The political cartoons of Herbert Block (1909–2001) appeared in American newspapers for more than seven decades under the pen name Herblock. He achieved his greatest prominence as the editorial cartoonist of the Washington Post, where he worked from 1946 until his death in 2001. The exhibition contains Block's original drawings of presidential cartoons from Franklin Roosevelt through Bill Clinton.
In this blog post, the National Portrait Gallery’s Warren Perry interviews Sidney Hart, curator of the exhibition. Hart is the NPG’s senior historian. The interview is excerpted below:
WP: Do you have a favorite one or two cartoons in the exhibition?
SH: There are three or four that we have that he did on Nixon and Watergate. I don’t know how many he did on Watergate, there may be twenty, thirty, forty or more. Block, in a sense, was waiting decades for the Watergate crisis. In his view, he had finally caught Nixon for what—as Block perceived it—Nixon really was.
And we have the cartoon, that we used as a signature cartoon for the exhibition, with a bloodhound—this is Block and his use of metaphor, the bloodhound is representing justice, or the law going after criminal activity. And the bloodhound, which is huge, is following this little figure of Richard Nixon. And Nixon has audiotapes in his hand, representing the tapes from the Oval Office.
Many of the tapes discussed Nixon’s attempt to deal with the Watergate crisis, which were incriminating in the sense of Nixon trying to cover-up the original Watergate break-in. And Nixon had already thrown these bones to the bloodhound, and the bones each have the name of a White House aide who had been forced to resign. So Nixon had given up these bones, or aides, in order to save himself. And then he’s trying to throw some of the tapes to the bloodhound to get him off the track, so he can somehow escape this crisis. But of course the bloodhound is on his trail and is relentless.
WP: Among the Block cartoons, you can see how they are divided up into some that are blatantly targeting faults he finds inside administrations. Then there are others that are just funny, for the sake of poking fun at politics—which is one of the great American pasttimes. Which couple do you think are among the funniest?
SH: There’s one of Jimmy Carter, and it has to do with the economic crisis. This is interesting in a sense, because some people have tried to make comparisons between that economic crisis and our financial crisis today. At this point, thank goodness, that crisis is still worse, and maybe our crisis won’t reach that level.
We’re talking about a situation which unemployment, I think, was as high as ten percent—it was double-digit. Inflation was at least 12 percent; interest rates were over more than 20 percent. And we had what we call “stagflation,” in which you had inflation and the economy was not growing. It was a bad economic situation that had begun during the Nixon years and continued really to the early 1980s.
And Block has Jimmy Carter—it’s a hospital scene—and Carter is looking at this chart, and the sick patient is the economy. And the caption is something to effect of “frankly I have no idea what I’m doing.” And seeing that caption, I think you just laugh out loud. Because it’s a pathetic Jimmy Carter—maybe a trifle unfair, since nobody really had a clue what to do with economy. But Block was concerned about going after the biggest guy on the block, and the biggest guy on the block was often the president.
The other cartoon, and I can’t remember the caption, but again it’s the economy, and this is Gerald Ford. And they’re in this handbasket, and they’re heading downward, and it’s the economy. It’s a perfect depiction of “to hell in a handbasket.” Nobody knows really what’s going on with the economy. Ford has tried various gimmicks and nothing is working.
I remember looking at both those cartoons—the Carter one and the Ford one. And they’re not particularly vicious in any way. Block had done far more violent cartoons. You just see the captions—I was working with a graduate student who was assisting me in terms of selecting these—and we both saw these cartoons and just started laughing. They were just funny.
Listen to the entire interview with historian Sid Hart (14:54)
"Look—Nice Tapes—Okay, Boy? Okay?"/Herbert Lawrence Block,October 24, 1973/Pencil on paper Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C./ © The Herb Block Foundation
"I'm Going To Give It To You Straight—I Don't Have Any Idea What I'm Doing."/Herbert Lawrence Block, April 27, 1979/Pencil on paper/Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C./© The Herb Block Foundation
"We're Moving Right Along."/Herbert Lawrence Block, November 1, 1974/Pencil on paper/Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C./© The Herb Block Foundation