"Political cartoons, unlike sundials, do not show the brightest hours, they often show the darkest ones, in the hope of helping us to move on to brighter times," Herbert Block once wrote in describing the work of editorial cartoonists.
Beginning today, on what would have been Block's 100th birthday, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., will pay tribute to him in a retrospective exhibition. It will include 82 original drawings never before displayed.
"He was the great cartoonist, the most famous in the country and had an enormous influence," said journalist Haynes Johnson, who is the author of "HERBLOCK: The Life and Work of the Great Political Cartoonist," which will be released in conjunction with the opening of the exhibit.
"He relentlessly attacked the gun lobby, segregationists, government secrecy, abuses of power, religious bigots, sexism, racism, and, always, public hypocrisy wherever and whenever it arose," writes Johnson in the opening of the book. "At the same time he ardently fought for civil liberties, for the poor and the oppressed. He always stood for the underdog, and for the everyman and everywoman among us trapped in, or frustrated by, the ever more complicated nature of modern life."
"He would come around almost every day, in my office in that 'aw shucks' manner, and he'd hand out something extraordinary. Late in the afternoon, 5 p.m. deadline coming up, and he had given you concepts for the cartoon the next morning," said Johnson. "It was a great tribute that he would ask your opinion; you were proud if Herb wanted your opinion."
His greatest influence on history may have come in 1950, when he was the first to coin the term "McCarthyism." A little-known freshman Senator Joseph McCarthy captured the nation's attention with his claim that he had a list of known Communists working for the State Department, a scare tactic that would later backfire. Block was not afraid to call it as he saw it.
"A couple of days after McCarthy gave his first speech, Herb drew a cartoon that is incredibly prescient," said Johnson, describing a cartoon in which GOP senators are forcing a reluctant elephant to mount a tower labeled "McCarthyism." "Now in the dictionary, and he had the sense to capture it right away, and it's now part of our language and our culture."