Years before the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings that ended Joseph McCarthy’s paranoid Communist witch hunt in the United States, one political cartoonist used his art to face him down.
Herbert Block—known professionally as Herblock, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post—created the seminal 1950 cartoon attacking the McCarthy regime, inadvertently coining the word "McCarthyism" in the process. Like many who opposed the powerful Republican senator, Block’s editorializing risked potential ruin and blacklisting.
This segment in the HBO documentary Herblock—The Black & The White, premiering January 27, particularly astonishes for three reasons: it drives home the morality of a man willing to risk his career to expose dangerous abuses of power, the willingness of a newspaper to stand by him, and the difficulty of that kind of editorial conviction happening today.
"The takeaway for me making the film was the autonomy that Herblock had and the protection he got from the Washington Post," says director Michael Stevens, who produced the film with his father, George Stevens, Jr. "That does not exist to that level and degree today—largely because newspapers have moved from being owned by families to divisions of full-fledged media conglomerates in the business of selling ads or keeping viewers. A journalist is really beholden to his master, which, for me, was the most troubling part of this film. The autonomous reporting that benefited this country appears to be slipping away."
From 1933 until his death at age 91 in 2001, Block made a career of challenging political abdication of responsibility—warning of rising Nazi power, insufficient action on civil rights, and America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. (As a result of this last stance, Lyndon Johnson dropped plans to award Block the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honor finally granted by Bill Clinton some two decades later).
"Herblock called it 'puncturing pomposity,’" says Stevens. "'They punctured the pomposity of public figures and politicians, who hid behind the walls and protection of public office instead of serving their country. He would have had a field day with Obama and Christie. Satirists are what keeps politicians honest and we’re a better country for them."
Some of Block's cartoons still resonate: he commented on the control Middle East oil had on Western countries as far back as the 1930s, and corporate money’s hold over Washington in the late '40s and '50s. "Herb had a seat on the 50-yard-line for that drama," says Stevens.
With political cartooning on the wane, Stevens notes that mantle is now being carried by people like Stephen Colbert and John Stewart—the latter who appears in the film alongside luminaries like Ted Koppel, Bob Woodward, and Jules Feiffer.
The father and son filmmakers were skeptical when Washington Post colleagues first suggested the documentary. "We saw a number of problems from the start," says Stevens. "All of his work lived in vertical 4 x 3 spaces. There were not a lot of good interviews of Herb that existed to personalize and humanize the man. Living in Washington, my father crossed paths and became friends with Herb. He’d sometimes come around the house to dinner, so I knew him a little bit. He was a genial, welcoming, grandfatherly type. The other issue was, could we make a film about a political cartoonist that would resonate with the rest of the country and not just about cartooning?"
Stevens’s solution was daring by documentary standards—recreating interview dialogue from Herblock’s numerous books on cartooning, casting veteran stage actor Alan Mandell to portray Block, and personalizing the set with actual artifacts from Block’s life.
"My dad had reservations about this kind of approach," says Stevens. "He’s more of a purist in the sense that any re-creation is an outside intrusion into documentary reportage and a violation of trust between the audience and filmmaker. My view is that the filmmaker has all these tools to tell the story. He knew Herb well, so when I introduced him to Alan, he said the resemblance was uncanny—the manner, age, and qualities were spot on. His old buddies at the Washington Post thought how wonderful it was that we got this interview—until they got to the closing credits and saw it was an actor. That was the best way I could portray his true manner and the qualities of what he was like.
"Part of what made Herb special was he believed in and was an advocate for citizenship," Stevens adds. "This era is as cynical an era as I’ve ever seen. But he believed that everyone has a role, a voice, to commit acts that change lives (for the better), and that citizenship is essential to our lives and should be encouraged in all of us."
Click on the slide show for samples of Herblock's work.