Pictures of Herbert Block:
A Masterful Pen Silenced:
Political Cartoonist Herbert Block Dead at 94
By Susie Davidson
Herbert Block, otherwise known as political cartoonist extraordinaire Herblock, died this past October 7. Born on October 13, 1909 in Chicago, his family upbringing centered on art, history and politics. He inherited his writing and cartooning talents from his father, a renowned chemist who also reported for the Chicago Record; his brother Bill wrote for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun.
After high school, Herbert worked as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. He also wrote for the Tribune on contemporary issues. His father, who sent him to the Art Institute of Chicago, penned the moniker "Herblock".
Following Lake Forest College in Illinois, he was given a chance to replace a Chicago Daily News cartoonist in 1929; his academic career was over at age 19.
Block's cartoons initially reflected the right-wing slant of the 1929 Daily News. The Great Depression and his views on Herbert Hoover, however, changed the man and the pen forever. He went on to become a thorn in the side of every conservative in America.
Block moved to the Newspaper Enterprise Association in Cleveland, and during the 1930's, called attention in his cartoons to the rise of German fascism and the scourge of Adolph Hitler. Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, scheming and dreaming of conquests and empires in his works, did not escape either.
"He exposed Nazi activities," says Harry L. Katz, who curated the Library of Congress' October 2000 Herblock exhibition, "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."
He also criticized the America First Committee in its isolationism, and supported FDR's New Deal. "I had started working before the Depression," he once explained, "and was never out of a job. But an awful lot of people were, and this guy was doing something about it. It taught me that government can do the things that need to be done."
Block won his first Pulitzer Prize for cartooning in 1942, and joined the Washington Post in 1946. When he criticized Eisenhower in 1952, his cartoons were pulled; reader outcry reinstated them.
True to form, he was one of scant few cartoonists who took Joseph McCarthy on; in fact, Block was the first person to coin the term McCarthyism. Following McCarthy's terming of the Post as "the Washington edition of the Daily Worker", the steadfast Block won his second Pulitzer in 1954.
A strong believer in civil liberties," says Katz, "Block directed cartoons against the House Committee on Un-American Activities from its earliest days under Congressman Dies in the 1930's 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.'
"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.'"
When Nixon was elected, a horrified Block often quoted Barry Goldwater, who claimed that Nixon was "the most dishonest individual I ever met in my life". Block played a vital role in the exposing of the Watergate scandal; he won a third Pulitzer in 1979.
"My feelings," Block once said, "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."
But he didn't forget the gist of cartooning. "I enjoy humor and comedy," he said, "and like to get fun into the work. Humor makes it a little easier for the medicine to go down."
Attacks over Herblock's 60 year career also encompassed racial discrimination and segregation. Ted Koppel, a friend, said: "In person, Herb is the sweetest, gentlest man you could ever imagine. But put him behind a pen and something happens. His cartoons can be like a direct hit to the solar plexus."
By the 1990's, Block's cartoons were gracing 300 U.S. newspapers and magazines in the United States.
"No editorial cartoonist in American history, not even Thomas Nast," states Katz, "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 eschewed such praise with anecdotes."
Herb Block's death is a loss to the newspaper I work for, to the cartoonist's trade, to journalism, to the country. But it is most poignantly and powerfully a loss to the side of politics where Herblock took his stand, made his fights, won his daily victories. All who hared his values now have so much more work to do. And it will be much harder without him.
E.J. Dionne, Jr.