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He Illustrated Irony

Herblock’s Cartoons Drew Truth to Power

Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham called working with editorial cartoonist Herbert Block, better known as Herblock, “like having a tiger by the tail.— Fellow cartoonist Mike Peters said, “Herblock is to editorial cartooning what sharks are to body parts.— Whatever the animal metaphor, Herblock certainly left his print on the world of editorial cartooning. A new exhibit at the Library of Congress shows 82 examples of the cartoonist’s best work starting this week, on what would have been Herblock’s 100th birthday.

Herblock was born in Chicago on Oct. 13, 1909, and began his career as a cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News in 1929. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in Chicago in 1942 and moved to the Washington Post in 1946. He stayed at the Post until he died in 2001, earning two more Pulitzers while he was there. He worked as a professional cartoonist for 72 years, holding administrations from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush accountable. Yet Herblock had a reasoned understanding of his place in the larger picture.

“As for a comparison of words and pictures — each has its role. Each is capable of saying something necessary or something irrelevant — of reaching a right conclusion or a wrong one,— he once said.

The range of necessary messages Herblock covered is wide at some points in his career and surprisingly focused in others. During World War II, Herblock was one of the few cartoonists who believed the U.S. should intervene in Europe before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, according to curator Sara Duke.

The Library devoted one section of the exhibit to his World War II cartoons. Among them is “The Policy of the United States,— a 1940 cartoon that depicts fighter planes heading east away from the Statue of Liberty and toward Europe. Another, “Psychopathic Ward,— showed the globe with a sign that read “psychopathic ward— hanging over Poland and was published on the day the Nazis invaded Poland.

Another section of the exhibit is devoted to Herblock’s disdain for the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. The cartoonist coined the term McCarthyism and expressed his strong views in cartoons such as a May 1950 look at Congressional campaigns called “Is Joe Stalin Running In All These Elections?—

Later works remained just as relevant. In the 1970s he criticized the Ford and Carter administrations’ foreign policy. In the 1979 cartoon “Hostage,— Herblock drew an American man blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back with tube coming from a gas pump labeled “U.S. Govt. Failure to End Dependence on Foreign Oil.— More than two decades later he published a similar cartoon called “Drill the Wilderness! This Is An Energy Crisis!— That cartoon showed a defiant man filling with gas an SUV labeled Monster Motors. That published in January 2001, just 10 months before the cartoonist’s death.

Herblock’s will established the Herbert Block Foundation, which supports editorial cartooning and backed this exhibit. The works in the “Herblock!— exhibit come almost entirely from the Library of Congress’ collection of 14,460 Herblock cartoons.

The exhibit accompanies the more extensive book “Herblock: The Life and Work of the Great Political Cartoonist— by Haynes Johnson and Harry Katz. Katz noted how important the exhibit is at a time when there are fewer and fewer editorial cartoonists.

“Cartoonists can say what nobody else can say, whether it’s Watergate or McCarthy,— he said. “Herblock stood up when he didn’t have to, but he could under the Constitution.—

Johnson and Katz will speak about the book in the James Madison Building at noon on Thursday. The exhibit will show in the Thomas Jefferson Building until May 1 and is open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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