The Magazine

Washington’s Blockheads

The perpetual adulation of Herblock.

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Herblock: The Black & the White, a documentary about the editorial cartoonist Herbert Block, had its cable premiere on HBO last week, and we can expect repeated showings for many weeks to come, creating a low-buzz Herblockfest interspersed dizzily among re-airings of Girls

Henry Payne

A January 1996 Weekly Standard parody of a Herblock cartoon, by Henry Payne

Henry Payne

Block died in 2001, at the age of 91. Why the programmers at HBO think their youngish, modish, post-literate viewers will be interested in his life and work is anyone’s guess. But there it is: more than an hour and a half of one newspaper cartoon after another, with voiceovers from one Washington swell after another, testifying to what the Washington Post, in its review, called Block’s “uncanny sense of moral clarity.” 

The Post was Block’s professional home for 55 years, so its reviewers have to say stuff like that. It’s certainly true that the documentary itself possesses a kind of clarity, and it would be a shame if younger viewers kept away merely because the show is a boring treatment of a subject they don’t care about. The Black & the White is fit for a time capsule. It offers a pristine view of a phase of Washington culture that, we can hope, is slowly drawing to a close.

For many years the house style of TV documentarians was borrowed from Ken Burns. No matter the subject, a sensitive viewer would have to run to the bathroom and crouch in the tub to avoid the elegiac music, the slow fades to black, the experts opining in half light, the phlegmy rumble of the narrator, the autumnal footage of sunsets and sunrises reflected in glistening lakes and streams. Who knew that we would come to miss it? Nowadays TV documentarians take the History Channel as their model. What this means, aside from the absence of the narrator and a jerkiness in pacing, is dramatization: hired actors recreating the kind of scenes that Burns was content to leave more or less to the viewers’ imagination.

And so, on HBO, we must have young Herbert and his pudgy pa—filmed in black and white, to make it look authentic—huddled in the streets of 1920s Chicago; then Herb, still in black and white, as a young cartoonist-on-the-make at the Chicago Daily News; and finally, aged Herb in his office at the Post, in color at last. Aged Herb is acted by a man called Adam Mandell. He recites lines transcribed from Block’s books and press interviews. He looks a lot like Block, but not as much as Block did. The rules for the new house style must be strict indeed if the documentarians had to hire an actor rather than just use readily available footage from the cartoonist’s many C-SPAN interviews. And it doesn’t help that Mandell reads his lines from a teleprompter. He looks like he’s following the bouncing ball on Sing Along with Mitch.

But Mandell isn’t the star of this show anyway. Neither, oddly, is Herblock. The stars are the real-life personages who pop up to attest to Block’s greatness—his irreverence, his bottomless imagination, his moral courage in taking on the powerful and damn the consequences. They make quite a gallery, these personages. Aside from a pair of show-biz stars, Jon Stewart and the comedian Lewis Black, they are cave dwellers of the Washington/New York media racket, what’s left of it. Most of them are face-famous, of course, and instantly recognizable, but you can also tell their stature from the things they actually make themselves say. 

“It was as if Jesus himself were walking around the newsroom,” says Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker.

“He wasn’t afraid of anybody,” says CBS’s Bob Schieffer. “He’d take all of ’em on.”

“He was one of the most important journalists of our era,” says the Post’s Eugene Robinson.

“He could see the future in a way that nobody else could,” says Marilyn Berger, an old Postie.

A Herblock cartoon, says Tom Brokaw, “was like a punch in the face.”

“You didn’t want to be Herblock’s enemy,” says Ted Koppel. “He’d nail your hide to the wall.”

“Herb exposed hypocrisy,” says Bob Woodward. 

“Herb was the conscience of the country,” says Roger Rosenblatt. 

He was “irreverent,” “fearless,” “willing to offend”—so much a renegade indeed that he won three Pulitzer Prizes, got syndicated to 1,800 newspapers, mounted exhibitions of his work at the Library of Congress, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is a special kind of renegade.

But still they go on: “He gave voice to the voiceless .  .  . punctured pomposity .  .  . speaks to the best in us .  .  .” And here they keep coming: Ben Bradlee, Thomas Friedman, Jim Hoagland, Carl Bernstein, Richard Cohen, Mark Shields .  .  .

And just when you’re thinking, Jeez, where the hell is Michael Bes—there he is! Michael Beschloss, talking about LBJ!

Herblock, Beschloss says, always drew Lyndon B. Johnson with large ears. Partly this was because LBJ had large ears. But the large ears were also what tipped you off that this was a cartoon about LBJ. Otherwise you might not have guessed. Block couldn’t really make a drawing look like a particular person; you learned to identify a Herblock caricature of, say, Gerald Ford, not because it resembled Gerald Ford but because it looked like Herblock’s Gerald Ford caricature. He used a kind of shorthand: Richard Nixon was always unshaven, Ronald Reagan was wrinkly beneath a silly pompadour, Jimmy Carter had buck teeth, Truman had glasses .  .  . It must have made his job vastly easier.

This is a point that the documentarians and the cave dwellers conspicuously avoid, and sometimes deny outright: Block had only the most rudimentary talent for drawing. You’d think this would be a deal-killer for a cartoonist hoping to make a living, much less rise to the top of his trade, as Herblock did. But he found a couple ways around his deficiency. One was prose: Since he couldn’t capture things or ideas or persons through his draftsmanship, he would label them, with as much specificity and as many words as he thought were needed. A common gag from Block’s prime—too subversive to catch the attention of the cave dwellers—went like this:

“Did you see Herblock today?” 

“No, I was in a hurry. I only had time to skim it.”

I think Joseph Sobran of National Review was the first to commit this joke to print. Sobran claimed to have counted an astonishing 87 words in a single Herblock cartoon, making it nearly a third as long as the Gettysburg Address. The number is perfectly plausible, even to judge by the cartoons the documentary itself shows as evidence of his skill. 

Thick-lined, weighed down with gray masses, the drawings lumber across the screen, and you have to hit the pause button if you want to read any one of them. Dickensian waifs get labeled “school needs” or “urban needs” or “needs of the poor” or “unmet needs.” Businessmen (“Big Business”) chomp cigars while four bandits appear labeled, respectively, “gun lobby,” “cigarette commercials,” “drug industry practices,” and “auto industry.” Vampire bats sweep across a skyline, their bellies covered in writing: “takeover tactics,” “raiders,” “greenmail specialists,” “junk bond finances,” and “stock manipulations.” (This must be Wall Street!) And there’s always a caption, too, another 15 or 20 words. “If you don’t get my meaning,” Block seems to be saying to his reader, “I’m going to make you sit here until you do.”

It was his politics, mostly, that lifted Herblock above his lack of technical skill to the Pulitzers and the medals and the honorary degrees. His ideas were as simple as his draftsmanship, and perfectly matched to the prejudices of the powerful journalists he hoped to please. The Post reviewer lists his big issues: “fascism, war, the bomb [presumably against], the environment, civil rights, lobbying reform [presumably for].” He didn’t get much more complicated than that. The crudity of his politics and the crudity of his draftsmanship were intimately connected. 

“He was instructive by nature,” says Roger Rosenblatt, in one of the movie’s few instances of understatement. No one will doubt it. Why such a man would choose a trade that relies on subtlety and humor is another question the documentary can’t answer. He should have been a Wobbly, a sergeant in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a trade-union organizer, perhaps a professor of peace studies in a sweater vest, teaching junior college extension classes to immigrants and retirees. 

Instead he became court jester to a class of complacent and powerful people who pretended to value the outrageous, the irreverent, the fearless. In the end Herblock’s only genuine qualification was that he hated the right people. Every court gets the Fool it deserves.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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