Block, Herbert Lawrence ("Herblock")

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BLOCK, Herbert Lawrence ("Herblock")

(b. 13 October 1909 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 7 October 2001 in Washington, D.C.), one of the foremost American political cartoonists of the twentieth century; throughout the 1960s the widely syndicated cartoons of the four-time Pulitzer Prize winner documented a political scene that passed from the peace of the Eisenhower years through the turmoil of the Vietnam War, while never overlooking the many unfolding controversies within American society.

The youngest son of David Julian Block, a chemical engineer, and Theresa "Tessie" Lupe, a homemaker, Block grew up on Chicago's far north side with his two brothers. Demonstrating artistic talent early, Block received a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at age twelve, and while attending Nicholas Senn High School he began contributing cartoons to suburban newspapers under the pen name of "Herblock," which he continued to use throughout his career. After graduating from Senn in 1927, he attended Lake Forest College for two years, where he studied English and political science before dropping out to become an editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News newspaper in 1929. His first illustration, on forestry conservation, appeared in the News on 24 April 1929.

In 1933 Block became a syndicated editorial cartoonist for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) in Cleveland, where he remained for ten years. During that period he supported such domestic issues as the New Deal, anti-smoking, and government funding of the arts, while also maintaining an ongoing stream of cartoons that warned of the approaching dangers posed by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the German dictator Adolf Hitler, Japan, and Italy. After receiving his first Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1942, Block entered the U.S. Army in 1943, where he rose to the rank of sergeant in the Information and Education Division.

Leaving military service at the end of 1945, Block joined the struggling Washington Post newspaper in January 1946 as an editorial cartoonist; his work at the Post would eventually be syndicated in more than 300 newspapers. Block worked for the Post for the next fifty-five years. During his first decade in Washington, Block continued to gain recognition as one of the foremost political cartoonists in the United States, winning a second Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for a drawing of Stalin, although his support of Adlai Stevenson's 1952 presidential bid brought him into serious conflict with the Post's publisher. He was a firm opponent of Senator Joseph McCarthy's conduct while in quest of Communist conspirators, and Block is credited with coining the phrase "McCarthyism" in a cartoon that appeared on 29 March 1950.

After recovering from a heart attack in late 1959, Block returned to work in January 1960. He originally supported Hubert Humphrey for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination but eventually came to respect John F. Kennedy, although he was never particularly friendly with Kennedy's brother Robert, who became attorney general. Richard M. Nixon's recognition of the cartoonist's influence was such that the Republican candidate believed that erasing, in the minds of voters, Block's artistic image of Nixon as an unshaven and suspicious-looking character was a key to the 1960 election. After Kennedy won the presidency, Block criticized him occasionally on some issues; one of his best-known cartoons appeared on 1 November 1962 and portrayed Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev struggling to contain the "monster" of nuclear war.

Block displayed mixed attitudes toward President Lyndon B. Johnson, but his artwork definitely expressed support for Johnson's efforts in the 1960s on behalf of programs such as civil rights, the Great Society, and the War on Poverty. One of his most well-known pieces on civil rights, entitled "House Divided," appeared on 5 March 1968, and his ongoing editorial commentary in the 1960s included societal concerns such as gun control, aid to education, antismoking, and environmental protection. In recognition of Block's support on these many issues, he was commissioned by Postmaster General Lawrence O'Brien in 1966 to design the United States commemorative stamp in honor of the 175th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.

Block's commentary on gun control escalated in 1968, fueled in part by the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. On 20 March 1968 he released his well-known cartoon entitled "Shooting Gallery," which pictured American citizens as the targets in the gallery. His most controversial cartoon was in 1968; entitled "The Vote to Kill," it listed the names of eighteen senators who had voted against a gun control bill. The cartoon drew protests from the U.S. Congress and the National Rifle Association.

Throughout the 1960s Block, initially a "hawk" on the Vietnam War, increasingly questioned President Johnson's conduct of the war and his growing hostility toward the press and other critics. A low point in their relationship came when Johnson was extremely angered by the cartoon "Happy Days on the Old Plantation" on 30 June 1965, in which Block contradicted the White House public-relations efforts to portray the president as a sensitive, cultivated, and warm-hearted man.

The political journalist Walter Lippmann's criticism of the war also came under attack from Johnson. In 1967 Block wrote an article for the Post in which he defended Lippmann; a cartoon showing an angered president hurling lightning bolts at the journalist accompanied the article. Block's questioning of the war was highlighted by cartoons that showed Johnson on an upward-bound Vietnam escalator (17 June 1965), Uncle Sam neck-deep in a forbidding swamp called Asia (28 January 1968), and a beleaguered general in Vietnam still pumping out favorable news dispatches from his destroyed headquarters (1 February 1968).

Despite his criticisms of Johnson, Block dreaded the ascendancy of Richard M. Nixon to the presidency in 1969. The cartoonist's distrust of Nixon dated back to the late 1940s, and one of Block's most famous works had appeared on 29 October 1954, depicting a suitcase-touting Nixon emerging from an open sewer. Block continued to criticize the war, including the apparent contradiction in Nixon's planning to win the war while also building an undisclosed peace plan, and these criticisms would eventually include the escalation of the bombing in Cambodia in 1971. He regularly attacked Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew for their attempts to censor the war news, and Agnew once denounced the cartoonist as a "master of sick invective." Block continued to produce editorial cartoons into the 1970s on the conduct of the war, and he was one of the most active commentators on the unfolding scandals of the Nixon administration, including Watergate.

Over the next three decades Block continued to cover the administrations of several more presidents, during which time he received numerous awards in recognition of his place among the U.S.'s most important and influential political commentators of the twentieth century. These honors included winning his third individual Pulitzer Prize for cartooning in 1979, after he had shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 as a member of the Washington Post team covering the Watergate scandal. Block also received a total of five honorary degrees as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President William J. Clinton in 1994. A very private person with a gentle and unassuming personality, Block never married. His last cartoon appeared on 26 August 2001, and while on vacation he contracted pneumonia and passed away at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., at the age of ninety-one.

Block's work is on permanent exhibit in the Rosenwald Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Some of his original drawings are gifted to the Library of Congress. Between 1952 and the end of his career Block wrote twelve books, liberally illustrated with political cartoons, including his autobiography, Herblock: A Cartoonist's Life (1993). Further autobiographical material can be found in an article by Block, "Five Decades of Herblock," in the Washington Post (31 Dec. 1995), in which he reviewed the political highlights of his career with the newspaper. David Von Drehl, "Humility Through a Well-Founded Confidence," Washington Post (8 Oct. 2001), reviews Block's career. Obituaries are in the Washington Post and New York Times (both 8 Oct. 2001); The Economist (13 Oct. 2001); and U.S. News and World Report (22 Oct. 2001).

Raymond Schmidt