HERBERT LAWRENCE BLOCK would probably not like to be called a national treasure.
But he does have innumerable fans and a list of honors and attainments after his name that goes on and on. With 10 books, seven honorary degrees, three Pulitzer Prizes, even a stamp designed commemorating the 175th anniversary of the Bill of Rights for the United States Post Office, what is left for this octogenarian to accomplish?
What's left is the hardest and best part of all - a daily cartoon that will cut to the issue, anger some and delight more, and be reasonably fair and historically accurate. It should be appropriately disrespectful and, if at all possible, funny. And after a period of recuperation from surgery, Mr. Block - better known as Herblock - resumed doing exactly that last month at the Washington Post. He's done it at that paper since 1946.
Herblock and the Washington Post have had a longstanding mutual loyalty society. The editors have stuck by him through the years, allowing him to draw cartoons with which they disagreed editorially.
For example, they supported Eisenhower and he supported Stevenson. They supported the early Vietnam efforts by the United States and he didn't. And he stuck with the paper, back when it was barely a player in the capital city, despite other offers (including one in the 1950s to become a co-editor of the New York Post).
It's unusual that the Washington Post's management made this room for a cartoonist's opinions, since many editors, more in the past than currently, see the cartoon as an extension of the publisher's policy. To disagree is to volunteer for the what Herblock calls Tomb of the Unknown Cartoonist. But he always stuck to his own opinion; not vehemently, but ardently, under a thin veneer of humor.
And he's had some good fortune. Early in his career, as the Nazi war machine was rolling across Europe, the news service he worked for was owned by Scripps-Howard. The editors disagreed with his pro-Roosevelt, anti-isolationist cartoons. They threatened his job, played tricks with his artwork, planned to run them smaller (since, they said, Roosevelt had called on the country to save paper), and finally called him in for a full confrontation. While he waited to be fired or worse, a phone call came in that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for that year. Scripps managers never offered congratulations, but they did send a telegram that said, ``Resume drawing cartoons full size.''
Herblock has lived in a comfortably cramped and happily disheveled row house in Georgetown for the past 30 years, circulating among the pols and powerbrokers of Washington at parties and ceremonies. He's met every president, except Reagan, and has been able to talk eye to eye with nearly every important and self-important person in American affairs.
But none of this seems to have had the usual inflationary effect. If anything, it may have made the job harder, since the more you know of the difficulty of governing intelligently, the harder it is to lambaste elected officials for their failures. Hard, but not impossible.
Herblock grew up in Chicago, coming of age in the 1920s; his father was Jewish and his mother Roman Catholic, though religion was a personal choice by the time Herb, the youngest of three brothers, came of age. His father was a chemist, who invented, among other things, a chemical compound that cleared the effects of stink bombs in movie theaters. This invention impressed his sons greatly. Grateful theater-chain owners gave the family passes to the movies. But despite this obvious benefit from applied science, none of his brothers even thought about becoming chemists.
``From as early as I can remember,'' he says, ``we were attracted to newspapers.''
The Block brothers began writing paragraphs to be included in what was called the ``Contributors' Column'' in the Chicago Tribune. His brother Rich signed his Rumba, from his initial RMB, and Herb signed Herblock. The name was recognized by the Chicago Daily News when he later applied for a cartooning job, and so it stuck.
That was in 1929. That means Herblock has been cartooning for 64 years. Herbert Hoover was president when he began. Hitler was just another German politician. Women had only recently gotten the vote. Most cities, including Washington, had streetcars and gas lamps.
Life seemed easier, pleasanter, more humane. Newspapers were careful of the sensibilities of their readers. But behind a respectable veneer, the country, and its capital city, also had institutionalized racial and gender prejudice. Black Americans were not welcome in hotels in the city where the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. Even the National Press Club restricted women reporters to its banquet-hall balcony. Cartoonists start at the top
From those times to the present is a span of nearly incomprehensible change in public opinion, in American personal life, and in the reporting of the news. And it's fair to say that no one else has been a steady commentator on the politics of the country and the world longer than Herblock.
Reporters become editors and editors become executives, and their sense of history gets further and further from the daily pages. But cartoonists are in line for no promotion. The entry level job is the top job in the field. They start each day the same way, by reading the papers. The news and their perspective is about all they have to go on.
In all the years, Herblock reflects, ``nothing has changed things more than television.'' There are fewer papers now, but public opinion is actually broader. In fact, he recalls that ``when there were six newspapers in Washington, people bought the one they agreed with, and kept buying it.'' Appealing to a wider audience, today's newspapers, like television, give more sides of a situation. Washington institution
But some of the situations and politicians seem to stand out as made for cartoonists. Herblock was no fan of the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy, portraying him as jowly and mean-visaged. Richard Nixon was another target who called for more pressure on the pencil.
Now Herblock is a Washington institution. ``I like the city,'' he says. ``I feel at home here.'' Yet he agrees with the observation that Washington has the charm of the North and the efficiency of the South.
Like most cartoonists, he enjoys watching a newspaper reader on a morning bus get to the editorial page and react to the cartoon. But in Washington, ``many of them were government officials.''
No one underrates Herblock more than the man himself, and not disingenuously. He enjoys the irony in the different ways his work is received. One time he asked the engravers to send back to him the actual metal printing plate of a cartoon he was especially proud of. The engravers sent it up, carefully wrapped so the plate would not be damaged, in the cartoon itself.
He so rarely calls attention to himself as an artist or commentator that the one time he did stands out in American journalism. The cartoon showed his desk and a barber pole, the caption promising to give Nixon a shave after his reelection.
For him, the facts and the record create the cartoon. But it is hard to keep him talking about his own work; he'd rather schmooze about politicians and journalists. Nor does he dwell, except in his latest book (see review, Page 12) on the past.
In all of Herblock's work, there is a sense that, as bad as things are, we can still get out of this. He is a hopeful man. The worst men portrayed in his work are aberations, and in their extremes of cupidity and dishonesty, they are mostly fools.
And asked to evaluate his own work over the years, he says, ``Well, I think my drawing has gotten better.''