It's become the norm in the Washington social scene for political reporters to wine and dine their subjects, with last weekend's White House Correspondents Dinner being the prime example. Yet the late, longtime Washington Post cartoonist Herb Block's resistance to that kind of schmoozing helped him earn the respect — and the fear — of the many politicians he critiqued, a new documentary celebrating his career reveals.
"He did not make it his purpose to be socializing with all the big hitters in Washington," says Michael Stevens, the filmmaker behind "Herblock: The Black & The White," in a phone interview with U.S. News.
"It allowed him to have a clarity of purpose that others in journalism today cannot have, because today, if you look at the White House Correspondents Dinner as an example, the politicians and those who cover them really are totally intermingled."
The film, which premiered at last weekend's Tribeca Film Festival, goes to great lengths to explain what made Block – who died in 2001 – such a monumental cartoonist, one who could pack complex political ideas into single panes of newsprint, and make popular politicians look downright villainous with a few strategically-placed lines.
But with his illustrations appearing on the Washington Post's editorial pages five days a week for 55 years, Block achieved a sort of influence around town that was more than the sum of his pencil strokes.
"People religiously started their day, and they just got a sense of what the tenor of the city was, by looking at Herb's cartoons," says Stevens, who made the documentary with his father George Stevens, Jr.
Many of the people featured in the film — journalists, pundits, historians, cartoonists and even members of the administrations Block's cartoons mocked — recount doing just that. But more than just his influence, they praise Block's ability to understand events and the actors in them quickly.
"He was not only trying to find the right cartoon, he was trying to tune in to the moment in history," Bob Woodward explains in the film.
Block's professional biography hits the milestones of American 20th history century history. The film argues his cartoons took down Adolf Hitler while the United States was still turning a blind eye, Joseph McCarthy when the rest of Washington was too afraid and Richard Nixon before any other journalists could grasp the levels of his misconduct. He was also a vocal and often early champion of the poor, the civil rights struggle and the anti-Vietnam war movement.
Block's foresight is especially evident in the film's discussion of Watergate, a scandal near and dear to the Washington Post. Six days after the Watergate break in, a Herblock cartoon traced the footsteps — literally, visually — back to the White House.
"If you go back and trace when [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein got traction on that story, it was literally six months afterwards," says Stevens, noting that the Post was also weathering the Pentagon Papers controversy and a barrage of criticism from the Nixon administration. "For Herblock to be so far out in front like that and for the Post to stand by him was hugely courageous, because it seemed impossible that the president of the United States would be involved in some sort of scheme to break into the Democratic National Headquarters."
Only once did the Post try to curb Block's opinions. The publisher pulled his cartoons critiquing Dwight Eisenhower, who the paper had endorsed for the 1952 election. The cartoons still went out in syndicate, and the uproar caused in Washington had Block's cartoons back in the Washington Post the following week. He was never again challenged for staking claims contrary to the Post's editorial board.
But that doesn't mean Herblock didn't depend on the work of his reporter colleagues. A number of Post journalists in the film recall Block visiting their offices to bounce off ideas about his next cartoon, and to make sure his take on events was as accurate as it could be.
"He always wanted to check that what he was doing was absolutely correct, and of course the Herblock cartoon was so incisive and got so directly to the point that it often was premature," Marilyn Berger, a 1970s-era Post reporter, says in the film. "But that's only because he could see the future, in a way that nobody else could."