Herblock: Cartoonist Who Coined 'McCarthyism' Honored at Library of Congress

HerblockThe Library of Congress

"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.

A Pulitzer prize-winning artist and newsman, he called himself Herblock. Many believed his cartoons, produced over a period of 72 years, provided society with a moral compass in trying times.

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.

The book, edited by Harry L. Katz, celebrates the nearly 15,000 cartoons composed by Block throughout his lifetime and strives to examine his impact on society as both a cartoonist and social critic.

"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."

Johnson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, first met Block in the late 1950s, before working with him at the Washington Post beginning in 1969.

"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."

The Term 'McCarthyism'

Herblock left his mark on all manner of topics -- from the stock market crash at the beginning of the Great Depression, up to the beginning of the 21st century.

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."

Herblock's Legacy

Frank Swoboda, a former journalist and the current president of the Herb Block Foundation, says it was Herblock's tenacity that allowed him to have a similar influence on the Watergate scandal.

"On Watergate he has a cartoon that shows the White House, and it showed footprints going up to the White house and coming out of the White House. It was only about two weeks after Watergate broke that he in his mind established that the White House was involved and he was the first to do that and it was much to the discomfort of the Grahams," said Swoboda, referring to Philip and Katharine Graham, the publishers of the Washington Post. "Many of the issues that he was challenging in the '40s and '50s, you could rerun the cartoons today and they would still be relevant."

Herblock's first cartoon was drawn in April of 1929. He did his last in August of 2001, not long before he died. He covered 13 presidents.

After Block's death, both Johnson and Swoboda were part of a group that inherited a seat on the board of the Herb Block Foundation. Block laid out the terms of the foundation in his will, unbeknownst to those named to run the organization.

"Herb had left money for a foundation, and my name was the first on the list, and that was the greatest honor I had ever had in my life," Johnson said, recalling his awe when he learned Block left $50 million to the foundation. "It was all from Washington Post stock, which, when he came to the Post, Mr. Meyer -- Katharine Graham's father -- the paper wasn't making money so he gave stock to everybody. We had printers that became millionaires."

The Making of a Legend

Born in Chicago in 1909, Block was encouraged by his father to start drawing. When it was clear he had talent, his father suggested he take the byline Herblock, and the pen name stuck.

"Block was raised by a family that emphasized the need to look out for the less fortunate," says Sara Duke, curator of the Popular and Applied Graphic Art Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. "He was the youngest child. His father was a chemist, his mother -- as typical for that generation -- was a stay-at-home mom, and they imparted strong values in him, and those values are expressed in his cartoons: look out for the little guy."

Herblock won Pulitzer Prizes in 1942, 1954, 1979 and shared a fourth in 1973 with the staff of the Washington Post -- including reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- for their work on the Watergate scandal.

The Exhibition

The Library of Congress' exhibition, organized in part by Duke, chronicles Block's art beginning in 1929, when he was working for the Chicago Daily News and the Newspaper Enterprise Association Service.

The display then takes the public through WWII, the Cold War, the civil rights era, and all of the presidents between Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush.

The exhibit ends with what Herblock termed Bush's "stolen victory" of the presidency in 2000. The cartoon shows a man running from a building labeled "Vote Here" with "The Election" under his arm -- and ducking into a getaway car with the license plate "U.S. Supreme Court 5-4."

Duke says Herblock's artwork also changed in style over time.

"In his early years he followed the Midwestern type of cartooning -- pen-and-ink style, roundish, tends to be very cartoony -- and within a decade, it had matured into a style we recognize today, strident use of ink brush, strong use of graphite, the curve of white accent," she said. "He hit his stride in the late 1930s, and I don't ever think he lost that voice, that need, the compulsion to speak his mind...to be forceful and to hit the nail on the head months before most people knew it was going on."

Block's ability to confront the issues of the time, and his longevity in the field, allowed him to leave a mark on history.

"He was absolutely fearless, and you wouldn't know that, to know the man who was outwardly a very gentle soul, and tough as nails," says Swoboda. "He has left an indelible mark on 20th century of the United States -- because of his perception and his tenacity in being a champion of the people against the power structure."

The exhibition at the Library of Congress is open to the public Oct. 13 - May 1, 2010. Admission is free.

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