Gwen’s Take: Broad Strokes and Fine Lines

Posted: Thu, 01/23/2014 - 5:04pm

"Herblock: The Black & The White" is the new HBO documentary about the career of the legendary Washington Post political cartoonist.  [Photo: HBO].

Some years ago I was fortunate enough to land a reporting job at The Washington Post, which pretty much put me in a state of constant awe. Bob Woodward would dish up ice cream sundaes for anyone stuck working on the weekend. Ben Bradlee would stroll through the newsroom, as likely to peer over your shoulder at the lead sentence you were writing as scold a reporter for a messy desk.

But often the best part of the day came late in the afternoon. That’s when an old guy in a sweater would shuffle out of a cluttered office in the back of the room holding a sheaf of papers. If you were lucky, he would stop at your desk and show them to you.

This was Herbert Block, known globally by the nom de plume mashup “Herblock.” With pen and ink and a sure world view, he terrorized presidents for decades, and even helped get one kicked out of office.

If you did not know Herb, you could be excused for ignoring the avuncular gentleman who came into the newsroom to ask reporters what they thought of his cartoon drafts.

But if you did know Herb -– and I was very lucky to -– you recognized that his pen was a rapier. Plus, he liked to laugh a lot.

I was reminded of all of this recently while screening the bracing new documentary “Herblock: The Black and the White,” which airs January 27 on HBO.  

It was actually the second time I’d seen the film, which was produced and directed by father and son impresarios George and Michael Stevens. I was fortunate enough to be invited, along with a raft of other journalists, cartoonists, comedians, historians, writers and analysts, to sort through Herb’s life and work.

The first time I saw the film, I remember coming away thinking it was a nice enough story about a nice enough man. But the second time, the film hit me with a special force.

I’d known that Herblock had taken on Adolph Hitler, Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon during his storied career -– each and every time ahead of the curve and ahead of history as it would come to be written.

I’d paid less attention to his despair over modern politics, in particular his unhappiness with the influence of money in politics. Greed, he called it. And he denounced it at every turn.

The night I re-watched the film was the day that former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, not too long ago a rising star in Republican politics, was indicted for all manner of alleged shakedown. According to the federal charges, he and his wife solicited and pocketed thousands of dollars worth of remuneration from a single campaign donor -- from cold hard cash to an inscribed Rolex watch to money to pay for another daughter’s wedding. There was even a borrowed Ferrari, and designer clothing purchased on a New York shopping spree.

And just up I-95, feds were investigating another governor, Chris Christie in New Jersey –- looking into charges that he abused his power.

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are both embroiled in scandals within their own states [Photo: CNN].

Herb died in 2001, at the age of 91, after 55 years of prescient analysis at The Washington Post. Christie has not been indicted for anything, and McDonnell claims he did nothing illegal, but I long to know what Herb’s cartoons -– which were always, always ahead of the curve -- would have captured today.

I get the sense it would have been as close as any of us can get to the truth.

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that the politician Boss Tweed was one of the famous personalities that Herblock had taken on during his career as a cartoonist. Boss Tweed died in 1878, before Herblock's time.

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