November 20, 1998
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Herbert Block, the political cartoonist who signs his work as "Herblock," has just published his autobiography, "A Cartoonist's Life." The title is straightforward, like its author. Herblock cartoons are unmistakable. They are clear, funny, on the nose, and they are right. And they and he have been right for 50 years. Herblock knew and drew who Huey Long was and who Stalin was; he knew that back in 1937, when most of the American left thought Stalin a savior. He definitely knew who Hitler was and what we ought to do about him. In the 1950s, he knew who Joseph McCarthy was. He invited the term "McCarthyism." In the 1960s, he knew where Kennedy and Kruschev ought to be on nuclear war and where the country ought to be on racial equality.
In the 1970s, he knew where Nixon ought to be on the war in Vietnam, and eventually that Nixon ought to be anywhere but the White House. He always had Nixon down cold. Yet, such was - is Herb's sense of fair play that when Nixon was elected in 1968, a Herblock cartoon gave him a clean start and a free shave. Cursed with being right all the time, Herb could have walked around like a gloomy Gus. I can attest otherwise.
In the late 1970s, when I was writing columns and editorials for the Washington Post, I had my office next to Herb's, which was like having your office next to the Marx Brothers. He would bop in from time to time, wearing what he called his "thinking cap," a toy helmet with light bulb on top, which lit up whenever he had an idea. Best of all for me, he'd show me what he was working on for the next day's paper. The range of my critical responses ran from laughing very loud to laughing very loud, because Herb was always consistently great. His ability did not flag and does not yet. And for this reason of steady excellence he may not be praised as often as he ought to be.There's an odd penalty paid by people of steady excellence. Once they have established their worth people tend to take their worth as a given.
There are many such people at work today. On Herb's Washington Post Meg Greenfield is such a person. Miss Greenfield has run the editorial page for 20 years. She thought wonderfully and wrote wonderfully 20 years ago, and she does the same today. People expect no less. The same may be said of Herb's fellow cartoonist, Garry Trudeau, Jules Fieffer, and in movie cartoons, the genius, Chuck Jones. In other worlds, steady excellence comes out of Stephen Sondheim, Judith Jamieson, Judith Ivy, Alec Guinness, Merrill Streep, Barbara Cook, Norman Lear, Clark Terry, Chic Corea, Mel Torme, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles. Woody Allen may have messed up his personal life, but his films make up an amazing body of work. And the novelists Bellow, Updike, and Roth, and social observers Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol, and the painter Chuck Close, and the feminist Betty Friedan, and on and on - it's not that no one notices these people. It's just that in a world of 15-minute fame people come to think that fame is important.
Steady excellence is important, and by steady, I don't mean static. Concentrate your attention on people of proven worth, and you'll watch them change, experiment, refine, even in failure. When Michael Jordan has a bad game, it's a bad game on his standards. Watch a steadily great baseball player in a hitting slump. He goes 0 for 5, 0 for 15. It doesn't matter. He's not out for the moment. He lives in the long haul, where achievement is not a flash in the pan but a light. Herb Bloch lit up the world with his pen, and his light bulb continues to work. He gives the business to President Clinton. He gives it to Kenneth Starr. He is an equal opportunity corrector and all his art and all his humor derive from an image of America as it ought to be, a valuable ideal. That's what political cartoonists do. They wish the country well by illustrating how dumb it can be, and worse. At the end of his autobiography Herb Bloch writes of how infuriating are the misdeeds and failures of government. But, he is pleased to report, he can always vent his anger with a laugh. He has done so steadily for decades, as have so many others on whom the quality of the world depends.
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.