Long-Running Graphic Commentary

HERBLOCK: A CARTOONIST'S LIFE By Herbert Block, Macmillan, 372 pp., $24.

AFTER the 1968 elections, when Richard Nixon had won despite Herblock's continuing portrayal of him as a swarthy, beetle-browed hatemonger with a ``five o'clock shadow,'' the Washington Post's publisher, Phillip Graham, was concerned that, after all, Nixon had been elected president and perhaps some respect was due.

The Post's editor, Russell Wiggins, tried a poetic approach on Herblock: ``... join the good and kind and true/ The faithful, just and brave,/ And grasp this razor in your hand,/ And give that man a shave.'' Attached to the poem was a razor.

Herblock replied: ``He's shaved with new Gillettes Schicks / Still he is the same old Nix'n.''

To get the view from the cartoonist's office, Nixon fans and nonfans will need ``Herblock: A Cartoonist's Life.'' There is commentary on World War II and other things of equal importance, but the real meat of the book is the fall of the house of Nixon.

``For political cartoonists president-watching is part of the job,'' writes Herblock.

This illustrated autobiography of the author of the most powerful and certainly the longest-running graphic commentary on American affairs is a priceless read for any student of 20th-century politics.

It's also instructive on the back-water of journalism, cartooning. Herblock says cartoonists are actually very kind people. He tells of a boy asked to give an example of his kindness to nature's creatures. ``One time,'' the boy replies, ``I kicked a boy for kicking a dog.''

``In cartooning, we often show our love for our fellow man by kicking big boys who kick underdogs,'' Herblock explains.

Well, that's on good days. But on really good days, Herblock agrees that cartooning involves showing up the purported wisdom of the governing class for the blather it really is. Whether it's Carter's ``Moral Equivalent of War'' being acronymed into MEOW or Reagan replacing Equal Opportunity with Photo Opportunity, there's nothing as delightful as seeing pretense unmasked by laughter. And having your name scribbled at the bottom of it.

Not surprisingly, Herblock is a good writer. He can quickly sketch a scene, add the characters, provide a bit of action, and reduce the dialogue to the minimum of words.

And he recognizes his own good fortune. Cartooning is the best job on the paper, and even if it isn't, most cartoonists think it is.

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