Political cartoonist Herblock went after those he considered the biggest bullies in society — and they often included U.S. presidents.
Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon got so upset with his work that they canceled their subscriptions, at times, to the cartoonist’s employer, The Washington Post, says Sidney Hart, a curator and historian at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery who has organized a new show of Herblock’s work.
Herbert L. Block, who combined his first and last names for his more famous pen name, drew cartoons that appeared in American newspapers over seven decades, beginning at the Chicago Daily News in 1929 and continuing at The Post, where he remained until his death in 2001.
“Herblock’s Presidents: ‘Puncturing Pomposity’ ” opened this month and is hard to miss, appearing next to the gallery’s more regal portrayal of presidents in traditional paintings. It will remain on view through November.
“If you were basically of a certain political point of view, you liked Block; if not, you might not,” Mr. Hart says. “Block talked about the power of a negative idea or cartoon having a more constructive force.”
Mr. Block was extremely critical of Mr. Nixon and Mr. Eisenhower on the issue of desegregation. Mr. Nixon, of course, took more than a few hits for Watergate. The cartoonist wasn’t gentle with Lyndon B. Johnson, either, skewering LBJ for diverting funds from the war on poverty to Vietnam and poking fun at a real-life episode in which Mr. Johnson griped that his portrayal by a painter wasn’t “glorious enough,” Mr. Hart says. (Visitors can see that Johnson painting at the Portrait Gallery, too.)
President Reagan was another favorite target. At times, Mr. Block portrayed him as an “amiable dunce,” but he didn’t sell the president short.
“He was fearful of Reagan’s skill at communication,” Mr. Hart says. “He thought [Mr. Reagan] was perhaps the most dangerous president we’d ever had.”
The exhibit includes 40 original cartoons of presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Bill Clinton — all on loan from the Library of Congress. More than 120 other cartoons of presidents are available on an interactive kiosk.
The gallery displays some of Mr. Block’s writing tools and also his first Pulitzer Prize, from 1942. Mr. Block also won the top journalistic prize in 1954 and 1979 and shared it with The Post for Watergate coverage in 1973. Also on display is Herblock’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Clinton in 1994.
Jean Rickard, Mr. Block’s longtime assistant and now executive director of the Herblock Foundation, remembers how her boss would get worked up when he read the news of the day.
“He would pace the floor and get angrier and angrier,” she recalls. “As angry as he is in the cartoons, he was very gentle, generous and kind.”
She gives Mr. Block’s work at least partial credit for pressuring Mr. Nixon into resigning from office.
One memorable cartoon shows a huge bloodhound sniffing out scandals, with Mr. Nixon on the run, throwing the dog the bones of his accomplices.
“He respected the office of the presidency, but that didn’t preclude him from going after presidents,” Mr. Hart says. “He meant to be controversial. There was no mistaking his meaning.”