in Chicago on October 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-twentieth-century humor magazines
as Life, Puck, and Judge. He also supported
his son's early studies at Art Institute of Chicago. He "showed
me something about drawing," Herb Block says. His father also had
worked as a reporter for the Chicago Record, and Herb's
older brother Bill was a reporter on the Chicago Tribune
and later the Chicago Sun. During high school Herb 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
worked briefly as a police reporter for Chicago's City News Bureau.
He also wrote frequent paragraphs on topical subjects for a contributors'
column in the Tribune. Because pen names were common then,
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, studying under a professor who
had worked for the Secretariat of the League of Nations. Talks with
his professor furthered his interest in international affairs. Near
the end of his sophomore year, he applied for a job at the Chicago
News, which offered him a tryout to replace an editorial cartoonist
who was leaving. The tryout worked so well that it ended his academic
Just nineteen in 1929, Herb Block
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, discussed
them with him, and given him originals of their drawings. Among
these established cartoonist were Carey Orr, Gaar Williams and the
much-loved and highly respected John T. McCutcheon, a Chicago institution.
Herb 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 work
was noted for its clean pen lines. He drew from them all in refining
a style that remains to this day clear, concise, and compelling.
Early in 1933, as Franklin Delano
Roosevelt took office amidst economic devastation, Herb Block left
the Chicago News, hired as 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," writes Herb Block in his memoirs. His Chicago
News cartoons had been syndicated nationally but now reached
a much larger number of papers. His commentary grew sharper and
more prescient through the 1930s, responding to widespread unemployment
and poverty in America and the concurrent rise of Fascism in Europe
and communist tyranny in the Soviet Union.
The Depression politicized Herb 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 recalls that "during the early days of the New
Deal I did get to see what government could do." Herb Block came
into his own during then, stirring domestic 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.
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 scheming
and dreaming of conquests and empires. And he brought their activities
to the notice of a public and politicians who, after the disillusionment
that followed War I, had turned inward to isolationism. Targeting
dictatorships, Herb Block used symbols to carry his art and his
message: a sharpened Soviet sickle poised to execute political prisoners
or a Nazi cap extinguishing the lamp of German civilization.
Herb Block was an early advocate
of aid to the allies resisting Nazi aggression, and was for measures
to prepare America for what was becoming a great world struggle.
He noted Nazi outrages, 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, Herb Block's cartoons took aim
at the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.
Fred Ferguson, president of NEA,
opposed what he called the cartoonist's "interventionism" and what
Herb Block called "anti-isolationism." Ferguson summoned him to
New York in spring 1942 to discuss their differences. "My life has
been full of very fortunate coincidences," Herb Block has 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 unappreciative
publisher speechless. His 1942 Pulitzer Prize, based on cartoons
of 1941, vindicated Herb Block's stance and solidified his reputation
as one of the country's foremost political commentators.
In early 1943, he was drafted into
the Army at the age of thirty-three. He produced cartoons and articles
and edited a "clipsheet" that was distributed throughout the Army,
until he was mustered out of the service in 1945.
He moved to Washington, hired as
an editorial cartoonist by the Washington Post to begin
work at the start of 1946. He has remained in that position ever
since, drawing daily cartoons from the nation's capital for more
than half a century. The late 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 "anticommunist era" and the damaged caused
by the reckless opportunism of McCarthy. Later, however, during
the Vietnam War, he came more and more to oppose American government's
policy, and his cartoons ran counter to the newspaper's editorial
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. Whatever the motives of some individual committee members,
he held to the view that there was something ironically wrong and
not in the American tradition about a group of congressmen setting
themselves up to decide who and what they chose to label "Un-American."
Herb Block's "instincts are common-sensical,"
according to the late Katherine Graham, former Chairman of the Washington
Post Company. His steadfast support for established values and reform
policies transcend party politics: "My feeling was best expressed
in a statement by a Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, that
the object of government is to do for people what they need to have
done but cannot do at all, or cannot do as well for themselves."
Numerous editors have attempted unsuccessfully
over the years to influence or alter his cartoons, suggesting he
take a different approach or voice a different opinion. Herb 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 Katharine Graham wrote of him, "Herb fought
for and earned a unique position at the paper: one of complete independence
of anybody and anything."
Herb Block's longevity is due in
part to the journalistic passion inspired by his father and older
brothers. Unlike many cartoonists, he chooses to work daily in his
office adjacent to the newsroom rather than draw at home or in an
isolated studio. He takes full advantage of the instant access proximity
provides to expert verification of facts and the latest news from
Washington and around the globe. Close attention to breaking news
and consultation with coworkers keeps his work fresh and his mind
open to viewing new issues.
When a drawing goes to press, however,
it is Herb Block's own, without question. Through the decades he
has remained true to certain issues and principles: supporting civil
rights measures, gun control, campaign finance reform, funding for
education and democracy for residents of the District of Columbia,
among other issues. "Taking one issue at a time and one administration
at a time and dealing with it the way you see it," is how he describes
his approach. His longtime assistant, Jean Rickard, suggests that
his parents instilled in him a strong sense of wrong and right,
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
Herb Block began addressing immediately after World War II (in advance
of virtually all other 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."
Block has been thinking about "the other guy" throughout his career.
For more than seventy years, cartoon after cartoon, day after day,
he has chronicled the best America has to offer and the worst, from
the depths of the Great Depression into a new millennium. No editorial
cartoonist in American history, not even Thomas Nast, has made a
more lasting impression on the nation than Herbert Block. His influence
has been enormous, both on his profession and the general public,
although he modestly sloughs off such praise with anecdotes. One
was about a comment related to Post publisher, Phil Graham
during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Walter Winchell told Graham
that he had come upon Senator McCarthy shaving at midday and complaining
that he had to shave twice a day on account of that guy [Herb Block]
and his cartoons. Apparently his caricatures of the senator as an
unshaven, belligerent Neanderthal in a suit found their mark. When
asked if he feels he played a role in checking McCarthy's rise to
power, Herb Block quietly responds, "I sure tried to." Richard Nixon
expressed a similar reaction to the cartoons, saying at one point
he had to "erase the Herblock image."
Humor has been one of his greatest
assets, drawing people in, encouraging them to read the cartoons
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 try 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." Herb 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?
Harry L. Katz
Prints and Photographs Division