Galleries of the Library's Great Hall from Oct. 17, 2000, through Feb. 17, 2001. The exhibition celebrates the recent gift to the Library of more than 100 original drawings by the artist whose career began in 1929. His caricatures of 12 American presidents -- from Hoover to Clinton -- are featured. The exhibition includes cartoons portraying memorable public figures and events from the past eight decades, including World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, the Reagan years and the Clinton administration.
Mr. Katz, a curator in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division, is the curator of the Herblock exhibition.