The Magazine

Washington’s Blockheads

The perpetual adulation of Herblock.

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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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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