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Herblock Was One Of Most Influential Political Cartoonists In U.S. History

Audio

Aired 11/2/09

Herbert Lawrence Block, commonly known as Herblock, received the Pulitzer Prize four times during his 70 year career as a political cartoonist. We speak to Harry Katz about the new book HERBLOCK: The Life and Work of the Great Political Cartoonist. We discuss what made Block's cartoons unique, and the influence he had on politics in Washington, D.C.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS, and we're continuing our conversation with Harry Katz, former head curator in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. We’ve been talking about two new books Harry is associated with which drew heavily from the archives of the Library of Congress. We just finished our conversation about the book “Baseball Americana.” Now we’re moving on to a book called “Herblock: The Life and Work of the Great Political Cartoonist” (sic). Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Haynes Johnson and Harry Katz are co-authors. Harry, for those of us unfamiliar with Herb Block, can you start by introducing us to him?

HARRY KATZ (Literary Editor): Yes, he was a Cubs fan.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, that’s the important part.

KATZ: That’s the important part. He was born in 1909, a hundred years ago, just as the Cubs were ending their dominant decade. No, Herb Block was a remarkable individual. I knew him the last ten years of his life and worked with him. And he won four Pulitzer Prizes, the most storied and legendary of American cartoonists. He worked initially, for about – almost 20 years in Chicago and Cleveland. He was born in the Chicago area. And then he was hired in 1946 at the Washington Post when, you know, the Washington Post was just one of any number of daily newspapers in Washington. That was a time when every great city had numbers of newspapers, and we’re losing those – those papers at an astounding rate. We’re losing editorial cartoonists at an astounding rate, and one of the reasons to do this book is to remind people that editorial cartoonists are so important. They can say things that we can’t say. We can’t – You know, you can’t write dissent. You can’t write your opinion in the way that a cartoonist can draw opinion because it’s protected under the constitution. It’s a fundamental form of free speech that writers and opinion-makers don’t have. So as we lose these newspapers and cartoonists, we are losing a fundamental form of free speech in America. So it’s very critical for people to think about that.

CAVANAUGH: In addition to Herb Block’s longevity—I mean, his career spanned 75 years…

KATZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …what made his work different from other political cartoonists?

KATZ: He was so informed. He was – Although he only spent one year in college and then went on to his professional career, he read voraciously and he surrounded himself by really smart people in the newsroom. He never left the newsroom to go out, you know, and work at home or get syndicated like other cartoonists. He just – He read the Congressional Record, he was in the middle of everything in Washington, and he was one of the smartest, most perceptive people – he knew before anybody else did what was going on because of this knowledge. So that made him different, plus he was very clear – clear-headed about his opinions. He never tried to make light of things. He was just very clear about his priorities and about what was important to him and what he felt was important for our country.

CAVANAUGH: He had a very famous way of signing his cartoons, his name just as – not with two ‘B’s, with one ‘B’, just Herblock in very bold lettering. I wonder, I know this is difficult to ask but…

KATZ: Sure.

CAVANAUGH: …can you describe the style of his drawing?

KATZ: Yeah, I would say it’s very, very sort of spare and clear. He was a much better artist than he gets credit for but this – you know, he’s sort of known for these sort of corpulent capitalists and fedora-wearing congressmen. But he was actually a wonderful artist but he chose this sort of cartoony style because it was so effective. People could grasp it without any difficulty, and the important thing to – he was a journalist as much as he was a cartoonist. He was a commentator as much as he was a cartoonist. And working in the newsroom, that was the most important thing, was getting the message across and having it right and having it accurate. And that’s not always the case with cartoonists; they’re trying to be funny, they’re trying to be contemporary, you know, or hip or something else. He was trying to be right. He was trying to get the issue right and the message right, and the art was secondary. The art just had to convey the message, that was the most important thing. And he was clear and concise and to the point.

CAVANAUGH: And, again, what does the Library of Congress have to do with the political cartoonist Herb Block and his output?

KATZ: Well, I, you know, I worked with him for ten years and my job was to attract artists and creators to get their collections to the library as a curator, so it was actually kind of funny because I started working with him in ’91 and, you know, part of what I did was work with some of the leading cartoonists and convince them to give their archives or their drawings to the library. And I, you know, I looked through his file and I – the library had been trying to get his work since 1968 or 1969. I get there in ’91, I look through these folders and I see all these letters from, you know, past Librarians of Congress and past chiefs of divisions. They would write him these long letters, you know, ask – seeking desperately for his collection and he would write these short notes, thank you so much, I think that’s something I would like to do, signed Herb. And then, you know…

CAVANAUGH: Nothing.

KATZ: …30 years later, absolutely nothing. He was just so good at deflecting anything like that. But, you know, I don’t give up and he was getting on in years, and so you just keep pushing and he knew that it was time but these were his children and I was the kid taking his children. So we had a little bit of a difficult relationship but, over time, we brought the collection of his 14 or 15,000 original drawings to the Library of Congress. Many of them are online now and you can see. And then this book is – not only includes more than 200 published drawings, it also includes a DVD with 18,000 of his published drawings. It spans history. This is not just a book about his work, it’s a book about our country in the 20th century. It’s a spectacular history of politics and history.

CAVANAUGH: I did want to mention the inclusion of that DVD because that’s an astounding addition to this book. I want to ask you, among the cartoons that you chose to include in the printed version of the book…

KATZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …are there some of his most influential and, if you could, maybe describe one or two of them to us.

KATZ: Well, I’ve got to say that Herb Block was different because he – at several times—I mean, there are cartoonists who are known for standing up at a particular time with a particular cartoon that stands out—but Herb Block did that over and over again. In World War II, we talk about the greatest generation fighting in World War II, well, before World War II, Americans were not necessarily ready to fight. And Herb Block was one of those people who said, we have to fight. We have to stand up against fascism in Europe. We have to stand up against Hitler and Mussolini and if we don’t, they’re going to come over here and we’re going to be in big trouble. We have to stand up for democracy and our freedoms. And those cartoons won him his first Pulitzer Prize, and they are in the book. And against McCarthyism, he coined the phrase McCarthyism, that cartoon is in the book. He stood up against, you know, Nixon was, well, you know, a person of interest to, as I would term it, from the very beginning, from 1948 when he first came to Washington, because of the dirty tricks he pulled in his early campaigning and there are so many Nixon cartoons I can’t even pick one. You know, his free – he gave Nixon a free shave because he always depicted him with five o’clock shadow as kind of a shady guy. So we have that cartoon but then we know what happened with the free shave, it didn’t turn out so good – so well. And so time after time – And then the Watergate scandal, it, you know, that was his fourth Pulitzer Prize, which he won with other Watergate reporters for their cov – with other Post reporters for their coverage of Watergate. Time after time throughout this remark – At 90, 91, he was taking George Bush to task for the excesses during his administration of, you know, wiretapping, all of these things that he had covered back in the fifties and forties. I mean, it was all coming back to haunt the American people, all the things that had happened before. One of the things that you find in the book is all the troubles we’ve been going through with the recession, with – and, you know, they all happened during the depression and you’ll see in this book, these amazing cartoons that Herb Block was penning back then. You see the same issues coming back now. It’s an incredible reflection on what happens in American history.

CAVANAUGH: It is sort of a snapshot of the entire – oh, at least half a century through the mind of one well-informed, talented man.

KATZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder if we do not have political cartoonists like Herb Block in the future, what will we be losing?

KATZ: You will be losing watchdogs. What you are losing is informed opinion that tells you what’s going on behind the scenes and gives you a heads up on what to expect down the road because, you know, if, you know, if you don’t know history, you’re, you know, condemned to repeat it, as Santa Ana said. And that’s the sad part, is that we keep making the same mistakes. And politicians, you know, there are good ones and there are bad ones and we need people out there who can help us root out the bad ones and make us see what we’re faced with. And people like Herb Block, there are precious few. They are out there but they are precious few, and we need – we need them out there working for us, working on our behalf. Herb Block, more than a partisan politician or, you know, an ideologue, somebody who’s going to be speaking from one opinion or another, was really trying to help make this a better place and a better country.

CAVANAUGH: We’ve been speaking about the new book “Herblock: The Life and Work of the Great Political Cartoonist,” compiled by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Haynes Johnson and by my guest, Harry Katz. Harry, thank you so much for coming and talking to us about both of these great books.

KATZ: It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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