(Pictures above and below, courtesy of Clif at flickr.com.)
One of the leading editorial cartoonists of our times, Herb Block was sharply satirical in his comments on the political scene and had a great deal of influence on thought and beliefs. His politics tended to be liberal, and he regularly drew Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon – among others – in uncomplimentary fashion.
Herb Block started drawing at a precocious age, began taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago when he was eleven. He adopted the “Herblock” signature in high school. After graduating in 1927, he attended Lake Forest College for almost two years. Block moved to Cleveland in 1933 to become the staff cartoonist for Newspaper Enterprise Association, a feature syndicate that distributed his cartoons nationally. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1942, then spent two years in the Army doing cartoons and press releases. Upon his discharge Block was hired as the chief editorial cartoonist for The Washington Post, working there until his death 55 years later. His personal assistant for 44 years was Jean Rickard, who was Executive Director of The Herb Block Foundation for its first 10 years. He never married, and, in the Post’s employee index, he listed his address and place of residence as simply “The Washington Post“.
While in high school and then in college he began drawing some cartoons for the Evanston News-Index, mainly for the pleasure of being published. Toward the end of his second year at Lake Forest, he took some of these published cartoons and some unpublished ones to theChicago Daily News hoping to get a summer job. The editor who looked at them said they would get in touch if they had anything. A few days later they phoned and asked Block to come in. An editorial page cartoonist was leaving the city and they could give him a try. He started Monday and never went back to school.
When Herb Block died in October 2001, he left $50 million with instructions to create a foundation to support charitable and educational programs that help promote and sustain the causes he championed during his 72 years of cartooning. The Herb Block Foundation awarded its first grants and the annual Herblock Prize in editorial cartooning in 2004. The Herb Block Foundation is committed to defending the basic freedoms guaranteed all Americans, combating all forms of discrimination and prejudice and improving the conditions of the poor and underprivileged through the creation or support of charitable and educational programs with the same goals. The Foundation is also committed to improving educational opportunities to deserving students through post-secondary education scholarships and to promoting editorial cartooning through continuing research.
He always insisted on total editorial independence, regardless of whether or not his cartoons agreed with the Post’s stance on political issues. He focused most of his attacks on those public figures in power, often on Republican figures, but Democrats who displeased him were not immune from criticism. As an example—despite being an ardent admirer of Franklin Roosevelt—he found it necessary to attack the president’s 1937 court-packing scheme.
During the 1950s, Herblock criticized Eisenhower mainly for insufficient action on civil rights and for not curbing the abuses of Senator McCarthy. In the following decade, he attacked the US war effort in Vietnam, causing President Johnson to drop his plans of awarding the cartoonist with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. The cartoonist would eventually be awarded this honor by Bill Clinton in 1994.
Some of Herblock’s finest cartoons were those attacking the Nixon Administration during the Watergate Scandal, winning him his third Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Nixon canceled his subscription to the Post after Herblock drew him crawling out of an open sewer in 1954. He had once used the same motif for Senator McCarthy. He also ended up on the president’s infamous enemies list. In the 1980s and 1990s, he satirized and criticized Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton in addition to taking on the issues of the day: Gun control; abortion; the influence of fundamentalist Christian groups on public policy; and the Dot Com bubble. The tobacco industry was a favorite target of Herblock, who had smoked at one time. He gave it up and had criticized cigarette companies even before that.
The strong stance for upright politics that Herblock always showed would have been sadly out of place in the present day Washington Post that he honored with his presence in its better days.
While cartoons may not technically be considered fine art, the use of humor that Herblock brought to bear on the political scene was fine and we have a better world for it.