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If you spend time on Capital Hill, odds are your days are pretty busy. Trust us, we understand, but your packed schedule shouldn’t prevent you from checking out the “Herblock!” exhibit at the Library of Congress—-especially if you’re in, or even interested in, the business of governing. Use our handy guide to the latest exhibit on the great political cartoonist, and we promise you’ll move through it and be back on the street in time for your 10:30 in the Rayburn building.
Political cartoonist Herb “Herblock” Block was a mainstay of the Washington Posteditorial page for decades—-and as it turns out, of the paper itself. Block, who died in 2001, owned a massive amount of Post stock, and left it to create the Herb Block Foundation, which supported the donation of almost 20,000 of his cartoons to the Library of Congress. One term of the gift, however, is that the Library must produce an exhibit with them every three years.
Last year was the 100th anniversary of Herblock’s birth—-hence the large exhibit currently on view in the Library’s ornate Jefferson building. Enter through the portico on the ground floor and hustle through security. Once inside, turn right and take the stairs up two flights until you’re in the main hall. Plunge through the Creating the United States exhibit, spin left past Thomas Jefferson‘s reconstructed library—-you can ignore it, since he didn’t collect any cartoon books anyway—-and you’re in the Herblock display. Start the clock!
Curators Sara Duke and Martha Kennedy have attempted to encapsulate Herblock’s career in the first section, but you can shun most of that as too easy. Take a look at “Strange—They All Seem to Have Some Connection with This Place” (1972), in which a bunch of footsteps lead toward the White House—-it’s your Watergate burglary early warning, and Richard Nixon’s untrustworthiness was one of Herblock’s main themes. The cartoon next to it is “Solution to Nothing” (1954), in which a skull rises out of smoke from a pistol, summing up Herblock’s views of the problem of gun violence.
Dash into the next section for “The January Industrial Curve” (1938), showing a line of industry leaders looking for handouts at the White House—-still par for the course 70 years later, unfortunately. Off to the next area—-quick, quick—-and take a short look at the patriotic “The Policy of the United States” (1940). Herblock drew the Statue of Liberty behind the armed might of America, even though we weren’t in World War II yet, and that type of drawing looks familiar because it a lot of cartoonists echoed it after 9/11. Glance to your right and note Adolph Hitler sitting on a globe while holding a machine gun in “What ‘Peace Now’ Would Mean” (1940) for a quick summation of why we were in World War II, and then cruise to the next section.
In “Let’s Get a Lock for This Thing” (1962), Herblock drew President John Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev trying to hold down the lid on the Pandora’s Box of atomic warfare. Glance right to see Herblock’s recurring character Mr. Atom, a walking atomic bomb. “It’s cute,” noted a female visitor while I was there, which probably would not be Herblock’s preferred reaction.
At the far end of the exhibit, take a look at “You Mean I’m Supposed to Stand on That?” (1950)—-Herblock drew a Republican elephant standing on an electoral platform of tarry smears highlighted by McCarthyism, a term of nonendearment that Herblock coined for the culture of unsupported accusations fostered by Senator Joseph McCarthy. If you’re a Democrat, consider how nothing has changed in the Republican Party; if you’re a Republican, consider how nothing has changed in the liberal mass media. Again, glance right and note Herblock’s concern over illegal wiretapping in “Wrong Number” (1950), a drawing with a shadowy figure drilling a hole in the wall of “American Civil Rights.” If you’re an American, consider how nothing has changed.
As you turn the corner, admire the exhibit case of books done by Herblock—-resolve to buy them online and keep moving. While we’ve been largely concerned with content and not art, by the late 1960s, Herblock’s line was much looser and sketchier than it had been. This is not surprising, because he’d been drawing for 40 years by this point. The image to check out next is “The Mini-and-Maxi Era” (1969), where Herblock drew military spending as a well-clothed girl while defense spending is freezing in short, holey clothes. Wonder why this seems so familiar and briefly try to recall the 2010 State of the Union address.
Head for the back corner of the next section—-Herblock’s “Here I Am, Copper” (1973) has Richard Nixon barricaded in his White House office. Block won a Pulitzer Prize for his Watergate cartoons. “We Got to Burn the Devils Out Of Her” (1948) has a tied-up Statue of Liberty about to be burnt at the stake over freedom-of-speech issues. Now we’re in the home stretch, and some WCP readers may begin to actually recall the events depicted. “Hostage” (1979) refers to both the Iran Hostage Crisis and “U.S. Govt. failure to end dependence on foreign oil.” The hostage is tied up with the hose from a gas pump. In Block’s “—Or I Might Wear This One—” (1983), a skeletal figure of death is labeled as “terrorism” and is trying on a hat labeled “Moslem Fanatics’”
We’re in the final stretch now. In the back corner of the next section, Herblock drew Ronald Reagan in front of an empty Treasury Department safe for “You Don’t Hear Much about Liberalism Lately—We’re Not Leaving Anything to be Liberal With” (1988). Wrap up your tour with “Our CEO Is a Genius—He Laid Off a Thousand $10,000-A-Year-Employees and Increased His Salary Another 10 Million” (2000)—-I think the caption speaks for itself here. On your way out, muse over the fact that just about every single one of the cartoons suggested here is still relevant. Worry over the fate of America.
Should you have any time left in your schedule, there are some cartoons on display in the Creating the United States exhibit. The most famous, and one you should definitely stop to see, is Benjamin Franklin’s first American political cartoon, “Join or Die,” which depicted the 13 colonies as a chopped-apart snake. This cartoon is tiny—-only about 3-by-5 inches at most, and is shown as part of the whole newspaper page it ran in. “The Horse America Throwing His Master” (1779), another from the same time period, shows King George III taking a spill in the British print. The exhibit jumps over a century of time for John T. McCutcheon’s nationalistic drawing “Wouldn’t the Founders of the Nation Be Surprised” (1915), in which the Founding Fathers look up to marvel at the pre-World War I greatness of America. Washingtonian Clifford Berryman’s “Taxation without Representation…” (1909) and a 1970s poster of Ben Franklin being arrested at his printing press offer some darker views.
Hopefully you enjoyed our breakneck tour of the “Herblock!”exhibit. If you just can’t spare those 10 minutes, or if you’re not in Washington, the exhibit is online.