Herbert Block—better known by the pseudonym “Herblock”—was not the most visually imaginative or bitingly satirical American editorial cartoonist of the 20th century. That was Paul Conrad, who had the honor of being the only member of his profession to make Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” Nor was he the funniest, or the most influential in terms of inspiring imitators: Both Pat Oliphant and the late Jeff MacNelly have him beat there.
But from his perch at the Washington Post, which he held onto from his discharge from the U. S. Army in 1956 until his death in the fall of 2001, Herblock created and sustained a sort of perfect image of the ideal op-ed cartoonist: Intelligent and sane with no ax to grind. Capable of communicating a point of view and putting across an idea in a few bold strokes, he could draw blood when necessary but was basically humane. One of the talking heads who appears in HBO’s documentary profile of Herb Block calls the cartoons he drew for the Post the op-ed page’s “anchor of moral thought.”
The documentary itself begins dismayingly, with an unseen woman asking Herblock—played by an actor, Alan Mandell—to explain just what the hell it is that he does. Mandell, who’s seated at a desk in a mock-up of what former Post editor Ben Bradlee calls “the messiest office I’ve ever seen in my life”—appears throughout the film, and his speeches are supposedly drawn from Block’s own words. If Block truly said some of these things, hopefully he sounded less taken with his own robust corniness.
What makes Herblock—The Black & The White worth checking out is the handy gallery of the master’s cartoons, a selection cherry-picked from an enormous body of work. (Herblock originally contracted with the Post to supply a cartoon a day, seven days a week.) They add up to a remarkable record of a thoughtful, sensible man’s list of concerns over the course of the second half of the century. Although the interviewees all attest to Block’s childlike sweet nature, he was really good at deciding whom he ought to hate. One famous Herblock cartoon offered a free shave to newly elected President Nixon—whom Block rendered for years with the thick 5 o’clock shadow of a cattle rustler in a B-Western—as a way of saying that the office of the presidency mattered more than long-standing animosities. The beard on Herblock’s Nixon caricature had grown back by the beginning of 1969; being capable of an honorable gesture didn’t make Herblock a sucker.
More impressive than his taste in bad guys was the gut instinct that made it possible for Herblock to seem ahead of the “real” journalists. Carl Bernstein, one of the many Washington Post all-stars who appear in the documentary, marvels at the fact that Herblock was doing cartoons tracing Watergate back to the Oval Office when Bernstein himself was still thinking it was probably the work of rogue CIA agents. A few years earlier, at a time when Lyndon Johnson was still publicly expressing confidence that the Vietnam War was going swell, Herblock drew him hopelessly, and knowingly, sunk in the morass of an un-winnable conflict. As Bradlee and others point out, those images perfectly mirror opinions Johnson wouldn’t make public for decades.
The Black & The White is overflowing with journalists singing Herblock’s praises; it’s a shame their faces and voices are taking up space that could have been filled with more cartoons. Some bypass sentimental tributes and proceed directly to self-parody: Thomas Friedman, who seems not to have actually seen any of Herblock’s work, chummily insists that the old boy was driven to do such a great job because of his need to protect our “incredible free market” economy. Fox News’ Brit Hume pouts that Herblock never drew a single image that was unflattering to Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. (Cut to a cartoon showing Clinton sternly lecturing an audience while standing at a podium with his pants around his ankles.)
The only eulogist who livens up the party is Jules Feiffer, who admiringly says that Herblock was “a classic liberal, which was replaced by pussy liberals,” adding that Americans don’t turn against wars for moral reasons: “We find a moral reason when we discover that we’re not gonna win this sucker.” Feiffer is 84, which is seven years younger than Herblock when he died. Somebody needs to go to Kickstarter this minute and start raising the money to make his feature documentary while he’s still around to speak his own dialogue.
Directed by: Michael Stevens
Debuts: Monday, on HBO at 9:00 pm
Format: Feature documentary