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To Herblock and to Spring Flowers: Postcard from Washington

by on March 11, 2011 6:20 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Greetings, central Pennsylvanians. I bring you tidings of great joy from the banks of the Potomac: The daffodils are up and budding, the tulips’ broad leaves have broken through the earth’s thawing crust and dogwoods are on the verge of bursting into bloom. What this means is that great flocks of flowers are flying northward and will soon confer spring upon us, hallelujah.

I am here in Our Nation’s Capital on a working vacation. The Library of Congress has asked me to do an oral history project with friends and colleagues of the late Herb Block, probably the greatest political cartoonist of all time. Since this is spring break for us Penn Staters, I scheduled a week’s worth of interviews with an All-Star lineup of former Washington Post staffers and other journalistic luminaries.

What’s cool about this, aside from meeting and chatting with these folks, is that for these five days I’ve stepped into an alternative life, one where I put on a necktie every morning, ride the Metro to work and read the Washington Post on the train. It’s like federal bureaucrat fantasy camp.

So let me tell you about Herb Block, or Herblock, which is how he signed his work. One way to think of him is as an early-warning system:

In the 1930s he drew cartoons of Hitler threatening to take over the world when most people were still dismissing him as a comical little hatcher of grandiose pipe dreams.

In the 1950s he portrayed the dangers of “McCarthyism” – a word he coined – almost from the moment the junior senator from Wisconsin began brandishing his phony lists of Communists who worked for the federal government.

In the 1970s he drew footprints leading to the very door of the White House just two days after news broke of a burglary at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building.

Along the way, he called attention to American folly and hypocrisy: the folly of destroying the natural world, the folly of depending on foreign oil, the folly of spending on armaments rather than on education, the hypocrisy of those who call themselves patriots while denying rights and opportunities to minorities, the hypocrisy of the privileged who ignore the needs of the underprivileged.

Vice President Spiro Agnew called him “a master of sick invective.” President Richard Nixon described him as “vicious.” Of course, his friends say he was a pussycat, and gush about his generosity, his compassion and his brilliance. I’ve even heard him described as a genius and as saintly -- and the week is only half over. He was also something of a class clown. For example, he once made his daily contribution to a great American newspaper while going around the office in a set of bunny ears.

“He loved America and he loved sticking it to people who were unkind to America,” Roger Wilkins told me yesterday. Wilkins was an editorial writer at the Post during the Watergate investigation, sharing the Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism with his friend Herblock and a couple of guys named Woodward and Bernstein. Working alongside Herblock, Wilkins told me, was like playing right field for the Giants and looking over and seeing Willie Mays in center.

Herblock published his last cartoon in August 2001 and died in October 2001. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld should consider themselves lucky. But now that we’re coming up on 10 years since Herblock’s death, the number of people who recognize his name or his distinctive style is going to dwindle – which is kind of where I come into the picture. In an era of dying and shrinking newspapers, doing oral history interviews with Herblock’s associates is more than a way of honoring the memory of a great journalist. It’s also an opportunity to remind ourselves of the need for great journalism.

As you can imagine, for a guy who’s not scuba diving in the Caribbean or skiing in the Rockies, I’m having a pretty good time on my spring break, neckties and crowded commuter trains and all. I’m even enjoying the guilty pleasure of watching television in bed, something I can’t do at home because the TV’s in the basement. I mean, if all I was doing was reading the Washington Post, I might not even realize that the biggest story in the world right now is not what’s going on in Libya but what’s going on in the addled brain of Charlie Sheen. If that’s not an argument for the preservation of serious journalism, I don’t know what is.

We may not need a printed Washington Post for too much longer, but we need the people who made the Post a great newspaper – the Woodwards and Bernsteins, the Roger Wilkinses and the Herblocks – as much as we need the tulips and daffodils after our long cold winter. Here’s to whomever and whatever raises our spirits in dark times.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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