“If someone had said, ‘Alright, what do you think that guy does for a living?’ You know, I might have said ‘Vermont pharmacist.’ But I certainly wouldn’t have said, ‘The most feared editorial cartoonist in the country.’” – Ted Koppel
This feature documentary traces the life, times and influence of Herbert Block, whose career as an editorial cartoonist spanned over 70 remarkable years. Block’s legacy is revealed through reflections from fellow journalists (from both print and television), backstories involving many of his iconic cartoons, and Block’s own words, as spoken through an
actor portraying the artist in a recreated Washington Post office overflowing with sketch pads and pens.
A precarious child, Block grew up in Chicago and learned to draw from his father, an inventor, who suggested he combine his first and last names into a single “Herblock” signature. The young Block started taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago at the age of 11, winning an award at 12. He published his first cartoon in the Chicago Daily News in 1929, and soon established a reputation for challenging sacred cows of all kinds.
He won a Pulitzer Prize (the first of three) in 1942, and his scathing caricatures of Adolf Hitler accurately portended the atrocities of WWII.
After a stint in the Army, Block joined The Washington Post, where his reputation soared, his cartoons became syndicated, and his voice became, according to Roger Rosenblatt, “the conscience of the country.”
Over his 55-year Post career, Block worked tirelessly to meet his self-imposed quota: one cartoon, five days a week. Unlike print journalists whose columns could be dismissed or ignored, Block’s cartoons were the focal point of the paper’s editorial section, and his images spoke to his readers in an immediate, visceral way. He could not be swayed by power or politics, refusing to back down to Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whom he depicted as a boozing bully, or Richard Nixon, whose connection to Watergate was presciently depicted in early cartoons (he shared a fourth Pulitzer with the Post for its work on Watergate). Even presidents he admired (Ike, LBJ, Carter, Clinton) weren’t spared when Herblock felt they failed to live up to their promises or the standards of the office. Above all, Block’s cartoons showed his affection and affinity for the common man, and helped shape public opinion about Civil Rights, nuclear weapons, poverty, education, cigarettes and gun control.
Friends and colleagues remember hardly ever seeing Block outside the office; Marilyn Berger recalls that, “He gave his home address in The Washington Post directory as ‘The Washington Post.’” Though his cartoons caused peers to warn each other, “Don’t mess with Herb,” he was in fact quite approachable, often seeking out colleagues to gauge their reaction to versions of a new cartoon. He had a long relationship with a colleague, Doree Lovell, and loved going to the beach and riding his three-wheel bike (he never learned to drive) to the hardware store.
Herb Block died a few weeks after 9/11; his last cartoon had been published in August. Shortly after his funeral at the National Cathedral, it was learned that he had willed $60 million to start a foundation championing issues near and dear to him. Turns out Block invested in the Post during an early tenuous period, and had become a very rich man.
Credits: Directed by Michael Stevens; written by Sara Lukinson and Michael Stevens; produced by George Stevens, Jr. and Michael Stevens; co-producer, Sara Lukinson; supervising producer, Bill Urban; editor, Jake Hamilton; music by Rob Mathes; director of photography, Zoran Popovic; production designer, Brian Stonestreet.